Publishing Our Lives To Death
The World’s Biggest Audience Has An Algorithm Promoting Weaponized Content For An Editor, And Your Publishing Makes That Possible
Social media catches a lot of flack, and rightfully so, but it surprises me that very few people seem to understand what’s wrong with it at a root level. It seems obvious to me. It’s right there in the name. Social media. Socialnetworks have been a fixture of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. A social network is just a collection of people with which we communicate. The problems come from technology companies taking our ordinary social communication, and turning those communications into media. And they did it for the money.
We didn’t ask for this.
Let’s look at how this happened; what this means for us; and how we might fix it.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Like the toxic additives in our food and manipulative marketing on our TV’s in the era before this one, our collective ignorance about the true nature of social media is fairly excusable. The people running it have a lot invested in us never thinking of ourselves as unpaid content generation factories.
But that is exactly how the people who run social media have chosen to design the core functionality of published social networks billions of people use.
Start With Definitions
The Wikipedia definition of social media states, “User-generated content, such as text posts or comments, digital photos or videos, and data generated through all online interactions, is the lifeblood of social media.” While this is technically true, this definition is also misleading because the list is actually the lifeblood of any digital social network.
The Wikipedia definition never really explains how social media is unique from social networks. It never mentions ‘publishing’ as it relates to what social media does with user generated content, despite default publishing user content being a defining characteristic, if not the defining characteristic, of social media.
Wikipedia distinguishes social media vaguely as, “Networks formed through social media change the way groups of people interact and communicate. They ‘introduce substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organizations, communities, and individuals.’”
The fact that these ‘substantial changes’ are almost entirely due to a type of media publishing that has been with us since the modern printing press is never mentioned.
The net effect, as this essay will show, uses the raw material of your ‘lifeblood’ to fuel a steriodic media rage with homicidal tendencies and democracy crushing effects that looks increasingly impossible to control.
In everyday terms, this engineered media rage is referred to as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
This is Part I of an essay that is an attempt to correct the record as to what, exactly, social media is, and to determine what, exactly, is happening on social media that creates these unique outcomes. Outcomes our world is dealing with every day.
Media Means Publishing
What makes social media unique is that it takes this “lifeblood” of social networks (e.g. your life) and leverages the data of your life for maximum audience engagement using nothing more sophisticated than publishing. While not being new, publishing also happens to be the most powerful mass communication tool ever invented.
Mass media’s effectiveness at influencing people is also largely responsible for many of the modern era’s most horrific events, the Holocaust being the most notable.
To understand what’s coming, we need to look back.
Media publishing is a modern problem, with typically labor intensive modern solutions. Traditional media understands the power of being able to broadcast a single idea to a broad audience of people who may or may not agree with that idea. Because of this power, publishers and producers of modern media took great pains to hedge against the force and liabilities inherent in media publishing.
It seems like a fairly mundane task, but without the work of editors, traditional publishers would land in a heap of trouble. Publishers employ editors at significant financial cost so they don’t have to pay even greater financial and social costs, such as paying a legal settlement, or becoming a tool of state propaganda. Editors intelligently filter all content — boring andvolatile — to stay clear of things like lawsuits and fascist takeovers of society.
The Postmodern Era can roughly be described as the horizontal spread to the masses of the sophisticated tools previously accessible only to governments and heavily capitalized corporations of the 20th Century. The spread of these tools has democratized the ability to create media, and the ability to create media problems.
While technologies like cell phone video have given us the tools to create major media at home, publishing platforms like Facebook have dispensed with the guardrails traditional publishers always kept in place. Social media doesn’t change the problems of media, it just multiplies the same old media problems at scale.
And all of these multiplying age old media problems are being handled by anyone but the experts of media publishing, the editors. Even if Facebook were to assign 20,000 of it’s 25,000 staff to full time platform moderation (different than editing, but the closest equivalent Facebook has), each moderator would be monitoring the daily publishing activities of 100,000 Facebook users in every nook and cranny of the world.
How Facebook Works as a Publishing Platform
Each of the 2,000 million individual publishers on Facebook has a potential audience of 2,000 million people on the platform. The vast majority of these content generators, people like you and I, are just low grade media fodder whose Posts keep the proverbial lights on at Facebook. Our 5 Like and 2 Comment Posts keep the platform humming along, so we’re all plugged in when the genius media arrives (see “Shiri’s Scissor” later in this article) and the platform really starts monetizing.
