I come here not to bury Facebook, but to defend it.
Before you jump down my throat, conclude I’m an agent of the Deep State, or scroll straight to the comments or wherever else you may want to go and do to vent all the (understandable!!) anger you may have towards Facebook…
…that clumsy, ethically-challenged, dopamine-fueled, addiction-driven, psychological warfare-enabling slot-machine-of-vanity that a few kids founded in a Harvard dormitory all those years ago…
Please allow me to justify my existence:
In December of 2014, two full years before it became highly fashionable to point out how Facebook was destroying the foundations of society, your humble and lowly narrator published an essay on TechCrunch titled “How Facebook Becomes The Multitool For The 21st Century Totalitarian.”
That essay (which resonated much less broadly than I hoped it would at the time) made what has now become a familiar case:
- Facebook’s interface design, business model, and penchant for mass data harvesting make it an ideal tool for surveillance of a scale and level of sophistication that would have made the East German secret police drool with envy.
- Its unhesitating eagerness to apply machine learning to predict individual behaviors (like probable responses to a given advertisement) also make it great for ferreting out political dissidents and threats to any given powerful elite class.
- Its dopamine-feeding filter-bubble algorithmic newsfeed make it perfect for mass manipulation, a tool whose subtlety, precision, and insidiousness make Cable News look like a sledgehammer tied to an anvil strapped to a boulder by comparison.
I’m not pointing out the 2014 essay’s prescience to pat myself on the back for seeing what is now abundantly obvious.
I’m doing it so that as you read the defense I’m about to make of Facebook, you’ll maybe do so with an awareness that I expressed deep concerns about Facebook’s nature since at least two years before doing this was cool, and to hopefully pre-empt the otherwise inevitable accusations of being a shill or worse.
That being said, our world could use a bit more balance these days, and this painful situation offers an opportunity to explore some hard and painful questions about ourselves.
Because while it may perhaps be true that Facebook’s history of problematic moral choices, the CEO’s ruthlessness, its collective disregard for even a basic conception of privacy, ethical shakiness, and blind-faith confidence in its own inherent righteousness (evidence like its role in genocide be damned) means that just about everything negative they’re experiencing right now is fair game…
The chickens coming home to roost, the karmic debt collector coming round to collect, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandburg reaping what they’ve sowed, and all that jazz.
But there is another, perhaps more subtle and interesting side to the story.
This is the story that has been almost completely missed as Facebook has earned its position as the easiest target for a media and political elite enmeshed in deep collective fears of the West’s social decline, balkanization, and apparent risk of collapse1.
That story is the one about the democratization of advertising, and with it mass-scale influence.
And like many stories that begin when powerful tools that had once been the exclusive domain of an elite class suddenly open up to a much wider band of humanity, it is almost inevitably a story of chaos, confusion, danger, and angst.
But it is also, in its own weird way, a story about freedom. Many stories about freedom, actually, all rolled into one.
And like freedom itself, these stories are full of apparent contradictions, pains, heartbreaks, and senses of loss, underneath which are the doorways to self-alignment, open-heartedness, a complete and total sense of connection, self-reliance, love, and even bliss.
Yes, you read that right.
Inside the story of Facebook’s insidious nature, its meticulously-engineered addiction loops, the near-complete moral ambivalence of its senior leadership, and all its devastating, occasionally murderous, even genocidal consequences…
There is a hidden story about walls collapsing, new doors opening, gatekeepers losing the gate keys, and old, antiquated, and increasingly toxic ways of being approaching their glorious (inglorious?) ends.
This does not mean that all the toxic side effects of Facebook are ok, or that people who suffering or dying in its wake is anything less than tragic, or that the ends justify the means.
It is merely to say that old ways die hard, and in an era where mindlessness and mindfulness are struggling to figure out what’s next for all of us, pain and struggle may be two of the inevitable byproducts.
In other words: the 21st century human struggle for freedom.
THAT story (or at least, that angle on the story) is almost completely absent from the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, blame-assigning picture that’s dominating the narrative about Facebook (and social media more broadly) today.
Specifically: through all the fear and chaos and noise…the waves of sound and fury exploding outward from Facebook’s wake, crashing like a tsunami onto the vestiges of a social order facing the end of its days…
…We are being asked to confront some deep and profoundly painful questions about who we (humans) are, who we’ve been, what we have done (and continue to do) to each other and ourselves, and what we will choose (or allow ourselves) to become next.
