Yes, Facebook Is Terrible, but Also…

I’m not on Facebook. It was eight or ten years ago when I left for good. While there were some good and useful interactions, the algorithm brought me down, I didn’t have a lot of desire to keep up with old acquaintances, and hearing everyone’s political stance was not good for me.

I understand that this giant corporation has a lot of power over their user base. I suspect the company isn’t being nefarious in an organized manner, though in such a large organization certainly some bad actors could insert problematic influence into their code. I’m talking about specific political efforts here. My knowledge of the actuals on the political side are of the "I heard some headlines" sort. I believe that’s what most people’s knowledge is of the actuals of Facebook’s political influence.

Facebook’s work on the addictive-algorithm side of the game is surely as ground breaking as it is damaging. Probably they didn’t start out hoping to set people against each other, but it became quite a good way to reach their engagement goals. Engagement is their pipeline to profits and capitalism says, "Thank you, I’ll have more of that!"

As a thought experiment, let’s imagine in 2004 we had a societal goal to get as many people familiar with and using the Internet as possible. (With the benefit of hindsight perhaps this wouldn’t be a good goal to have, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine it as a widely acceptable goal in 2004.) Has anything been invented that was as effective as Facebook for getting my mom’s generation (at least in the United States) online?

The founders and owners of companies like Facebook have become overly powerful. These companies have skewed our societies in a way that is not entirely quantifiable. These companies have also brought great familiarity with the Internet to hundreds of millions of people who I believe wouldn’t have developed any sort of comfort with the Internet otherwise. Facebook taught boomers about links, navigating, scrolling, filling out forms, uploading images, signing up, logging in, and so many other interactions us younger folks take for granted. Facebook gave that generation the comfort level to try Amazon and Netflix and Wikipedia many other online offerings for commerce, entertainment, and knowledge.

Perhaps with no Facebook, something else would have come along to fill the same gap. Perhaps that something else would have been a little less focused on the engagement algorithm. Perhaps similar results would have happened, but on a longer timeline. Or perhaps that something else would have been developed by an even more skilled organization that captured even more attention? We’ll never know.

I think looking back on the past twenty years, I would choose a reality where all of the algorithms and attention-grabbing moved slower than they have. Yet in that alternate reality, I’d also have to acknowledge that my parents’ generation would not be with me online to nearly the degree they are today. I think if you ask many of those folks, they would feel their life was lesser without the connections they maintain on Facebook. Many would find their life less convenient without the knowledge they’ve gained in using the Internet for shopping and information gathering. I don’t think you can simply dismiss the value of these things to the baby boomer generation.