I was having a moment of weakness in my quest to permanently get off Facebook. The last two weeks I’ve missed some major things that was happening to some friends and family. Yes, I ultimately learned about it but I learned about it because my spouse is still on Facebook and he made a point of letting me know. At the same time I was still feeling constricted in my ability to discuss things with friends. I had been texting friends through various systems: LinkedIn, SMS, Matrix, iMessage, Twitter DMs, etc. and it occurred to me that all of this would have been in one singular place (Facebook Messenger) before now. So what was the point? Why not, I rationalized, rejoin and figure out how to leverage manual cross posting or some other mechanism to help extract friends from Facebook? Then it struck me, the next book up on my reading list was Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story. As I wrote on social media perhaps that book would push me one way or the other. Boy did it ever! The book is a great exploration of the entire history of Facebook right up to the present day. While I had mixed emotions earlier in the book as the story of Facebook went on so too did my revulsion to the idea of every going back.
I’ll start off with saying that Facebook isn’t evil, nor is Zuckerberg, or anyone else in the picture. I’ll take at face value the concept that Zuckerberg’s lifelong passion for connecting people is his primary driver. I’ll take at face value the notion that it was naivete about the dangers of what they were doing that lead them to be solely focused on growth, even setting up a Growth group specifically about driving that. I am leaving those on the table because it doesn’t take malicious intent on the grand things to make the idea of returning to Facebook revolting. Whether they started off with malicious intent or not the damage being done by them is quite large. Yes there is a lot of good. The reason why I struggle to stay off of Facebook despite my revulsion with them as a company is because they have done a great job of seamlessly connecting enough people that they are a defacto platform for messaging, event planning, communication, etc. However all of that comes a at a tremendous cost.
Their sales model from the beginning has one way or another been selling user data either indirectly or directly. Their model for engagement has been to make the system as addictive as possible. The sheer volume of tracking data they have on people is mind boggling. When they first turned on instrumentation of the usage of their own website a decade ago it generated 400 GB of data on its first day. Now they have tracers in most websites, some of my previously favorite sites don’t work now that I have a Facebook blocker plugin installed. The tracking of billions of internet users as they go about their business is probably generating hundreds of terabytes of intimate data on everyone each day. It allows them to sell more targeted ads to people which are now intermixed with content in such a way that it can be hard to tell what is what. It also allows them to do pretty much anything else they want with the data as well, for good or bad. All of that concentrated data is also ripe for abuse, see again what Cambridge Analytica did with it. That centralization of data and therefore power should be scary but it’s not. We all seem to shrug our shoulders. I contributed to it for years so I’m looking at myself in the mirror when I say that as well. The dire consequences of that though have played out again and again.
While they can claim naivete about the negative impacts when they first got started they can’t claim it about what has happened in the last ten years. Reading the book highlighted that they knew their systems were being manipulated for years to create distortions of elections before what happened here in 2016. They were warned by people the way it was creating mob violence and being abused to distort elections. They actively chose to do nothing about it because they feared it would hinder growth. Mindf*ck highlighted how Cambridge Analytica was leveraging those tools in the developing world to manipulate election outcomes successfully. What wasn’t clear by the end of that book was what Facebook knew at that time. Now I do. The knew their system was being abused. They were derelict in their duty to make sure their system wasn’t being abused even when they had all of the data. Why didn’t they? Because they feared it would hinder growth. Why didn’t they create end-to-end encryption and encryption at rest for their messaging system before buying WhatsApp? They were afraid it would hinder growth. It’s ironic that they took one of the worst things about capitalism, growth at all costs, and made it their mantra while expecting good results out of that!
They also can’t claim innocence in a lot of other behaviors. If they had any morals at all they knew that what they were doing with with Onavo was sketchy. To quote the book:
But Facebook’s motivation wasn’t really providing an app to improve phone performance in developing countries. It maintained Onavo’s business model, which was gathering data from deceptively “free” apps to inform its money-making business intelligence operations. When the mobile performance tool no longer served its purpose, Facebook created a different honey trap for user data, Onavo Project, which delivered what seemed like a bargain: a free “Virtual Private Network” (VPN) that provided more security than public Wi-Fi networks. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to present people with a privacy tool whose purpose was to gain their data.
Facebook now had a powerful way to monitor the mobile activity of thousands of users. The Growth team would study the data carefully, and post results in their regular meetings. Onavo paid special attention to Snapchat. Evan Spiegel’s company had security features to block intruders, but according to one Facebook executive, Onavo used a “man-in-the-middle” attack to get past the wall and gather data. Snapchat discovered this and put in protections to thwart the intrusions. With Onavo, a Facebook executive confirmed to me, the company was “able to inject code into Snap and could see how people were actually using the product internally.” (According to The Wall Street Journal, Snapchat would add this episode to a file it kept on Facebook’s actions, calling it “Project Voldermort,” after the Harry Potter villain whose name cannot be spoken.)
I mean that is some seriously fucked up shit. Nothing about any of that can be looked at as legitimate. What’s worse is that this sort of intrusion isn’t even the only one. When Facebook started allowing public posts everything was going to default to public without any option to change that. When it went in it was “opt-out” which means most people’s stuff became public. That was the era when I first started looking at alternatives. When they started assimilating WhatsApp data it too was “opt-out” thus radically changing the nature of security that people were expecting for their data but probably without most of them knowing. Their turning their back on commitments to WhatsApp founders and the EU not to integrate WhatsApp data into Facebook directly was also poor form and can’t be explained away. Their behaviors around the abuse of the platform for election interference around the world though are where I really start losing my shit. If they claim they don’t have the tools to handle it then they should shut the spigot off from the types of content that does this, such as political ads, and punish abuses with actual consequences rather than slaps on their wrists. It is clear even with all the lessons learned though that they choose to err on the side of letting it be a free for all negative consequences be damned.
As I wrote in the beginning this book steeled my resolve to stay off Facebook and to continue to block it on every device I can from tracking me. It has got me reinvigorated about working to come up with alternatives that don’t suffer from the same problems that they do. Replacing one surveillance capitalism monopoly with another does no one any good. As we learned from WhatsApp even best intentioned founders can’t guarantee where their companies will go and how the data policies will change in the future. I am thinking a lot about how I’m going to do that, what it will look like et cetera. There are some nice options already out there but options which as currently designed are destined to remain fringe. How do we get to one that can achieve the critical mass needed to shift the default behavior from going through Facebook to going through something else? Spoiler alert, I don’t have the answer yet nor do I think anyone else does either, sadly.