The centrality of this concept is most clearly encapsulated in this section from Facebook’s co-founder and yet-to-be-prodigal son Chris Hughes essay calling for anti-trust action against the company that he co-founded in the New York Times:
Some days, lying on the floor next to my 1-year-old son as he plays with his dinosaurs, I catch myself scrolling through Instagram, waiting to see if the next image will be more beautiful than the last. What am I doing? I know it’s not good for me, or for my son, and yet I do it anyway.
The choice is mine, but it doesn’t feel like a choice. Facebook seeps into every corner of our lives to capture as much of our attention and data as possible and, without any alternative, we make the trade.
Here is a full grown adult, wildly financially successful, a father in the early stages of that journey, surfing right by the fact he is choosing to run from the depth of his own feelings by spending time on Instagram instead of being present with his child and (despite saying “the choice is mine”) assigning most of the credit for that choice to Facebook’s algorithm engineers.
I use the example of Hughes not because he’s unique or special in the application of this kind of logic…but because his NYT essay embodies the whole essence of the matter…
We ALL would rather point the finger for our unhealthy, disempowering choices in every direction but the only place we can actually do anything about it right now: towards ourselves.
This is not to say that we wouldn’t all benefit if the systems that operate in the world were designed to empower and support us rather than exploit and profit from our weaknesses.
We would, and I look forward to the day they are.
But in 2019 they aren’t, and so we find ourselves in a specific, special moment in history right now…one where we, both individually and collectively, get to choose to step into our own power and witness our highest flourishing or go the other way and let responsibility for those choices rest in giant corporations and governments and other systems over which we have minimal influence.
The decision to see this perspective clearly…to own each and every choice we make in any given moment…100% of 100% of them…that is where freedom begins.
Before we go deeper into that, it seems quite necessary to point out that Facebook (or Google or Twitter) did not make this particular mess that they are currently being blamed for.
The mess we attribute to Facebook predates Facebook by just about forever.
Pick a moment of transition across all of human history and the mess is there.
In this case, we don’t even have to go further back than the 2004 Presidential election to see clearly that blaming Facebook, et all, for the chaos of our current crisis of so-called objective reality requires a stubborn lack of perspective on even fairly recent history.
Because a month or so before Election Day that year, World Public Opinion released the results of a survey: The Separate Realties of Bush and Kerry Supporters.
The researchers found that:
- 72% of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had actual WMD or a major program for developing them.
- 75% of Bush supporters believed that Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda
- 31% of Bush supporters recognized that the majority of people in the world opposed the US’s decision to invade Iraq
…while the majority of Kerry supporters believed the complete opposite.
The #altfacts landscape of partisan reality that shaped the 2004 election does not seem to been a Russian psy-op, and Facebook did not yet exist.
Depending on which side of the political spectrum you identify with, you might want to instead point the finger at Fox News, and the all-propaganda-most-of-the-time strategy pioneered by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes…
…or you might blame the left-wing mainstream media for willfully and arrogantly leaving out such a large swath of the conservative perspective on everything.
But either way, you’d have to explain why, at the time of the OJ Simpson trial, the gap in perspectives on his “Not Guilty” verdict split between 42% of whites who thought had gotten away with double homicide and 78% of blacks who believed the jury made the correct call.
And if you’re inclined to go a bit further back and blame the rise of 24/7 news media or the fragmentation of attention heralded by cable TV in general, then you need to grapple with the poll from 1942, 48% of Americans supported the internment of Japanese Americans AND believed they should not be allowed to return to their homes in The USA after the end of hostilities, vs 35% who saw injustice there and 16% who had no opinion on the matter.
And before that on whether or not despite anatomical parallels, human beings of African descent were sufficiently human to be treated as equals instead of property, or whether the infirm and disabled should be sterilized for the good of the race, and before that, and before that, and so on.
The mess of people clinging to information that supports their deeply-held notions of control, stability, and personal righteousness and rejecting information that threatens those beliefs does not originate with Facebook or Google or Fox News or CNN.
Not even close.
