Facebook

I'm Stuck in the Facebook Trap

Facebook is destroying us through a diet of noise and anger. But it doesn't need to be subject to regulation: it needs a conscience.
I'm Stuck in the Facebook Trap
Image credit: via PC Mag
Lead Mobile Analyst
4 min read
This story originally appeared on PCMag

Facebook is the ultimate toxic friend. You've probably had a friend like this in your life: a charming, charismatic, entirely non-self-aware pal who blithely leaves destruction in their wake but will always be forgiven, because they're fun to be around and to ditch them would be social suicide.

The Facebook algorithm, the artifically intelligent editor of our Facebook lives, is designed to activate passionate responses from its users. It's not evil, if you think evil requires intent to harm, but it verges on evil in that it makes decisions without caring about who it hurts. The company doesn't care whether it's getting good passion or bad passion, as long as it gets that sweet, sweet attention.

Personally, I can't quit Facebook because what it does right, it does very right: connecting families and old friends. I've found old high school friends, peered into the personal side of coworkers' lives, and kept up on neighborhood activities. If you ditch Facebook, and your friends and family still use it, you end up uninformed and disconnected.

Facebook's power is its network effect. When everyone you know uses Facebook, they probably aren't going to move somewhere else. Defaults and inertia are powerful.

Because it turns out that bad passion is more engaging than good passion, Facebook is destroying us through a diet of noise and anger. It's in the news right now because a consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, impermissibly gamed Facebook's system to target various political ads. But Cambridge did what Facebook does all the time, in terms of optimizing ads for attention. Facebook is just annoyed that it wasn't the one in control.

I'm far less concerned about the ins and outs of whether Cambridge did a bad thing, or whether individual Russian trolls targeted a specific ad at a specific key voter, than I am about Facebook's overall status as a platform that feeds on anger. Lies are more entertaining than truth; hate gathers more attention than contentment. A happy baby is great, but a cry of rage trumps it. Facebook begs for the worst, the click-baitiest, the dopamine fiendiest. It encourages it. It amplifies it. And it makes it look like it's coming from your friends, and that they want to en{g,r}age about it. That's the poison, not any specific political advertisement.

The engagement factor is what makes Facebook different from Xaxis, Google, Acxiom or other targeted advertising platforms that could also be serving you fake news. Google's ads don't look like they're from people you trust, and they don't invite a conversation. They don't pull you into an attention vortex that we are biologically programmed never to escape.

Facebook must die; long live Facebook.

I can't find any real alternative to Facebook to stay in touch with far-flung groups of friends, ad-hoc alumni associations, networks of ancillary cousins, or constantly reconfiguring neighborhood parent activity clusters. Like many people, I'm stuck in the Facebook trap.

I'd love to say that Facebook will fade; we're already seeing the backlash among kids. My daughter says it's evil, and she and her friends don't want to use it. That's great! They should learn from our mistakes and burn those mistakes down.

Unfortunately, a social network that's eventually all old people being fed highly optimized fake-news memes by trolls and instigators will still go pretty far towards destroying America. Old people vote and at a higher rate than younger folks.

Only Facebook can fix Facebook, and Facebook doesn't want to. Regulation won't fix it, because Facebook's problem isn't really that it's collecting or sharing biographical data. It's that the map of our interactions on Facebook itself tell it how to enrage us, and the algorithm knows that enraging us, dividing us, and telling us colorful lies will keep us engaged.

Facebook staff need to not merely label the lies, but cut them off; to not merely wring hands about trolls, but ban them; to understand that its system is an editor making choices all the time about what users see, and to start making choices based on the world they want to live in. Facebook doesn't need to be subject to regulation: it needs a conscience. Until then, it will continue to do damage.

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