The very large number of publishers is daunting, but it’s publishing, so the math isn’t really about how many people can publish, it’s about how many effective publishers have access to the entire audience.
That, right there, is how Facebook uses the old school magic of media publishing. It’s the same magic our Troller in Chief leveraged into skyrocketing real estate success via New York tabloids in the 1980’s, and a full-blown Presidency in 2016 via social media and the compliance of a national media that couldn’t turn away from a media genius.
When the audience is big enough — as it tends to be since the inception of modern media in the 20th Century — it only takes one media genius to bring the ruckus.
Facebook is hosting three constantly evolving media platforms (WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook) with a ready-made media audience of 2,000 million on Facebook alone.
For sake of argument, and to remove the maximum number of possible bad actors from the equation of Facebook publishing, let’s assume that 99.9% of Facebook users only publish because they are trying to communicate with their friends and have no clear alternate path; and/or don’t realize they are publishing; and/or understand that they are publishing but are simply verifiable Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (no gender association implied) and so publish only ‘Rainbows and Unicorns’ content.
Let’s assume that the remaining tiny 0.1% of Facebook users are geniuses at creating effective media and like many smart modern people, they tend to favor their effectiveness and need for a roof and food over pure ethics. This means that Facebook is currently hosting 2,000,000 publishing geniuses with (it bears repeating) zero editors.
Add to this equation that the world’s real time Facebook experiment is teaching us all, and media geniuses in particular, that the most effective (a.k.a. ‘engaging’) published media is what my colleague at Handwaving Freakoutery calls “Shiri’s Scissor.”
Shiri’s Scissor is a theoretical concept of a single, perfectly crafted idea that, when encountered by anyone, divides the audience perfectly into two passionate camps of irreconcilable disagreement. When this engineered idea is released into a published media environment, it amplifies in an unstoppable and destructive feedback loop, sucking in everyone who is exposed to it. (Mr. Campbell posits in his essay that Facebook itself is Shiri’s Scissor.)
Assuming 0.1% of Facebook users being media geniuses is a reasonable estimate, 2,000,000 publishing geniuses working right now have access to a potential audience of 2,000 million people (plus everyone who watches the news that covers Facebook) and are learning in real time that the most effective media is the media that splits society in into two warring factions.
The Users have Taken Over the Platform
Facebook is a media publishing tool configured in a fundamentally unchanging way. This is why Facebook’s publishing problem persists and is likely going to only get worse. If it could have been fixed, it would have been fixed by now. But any real fix undermines the default publishing business model Facebook is founded on.
Facebook can’t be ‘fixed.’ What has already happened, will continue to happen. To expect otherwise is to deny the fundamental nature of social media, the kind of denial that has caused so many problems at Facebook already. Mark Zuckerberg, well-known as someone who glosses over what work is required to deal with Facebook’s problems, says these issues will take three years to fix.
But there’s no reason to trust the assessment of someone who has shown he doesn’t understand the nature of running a modern publishing platform.
If he did understand what he is running, his complicity in allowing the Myanmar military to use Facebook publishing to fuel mass murder(something he was repeatedly made aware of by leading authorities on the matter as it was unfolding) would be so morally reprehensible that no one would use Facebook. In a bizarre twist of logic, Mark Zuckerberg’s entire defense and “legitimacy” as a leader in our society actually rests on the assumption he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
We trust Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership to the extent we believe he has no idea what’s really going on.
Whoever uses the tool best, runs the show. Stay-at-home media geniuses have a better innate understanding of the platform than Facebook employees, because 1. They’re on it a lot more, and 2. Having a working knowledge of media publishing, Facebook’s core feature, is the difference between a turkey for Thanksgiving or canned meat. The uber savvy users are the people who are leading Facebook into the future.
Media creators have far more immediately at stake than Facebook employees who are recalculating their net worth with every market drop and planning their next move in Silicon Valley.
These people working in an office park south of San Francisco are set to be playing catch-up forever. The rest of us are nicely positioned to be witnesses or collateral damage in the future of publishing gone wild.
You may pause at this moment and say to yourself, “But hasn’t Facebook enlisted an army of AI bots and severely traumatized moderators to make sure Shiri’s Scissor is never published?”