That mess lands squarely on the shoulders of human cognition, and (as best as I can tell from here) seems to arise in large part from all the large, deep, unacknowledged, unaddressed, and unhealed wounds in our individual and collective minds.
…All the unprocessed traumas and ancestral fears of being alive in an uncertain world……
…all the entrenched cultural and (possibly) epigenetic memories of being hunted and eaten by wild animals…
…Of being raped, pillaged, enslaved, or exiled by those with power over us…
…of watching our children starve when the rains didn’t come…
..or our homes and families washed away by a flood or explosions from the Earth itself…
….of gathering to watch innocents burn at the stake…
…of throwing stones at adulterous women or being those women getting stones hurled at their heads…
…of hanging the hungry, desperate, and rebellious from their necks until they were dead.
Until we face THAT MESS, own it, accept, embrace it with compassion, and forgive each other and ourselves for our roles and our ancestors’ roles in every single part of it…
…and then let all of it go…
All of those wounds and pains will play themselves back out, over and over again, on repeat, both in our imaginations, on our televisions, sometimes in our own lives and in the lives of people we’ve never met across the whole world.
And that cycle?
It goes back a very, very, very long time. Perhaps far longer than most of us imagine.
And certainly many, many, many years before Mark Zuckerberg made a hot-or-not clone for Harvard students in 2004 and evolved it into Facebook.
Throwing down the gauntlet of freedom (aka What We’re Really Saying When We Blame Facebook For Whatever)
In Western democracies, we often talk about freedom like it’s something everyone must surely want, and even easier to believe it’s something most of us actually have, that now (thanks to FILL IN THE BLANK BAD GUY HERE) is now at grave risk.
But it seems far from clear that any of that is true.
It’s even less clear that anyone who ever loudly proclaims that XYZ bad guy, company, or organization is a threat to everyone else’s freedom understands what freedom requires, and less clear that they have any respect for what freedom really means.
Of course, to make the case that relatively few of us actually have freedom, and that despite what we say, very few of us want it strongly enough to have it, we’ll have to look at what freedom really means.
If the definition I will attempt to articulate and support here holds up even a little (it may not), it will challenge the notion that most of us can credibly claim to be free, or even to be exercising free speech when we open our mouths or put words onto the Internet.
It will suggest that most of the people loudly worried about Facebook’s threats to the stability of democracy are pretty far from free right now…
…and it will even raise the possibility that very few/any of Facebook’s loudest critics value democracy anywhere near as much as they seem to believe they do.
(Now, if you are about to write me off as some tech-bro libertarian—because some of you were almost definitely doing that in your head right now–please pause.
While I’ll have to demonstrate this more clearly in another venue, my true north exists at the intersection of wisdom, unconditional love, and compassion, and I guarantee you that no labels you might want to stick to my forehead or tattoo on my forearm will hold up under scrutiny.)
One way to understand freedom is through the lens of the soulful young woman who died in pain once sang to us, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
And though Ms. Joplin seems to have written this with mourning in her heart, there’s a more blissful, Buddhist-esque way to perceive what she was singing.
Because there are at least two ways to have nothing less to lose.
One is feeling, like Janice seems to have felt, that you have lost everything worth having and you’re in so much pain it seems like even death would be a blessing.
The other is to fully realize, embrace, and embody the concept that lasting happiness and bliss are primarily internal states…and that it is less our external circumstances than our internal experience of them that determines the quality of our experience.
More to the point: we already have 100% of everything we need to be content inside us, and that once we dig deep enough to find it, nothing and no one can do anything to take it away from us.
Freedom in its simplest sense might accurately be distilled into: “the power to choose your responses…to become calm and centered or wild and all over the place, and everything in between, at will, no matter what is happening outside.”
In this sense, complete freedom is quite different from total agency, which might be encompass things like “the power to choose your actions, schedule your own day, pick the company you keep, go wherever you want whenever you want, and so on.”
Accordingly, while losing one’s agency is certainly the opposite of desirable, it may still be possible to maintain a high degree of freedom within those constraints…like being able to maintain a Zen state while incarcerated in prison.
If that definition of freedom holds, it follows our degree of freedom directly correlates to the number and severity of our addictions and unconscious, reactive patterns…
Because when we are in the hold of addictions, habits, unprocessed emotions or moving experiences (pleasant or painful alike)…or really just any long-standing cyclical pattern of behavior, it often is one or more of those things doing most of the choosing for us.
