Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The real way to kill Facebook | James Bates

Building on what Zuck Jr did to clean up his own Facebook, how about we make everyone’s Facebook experience more personal and less commercial?

Eight years ago when Facebook was a young start-up with enormous potential, Mark Zuckerberg wasted little time in creating a company culture that set users up for a long journey up that long road to being pliable enough to do whatever a corporation dreamed up for them. The chance to hold the internet in our hands, and all the world’s knowledge in our hands, made the world seem so exciting, so unreal, that we would never dream of losing this addiction.

People wanted to share all kinds of links, videos, photos and posts with each other because they were so cute, funny or witty. But the problem with the “fun factor” of the internet is that, in the end, you only want to remember what was shared and missed, and you try to look after the rest. You stop looking for or consuming news you couldn’t use. The stuff you care about doesn’t even surface in the pages you read. While we’re slogging away working on those posts that we’re not using, Facebook is busy taking a chunk out of the rest of our digital lives.

The way to get us back is to put the company behind us and let us focus on things that matter to us. Facebook has never done that.

It was inevitable, as we started to make the connections that would give rise to the likes of companies like LinkedIn and Instagram. Facebook is really at its best when it provides a means to share ideas and experiences. The ability to publish to a number of people without much (or any) authorisation is what makes it such a powerful tool. When users found this on Instagram, Facebook thought they were doing something wrong and tried to take over the service by launching its own version. They called this idea of transparent sharing a “dark net”, which belittled users’ perceived ability to control what data was harvested and shared from their Facebook feed.

The past decade has seen the over-sharing of our family photos and private videos go viral, as well as other kinds of personal data – such as the contents of conversations we had with friends and family – which we rarely consider a matter of public concern. I worry that, even if we block Facebook, people will still see your photos on private Instagram pages and your remarks in private chats on WhatsApp.

I’m sure it is hard for tech companies to commit to actually helping the less powerful understand that tech companies don’t really care what happens to the data they’re collecting. This is the more urgent challenge for the industry: to convince people that they aren’t in charge of everything that happens to their data. Zuckerberg admitted in 2009 that his team had “no control over the financial model of the company”, and he recognised that it’s hard to build a company and care about your users if there is no clear line between what a company wants to make money and what users want to keep. We can then give them something important to worry about: that things they do will still happen to them, whether through greater competition and pressure or through Facebook’s accumulated profits.

If this doesn’t work, we will still be swapping the Facebook we know now for a new one, because we will still be logging in and following people and pages. But it will be the very new kind of Facebook, one that cares less about fostering connections and sharing and more about building an advanced system for controlling and monetising data. So, how do we find that sweet spot between sharing and controlling?

Zuckerberg says he aims to get people to stop doing things they aren’t using. But you can’t change the habits of a human being if you show them advertisements. All you can do is structure your service so that it provides a different and superior experience. Building on what Zuckerberg did to clean up his own Facebook – from making users see the more public information that was there before so they could find and accept fewer of it, to not highlighting the commercials and posts that the platform’s management and news feed algorithms were helping it package and sell, to hiding the warning messages that it sends you when you reach your limits on a number of services – we can make Facebook an organisation that focuses more on and responds to human needs. This would transform the institution that is currently the world’s most powerful force for good, turning it into something we, instead of them, need.

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