And that is where media unleashed wins again, because the genius of Shiri’s Scissor is that it can be made and published without violating social media’s terms of service. An editor would toss it out the window, Facebook wants the engagement, so its algorithm rolls out the red carpet.
Editor vs. Algorithm
Traditional media as a dominant paradigm had its flaws, but those flaws and the inefficiencies of an editorial staff, seem to pale in comparison to a platform run by a mercenary media-loving algorithm that instead of humanely guiding the most gifted content creators on the path of social good, guides them down the logical path of social malaise for profit.
What the editors and the algorithm both know is that maximum controversy breeds maximum engagement, means maximum sales. Trump sold tabloids in New York before he monetized targeting opportunities and inflated engagement stats on Facebook. (Yes, he’s one of the media geniuses you keep Facebook humming in wait for.)
Editors by contrast tend to be employed by a publisher who believes the mission of keeping the fabric of society from ripping apart is inherently worthwhile. The only mission of the employer of the algorithm is to amplify what makes makes money.
If the world burns, oh well, everything’s legal. That’s America.
This arrangement leaves plenty of breathing room for the estimated 2,000,000 budding media geniuses on Facebook to rip society apart with more and more divisive content, completely freed from the imposition of an editor’s social conscience or mission.
I’m not saying Facebook is evil, or even wrong. It’s an evolution of media, and we need to find a way to live with it. What I am saying is Facebook presents a certain kind of specific context. And it is not, personally speaking, the kind of context I want to be publishing my personal life on, ever.
The idea Facebook promotes, whilst being a full blown publishing war zone, that it is somehow a “place to connect with family and friends” is as laughable to me as the phrase “Facebook Privacy Settings.”
All of these things are a contradiction in terms.
For the contemporary media user with a modicum of savvy, sharing contact information on your Facebook profile is the modern day equivalent of writing your phone number on a bathroom wall. It’s just not done.
My sentiment regarding Facebook seems aligned with those ‘netizens’ who are presumably the most innately wise to technology. A Pew Research Poll that came out in September 2018 reports, “44 percent of younger users (ages 18–27) having deleted the [Facebook] app in recent months, compared with just 12 percent of users 65 or older.”
The youth, as they say, are the future — and the future does not include personal information on Facebook. It has been rightfully recognized for what it is: A social network where media publishing has crushed the social.
When your editor-in-chief is a monetizing program why did anyone expect the result to be anything but anti-social. Facebook is as anti-social as our media genius in chief.
Are you still publishing your private life?
So I ask you this: Why are you still publishing your private life in a media DMZ? It’s a toxic context for your personal relationships. Your ‘lifeblood’ is being leveraged to keep a platform running that ultimately drowns out your personal life, and rewards ethics-free publishing mayhem.
I suggest that you never would have chosen default publishing into the algorithm as your preferred choice of social contact — digital or otherwise — if you ever thought you had a choice, or really knew what you were doing.
Now that it’s hopefully becoming very clear to you what Facebook is offering to the average “not trying to become media famous” user like yourself, all that’s left is to become the Facebook diaspora.
We need to find our online personal lives a new digital home where default abuse of users is not just unacceptable, it’s unthinkable. Until now, there hasn’t really been an alternative.
Users simply won’t stick around for the next round of abuse once they realize they live in an era when, with a handful of friend’s email addresses, you can set up shop on a completely private network free of algorithms, free of data-mining, and free of ads.
The Future Already
It’s going to be 2019 in a few days. The future is already here. We need to stop protecting Facebook from the inevitable exodus it has orchestrated for itself.
The market of ideas is more powerful than Mr. Zuckerberg’s algorithm. It will diagnose the problem; generate a solution; and offer something better. There’s no reason to live in a quagmire of targeted display advertising and engineered media weapons when your goal is to develop, not destroy, the relationships you really value.
The solution to this problem already exists, but we all fall in love with our problems. And Facebook is the world’s biggest, most dastardly, yet awkward and fumbling, and — at the end of the day — very human problem. It’s our problem.
We need to let go of our addiction to watching Facebook flail with our lives, and let Facebook become what it must. Evolving our social networks means accepting what will never change about social media and accepting the problems that go with it.
Embracing solutions to this problem that work may be a little more trouble on the front end, but the right ideas will have the foresight and humanity to spare us from a lot of this type of disaster on the backend.
Originally published at Handwaving Freakoutery on Medium on December 30, 2018.