To use a concrete example:
We may value “freedom of speech” as “the right to say whatever I want to say in public and private” but anytime our words come from a place of insecurity, judgment, anger, contempt, or violence…
Or even from a belief system that we have attached to our sense of self…
Can we really say it is us, and not our emotions and tightly-held beliefs doing the talking?
All those subconscious and semi-conscious impulses using our voice boxes to vent themselves onto others without telling us that what they’re doing?
In this moment, we tend to operate so completely on autopilot that we don’t even notice that our sovereignty over our own speech, over our own bodies and minds has been usurped…
…not by some evildoer or monster or whatever…but by our own unwillingness to face our pains, self-doubts, and fears and hold them with tenderness, compassion, and love.
Freedom requires one to bring complete awareness to one’s deepest motivations and internal states, and negotiate them until we are no longer controlled by them in any way.
So back to Hughes’ essay in the New York Times, and every other one like it, including the one I wrote for TechCrunch in 2014 about Facebook and totalitarianism.
Until the moment we take ownership of 100% of the responsibility for every action we take, every word we speak, and honor every emotion we feel, we are merely puppets on the strings of our own unmanaged minds, blaming everyone but ourselves for making us the victims.
Does that mean we cannot ever be victimized? It’s complicated.
People do violent, brutal things to other people the world over, and have been at it for a very long time. Parents beating their own children. Rapes and pillages of every variety. Drone strikes on weddings. Tortures. False imprisonments. And on and on ad infinitum.
Neither side of the equation seems to have much ability to control their behaviors, but there are volumes and degrees and great power probably ought to come with great responsibility, even though it rarely seems to.
And yet, maybe becoming free requires doing the work necessary to step outside of each and every story of victimization and finding our way back to our own sense of empowerment, whatever that means for each of us.
It’s possible that the more one has suffered in life, the more challenging and painful the work of reclaiming one’s power and sense of Self…but it also may mean there is WAY more power and love to reclaim.
While Carl Jung has fallen out of fashion in many circles, his insights about the Shadow seem to be highly instructive: the people, ideas, things, and experiences that excite, revolt, arouse, infuriate, and disgust us are aspects of ourselves that we have rejected, calling out to us for our attention, compassion, forgiveness, love, and integration.
Accordingly, blaming Facebook for turning us into validation-seeking addicts or destroying the fabric of our society or eating the business models that pay our bills may certainly feel gratifying in the moment, but it is a lie we love to tell ourselves and somewhere deep down every one of us knows it.
When we blame Facebook for sucking away our attention, maybe we’re really saying “I don’t think I’m enough” or “I wish I felt more connected” or “I wish I felt more love in my life.”
When we rail at the harms its monopoly on social media and seat in the digital ad duopoly is doing to our world, maybe what we’re saying “I don’t feel safe in the world” Or “all that’s difficult and painful in my life is someone else’s fault.”
And underneath those stories, maybe what we’re really saying: “I feel lost and alone” and “I am afraid to face the depth of my pain.”
Maybe it is the void inside that terrifies us, not Facebook, but Facebook makes a more convenient and comforting scapegoat.
Because make no mistake: stepping onto the road to freedom means nothing less than turning to face the anguish, pain, loneliness, confusion, and heartache just about every human being alive carries inside and processing those feelings with compassion and love…and doing it again and again until every last bit of it is healed.
If you’re even a tiny bit like me (and you probably are), that probably means doing whatever it takes to forgive every single person that has ever hurt you, including (especially) you, yourself.
It involves being vulnerable and may even mean apologizing honestly to all those you have ever hurt, and being ok with it if they do not or cannot accept your apology.
Freedom starts when we begin allowing ourselves to FEEL ALL THE THINGS…including anger, fear, disappointment, and heartbreak, and for most of us having the human experience (certainly me), that almost inevitably means a whole lot of crying…
…some of it into a pillow so it does not burden the people you love within earshot as you hug yourself as tightly as your strength allows.
It means observing yourself as you get triggered and fall into a lifelong pattern, having full knowledge of the pattern and every intention not to play it out and yet watching yourself, mystified, helpless, as you go through the motions again and again until one day it breaks.
