In early 2009, I offered the world a technical piece of advice that I’ve pretty much since regretted: I told everyone to join Facebook.
In fact, that’s an understatement. I didn’t just tell people. I harangued. I laughed. Write on the slate, I practically reached the screen, grabbed the Facebook skeptics by the lapels and scolded them for being pompous, joyless Luddites. “There’s no good reason to avoid Facebook anymore,” I wrote shortly after the then five-year-old company announced it had 150 million users worldwide. “The site has crossed a threshold – it’s now so widely used that it’s quickly becoming a routine aid to social interaction, like email and antiperspirant.”
I didn’t just mess up on Facebook; I had the case exactly upside down. If we had all decided to leave Facebook then or anytime since, the internet and maybe the world would be a better place now. The question of how much and in what way is the subject of considerable debate. It may be decades before we have an idea of the answer to whether, overall, Facebook in particular and social media in general have made society better or worse.
Yet regardless of the outcome of this larger debate, my 2009 exhortation for people to do everything on Facebook still makes me cringe. My argument suffers from the same flaws that I regularly climb onto my mainstream media podium to rail against the tech bros: a failure to seriously consider the implications of an invention as it takes root in society; a deep trust in networks, in the idea that allowing people to associate more freely would above all benefit society; and too much affection for the culture of Silicon Valley and the idea that the people who created a certain thing must have an idea of what to do with it.
I should have been better informed. By then I had been covering tech for almost a decade. I had written manners companies were trying to snatch control internet and worried about how the internet might unravel the social fabric. Just the year before I published a book describing the ways in which digital media were accelerating our transition to what I called a “post-fact” world. So why, at the dawn of 2009, was I imposing Facebook on the masses? I have three answers.
I let myself be carried away by the excitement of new technologies.
Facebook hadn’t yet become the biggest social network in the world — it would overtake MySpace later in 2009. But by then, the one founded in 2004 by a sophomore at Harvard named Mark Zuckerberg had stood out from dozens of competitors, mainly for its operational excellence: Facebook worked, it was relatively easy to use, it was full of real people posting under their real names, and it had relatively more powerful privacy controls than many of its competitors (it’s true! Facebook was once among the strongest privacy-friendly social networks). Social networks, I observed, improved as more and more people used them; it seemed reasonable that at some point a social network would become widely accepted and become a comprehensive directory to connect everyone.
This was the heart of my argument. I fell in love with the utility of Facebook – the magic of searching for someone and finding that exact person, something that seems unimpressive today but was simply mind-blowing back then. As an immigrant, I had also bought into the world-shrinking implications of such a network. Before Facebook, I felt completely disconnected from my relatives in South Africa. Then, in 2007 and 2008, many of them started joining Facebook. Suddenly, I got a view of their distant life, and they got a view of mine – which isn’t as boring as it sounds. Indeed, I felt connected to them in a way that had never seemed possible before. How could such a connection be bad for us?
I haven’t considered the profound implications of Facebook’s ubiquity.
During the first decade of the new millennium, the tech industry exploded with a slew of new inventions. In addition to the rise of social media, the 2000s brought us “user-generated” content sites like Flickr, YouTube, and Reddit; powerful cloud-based apps like Gmail, Google Maps and, for developers, Amazon Web Services; digital media services such as the iTunes Store and Netflix’s online streaming service; and, with the 2007 release of Apple’s iPhone, widespread Internet access via touchscreen phones.
What I hadn’t considered was how all of these new things interact with each other, especially as more and more people log on. In 2009, the Internet was still essentially stationary – only a third of Americans used phones to go online. This created a wide gap between what happened “online” and “offline”. Whatever horrors haunted the digital world, they couldn’t be buzzing your pocket anywhere, anytime.
Of course, it would have been impossible to predict the effects of the presence of the Internet in our lives. But calling everyone to log in on Facebook, I should have tried better to guess what could go wrong if we all did. What would be the privacy implications if we all used Facebook on our phones – how much could this service glean from you by being in your pocket all the time? How would Facebook’s ability to bring people together play out around the world — would it be a greater boon for freedom fighters fighting repressive governments, or would it help, say, aggrieved Americans attack their Capitol? ? What would be the implications for speech and the media if this unique enterprise became a central clearinghouse in global discourse?
These are difficult questions, some of which cannot be answered now, let alone then. But I would have at least thought to ask them.
I trusted the technicians.
My article was published the week before the inauguration of the country’s first black president, whose campaign had used social networks and other digital innovations in a way never seen before in a presidential race. I was also writing in the depths of a recession caused by the collapse of the global financial system, a crash widely seen as the work of Wall Street. This was the mood that prevailed in media and politics in the late 2000s: Wall Street had ruined the world. Silicon Valley could fix it.
We’re still in the midst of the real-life digital takeover, and we’ll probably only know how it all plays out many years from now. And it might not matter now anyway: social media is here to stay. But what bothers me is the incomparable power that people like Zuckerberg have acquired through their inventions. It doesn’t seem good for society in any way – for the economy, for politics, for a basic sense of equality – that a handful of hundred-billion-dollar, or even trillion-dollar corporations, control so large swaths of the Internet.
This problem, the power of the tech behemoths, has been nurtured by the Obama administration. It’s a direct result of the vibe I’m describing – the feeling that tech people knew what they were doing, that they were the ones, that their inventions were going to save the day. Obama’s regulators allowed Facebook to take over its biggest competitors – first Instagram, then WhatsApp – and failed to quell its recklessness with users’ private data. Representatives from Google visited the White House a on average more than once a week for most of Obama’s two terms, far exceeding such meetings of the administration with other companies.
I wish I could tell you that I criticized these mergers and the Obama White House’s intimacy with technology, but, like many others in the press, I only did so many years ago. late. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was far too timid about the rise of technology; I have seen it happen, but have rarely pointed out its dangers. I regret.
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