Facebook just doesn’t care. And yet we’ve handed it the keys to our civilisation

Nearly a month ago, The London Review of Books – of all places – published the most eviscerating attack on Facebook I’ve yet seen. And the more you read, the more you find yourself nodding along in a mixture of agreement and horror.

For example, there’s the anonymous entrepreneur quoted on the differences between working with Google and Facebook:

But Google in my experience knows that there are ambiguities, moral doubts, around some of what they do, and at least they try to think about it. Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’.

He also explores the role of Facebook as the greatest content distribution system we’ve created as a species – but one that has zero underlying respect for content creation:

Access to an audience – that unprecedented two billion people – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day.

When expressed that way, one can’t help wonder what great works have been denied us by people’s creative energy being slowly siphoned away into the endless, rapacious maw of the Facebook Newsfeed.

Fake news: cheaper and more attractive that the unsettling real kind

And, yes, journalism has been one of the worst victims of this. And the really tragic thing is that the industry stepped back from the chance to develop deep relationships directly with its readers a decade ago, and handed those relationships over to Facebook instead – with terrible consequences.

A version of Gresham’s law is at work, in which fake news, which gets more clicks and is free to produce, drives out real news, which often tells people things they don’t want to hear, and is expensive to produce. In addition, Facebook uses an extensive set of tricks to increase its traffic and the revenue it makes from targeting ads, at the expense of the news-making institutions whose content it hosts. Its news feed directs traffic at you based not on your interests, but on how to make the maximum amount of advertising revenue from you.

I talk with, study and train people in using Facebook extensively in my work. But, honestly, it’s the only part of my work that makes me feel dirty. We might need Facebook right now – but as an industry we should be doing everything we can to wean ourselves off that dependence.

If you haven’t read the whole thing yet: do so.

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  • Tim Anderson

    Oh, Adam. There are so many, actually too many, things wrong with this piece of “journalism”. Do some proof-reading, or get a competent sub.

    • It’s not journalism, Tim. The clue is in the site title.