Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Facebook, again

I know many people who spend considerable time on Facebook, and as far as I can tell, very few of them know about the current scandal and among the handful who know, very very few care. I think almost everyone likely to be seriously troubled by Facebook’s behavior has already ditched the service. Given Mark Zuckerberg’s silence on all these matters, I assume that Facebook’s strategy is simply to ride out the storm by sheltering in place, and my expectation is that that strategy will be successful. I would be surprised if a year from now Facebook isn’t stronger than ever. To be sure, I would be very pleased by any fall in that nasty company’s fortunes, but that’s neither here nor there; at this point I’m pretty sure that they can spend their way out of any difficulties. 

UPDATE: So Zuck hath spoken, and offered an apology that, as many observers have pointed out, leaves Facebook’s business model of mining and selling its users’ data firmly in place. So what’s to come, especially since Zuckerberg has agreed that maybe Facebook should be regulated by the government? 

1. If regulation does happen, it will probably have the effect that Michael Brendan Dougherty predicts in one of the most thoughtful responses to this whole kerfuffle. Nobody in the media minded when Facebook’s data was being used in a very similar way to benefit the Obama campaigns; but now we have a panic. "Silicon Valley is just making up the rules as they go along. Some large-scale data harvesting and social manipulation is okay until the election. Some of it becomes not okay in retrospect. They sigh and say okay so long as Obama wins. When Clinton loses, they effectively call a code red.” 

If I can add my own prediction to [Niall] Ferguson’s it would be this. To the center-Left, it doesn’t matter how much Silicon Valley’s tools enable extremists in the Third World, or how much wealth they extract from the public treasuries through their tax-sheltering arrangements. All that matters is that the new tools continue to keep the center-Left in power, and make them look glamorous and smart. This is a deal that Silicon Valley will take. 

If regulation happens it will almost surely proceed along the lines Dougherty sketches. 

2. But regulation will require effective bipartisan action by Congress — by this Congress. So who are we kidding? 

Therefore, I’m sticking with my earlier prediction: at the end of this whole tempest-in-a-teapot, the tempest will have remained safely enclosed in the teapot that belongs to the tech punditocracy; no significant number of people will leave Facebook; and Mark Zuckerberg's business model will remain the same as it has been all along. 

UPDATE 2 (April 4, 2018): From The Ringer’s report on Zuckerberg’s conference call with the press today: 

Have several weeks of negative Facebook headlines and a #DeleteFacebook hashtag actually caused people to abandon the social network? “I don’t think there’s been any meaningful impact that we’ve observed,” Zuckerberg said.

That’s not a huge shock. According to the social media analytics firm Keyhole, #DeleteFacebook was tweeted about 364,000 times in the month of March, when the current controversy was cresting. #DeleteUber racked up 412,000 tweets in early 2017 when that company was going through its own PR nightmare, even though Uber has a much smaller user base. For now, the threat to leave Facebook seems to be a hollow one for most people.

Still sticking with my prediction. Nothing substantial will change at Facebook, and nothing substantial will change for Facebook. 

3 comments:

  • Apparently Mr Zuckerberg has now responded. Make of it what you will: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/21/mark-zuckerberg-response-facebook-cambridge-analytica

  • I'm just as pessimistic as you are about the net outcome of all this, but the Democrats' "Honest Ads Act" doesn't seem particularly suited either to "keep the center-Left in power," nor to "make them look glamorous and smart."

  • Dear Alan Jacobs, I am glad indeed to have found your blog. (I believe I surfed in to The New Atlantic via something by Talbott.) From its first appearance social media has fascinated me-- and attracted me until I began to recognize what I think of as its Ginormous Ick Factor. I deactivated my FB, cmmayowriter, back in 2015, no regrets. But I agree with your forecast, alas, because FB seems to me to have much in common with TV watching. There's plenty obviously wrong with it, and a few refuseniks here and there, but most people seem content to spend oceans of time glued to their screens anyway. My hopes for FB are modest: I wish Mr Z would don something more interesting than that dishwater-colored undershirt. Oh, say, a turquoise Nehru jacket. Kind regards from a new and appreciative reader, C.M. MAYO

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