It may help to know that once we turn to face our pain head on, it does not take too long before we know our pain does not isolate us as we once thought, but places us squarely in the company of every single human being that has ever lived.
So that is one thing.
Facebook democratizes advertising
The other thing, the thing that most (though not all) the commentators, critics, and journalists now piling onto the bash-Facebook train do not seem to appreciate is that Facebook has democratized advertising, and with it, mass-scale influence.
Specifically, Facebook Advertising, more than any other medium currently available in the world, lowers the barriers to creating and launching effective, profitable advertising campaigns to a profound degree.
It lowers the cost of reaching a precise audience so much that anyone with a creative spark, the willingness to learn, a relatively small amount of analytical hustle, and a few hundred dollars to invest can get a well-crafted message in front of exactly the people best suited for their product or service
…and do so profitably, repeatedly, and at scale.
Compared to Google Adwords, which is more technical and tends to require significant analytical sophistication to use and maintain profitably…
…or Google Display Network…which most unsophisticated advertisers would find utterly overwhelming…
And certainly compared to TV, radio, and print advertising…
Facebook Advertising is approachable, understandable, and easily accessible.
Yes, it’s got a learning curve. But it is by no means steep.
With focus, the fundamentals of Facebook Advertising can be learned in two weeks or less, and while figuring out how to find the right audience and navigating the different ways to run campaigns takes practice and trial and error, it is imminently achievable for anyone with even a little bit of grit and hustle.
The internet has a lot of free information on all of the basics, and a lot of the intermediate stuff, too.
Put simply, Facebook advertising lowers the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs of many, many kinds…not just the swing-for-the grand-slam-while-slam-dunking-over-Yao-Ming kind that Silicon Valley worships..
The smaller kind, too. The “be your own boss, live life on your own economic terms, put a diverse array of food on your family’s table” kind.
Thanks to Facebook, if you have grit, hustle, even the beginnings of a plausible business idea, and a few hundred dollars to risk, you have all you need to put one foot in front of the other and get a digitally-supported business off the ground in 2019.
In the market system of the West, for all of its flaws, that is as democratic as it gets.
But like democracy, itself, in which a relatively small, passionate group of clever people can over a generation or three, use the levers of free speech and the arcane boringness of the legislative process to quietly tilt the whole the system towards their own designs, there’s a flip side that can be deeply painful.
The same easy access to mass-scale-yet-granular reach that opens the gates to small and mid-scale entrepreneurship in an unprecedented way also open the gates to everyone else.
And so, when one has the resources, hustle, and cosmic timing of the 2016 Trump Campaign…
…or many centuries worth of experience as the world’s most sophisticated practitioner of psychological warfare and cultural subterfuge (a la Russian Intelligence), Facebook’s tools become something much more profound:
A crowbar into the whole world’s zeitgeist.
In hands that seek much more than money, facing a set of cultural, political, and economic systems that despite what anyone may want to claim have tipped far into dysfunction, that crowbar can and easily does morph into a wrecking ball.
And in this moment of epochal transition, as the old, self-obsessive ways of doing things are showing their hollowness and the deep violence of the logic of misogyny and top-down order reveals itself, and all the garbage and darkness we’ve swept under the carpets begins to rain down on the systems that perpetuate them…suddenly so much is up for grabs…
And those with aims of a seat at the next table are more than happy to leverage what Facebook has created to remake the world as they see fit.
But it is not Facebook that makes this. It is all of us pretending the mess is not all of ours to clean up.
Without our reflexive inclination to blame Facebook for our own lust for distraction, our own unwillingness to turn and face ourselves and all the pain we carry and inflict on ourselves and each other, Facebook’s dopamine generation engine would not have a single leg to stand on.
But when we continue to pretend that it is anyone but ourselves responsible for our unwillingness to embrace with the challenging parts of life, we build Facebook a temple.
A good name for it might be “The Victimhood of the Ego In its Adolescent Phase.”
The correction of such deep imbalances cannot be anything but destabilizing. In a world governed by fear, the gnawing sense of impending catastrophe is hard to avoid.
- This is not to say that those fears are unreasonable. Whole parts of this world sit on top of assumptions about happiness, self-interest, autonomy, and individualism that may have been profoundly incorrect. ↩