“Can We Trust Facebook and Twitter?” asked a click-baity headline in The Wall Street Journal this week.
No, is the obvious answer, given all the evidence of nefarious Russian interference. The more reasoned response is: To do what?
To take care of us? Have our backs? Distribute our creativity fairly? Broker our culture? Communicate our outrage? Protect us from one another?
There’s a deeper question: Why did we think we could trust them in the first place?
They are, after all, for-profit entities beholden to their shareholders. They are not guardians of the public trust.
The Journal’s libertarian-hued point (the writer was James Freeman) was that these giants are in danger of ruining their own brilliant business model, which was offering a platform to say or perform exactly what you want without interference from any gatekeeper.
Alas, people have proved disappointing. We just can’t have nice things.
Thus Facebook now has installed thousands of human editors with “a mandate to enforce a number of community standards.” (Algorithms, apparently, were falling down on that part of the job.) Twitter, meanwhile has started making it harder to find some of its more unsavory users in search results, which begs the question of who makes that call.
Facebook and Twitter were, of course, responding to criticism that they were providing platforms for racists and fascists (and nefarious operatives from Moscow). And it’s worth noting that some of the people who work at these places — such as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook — also have personal literary brands they need to tend. They do not want to be perceived as being bad for American democracy. Nor would you.
But the issue, of course, is that once Facebook and Twitter install paid editors, even if they are just manipulating search results, they become more and more like the time-honored publishing process under which you are reading this very column. It’s edited, very finely so, and the writer, who has to adhere to the standards of the Chicago Tribune and cannot just say anything and certainly is not permitted to be offensive, is compensated for its creation.
For those of us in old media, there is schadenfreude here, given that the business model of Facebook and Twitter has been to persuade people to give them stories, confessions, movies, music, news, photos, rants and other intimate, personal content for free. (Not to mention personal data.) That content then allows them to sell precisely targeted advertisements to the audience they are reaching.
Such is the ego-driven intensity of our creative itch that half of the world, it seems, has been willing to play along; this has been a crucial channel in the massive de-professionalization of human creativity (and the criticism thereof) in the 21st century. But the implicit bargain has been that the content provider gets both exposure and total freedom in return. No producers. No editors. No gatekeepers.
But Facebook and Twitter can’t offer that bargain if they start to worry about their own images being tainted by the very content they are sucking up for their own gain. Then again, maybe they can’t survive politically unless they do.
It’s quite the Catch-22. But it’s hard to feel sympathetic, given how Facebook and Twitter shape our national conversation largely for their own ends.
On Facebook, especially, the democratic process has long been an illusion. If I write something on Facebook itself, distinct from posting a link to the same story from another publication, such as this one, a far higher portion of my friends get to see the post. (Experiment and you will see what I mean.) This is because Facebook has an inherent interest in keeping people on its own channel. If you have clicked on this column from there, you have left Facebook, leaving Facebook to worry you may not come back and thus it will lose the revenue it generates from you.
When it comes to being the guardian of human creativity, this is what old-school journalists call an inherent conflict of interest.
Imagine an arts center with multiple creative tenants that also produces itself (we have several in Chicago). The arts center’s own shows always get preferential treatment when it comes to visibility. So it goes with Facebook and Twitter. This is what The Wall Street Journal piece misses: The neutrality of these platforms turned to fiction the moment they became public companies.
They’re just businesses, of course, not forces of evil. It’s just that corporations have become so incredibly sophisticated at making us think they are our friends. Take, for example, Sapna Maheshwari’sNew York Times story July 29 about the efforts of the Chipotle casual dining chain to become a so-called “lifestyle brand,” meaning not just a place to go to eat but a …
Well, let’s just cut through all the noise.
Chipotle wants you to believe it is your friend. That it has your back. That it cares for you. Loves you, really.
It is stunning how easily we fall for this stuff (and Chipotle, Maheshwari argued, is plowing exactly the same terrain as Gwyneth Paltrow — whose company Goop was another recent topic). But it is hardly new.
A play in Chicago — “Linda” by Penelope Skinner — references, with a light fictional disguise, the famous Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which began in 2004. This was one of the most successful attempts ever by a corporation, in this case Unilever, to convince women that it wanted them to feel better about themselves, not exploit the gulf between personal reality and an impossible ideal. The campaign was, I think, prescient in that it was one of the first piggy-backs onto the progressive movement for more diversity, equity and inclusion in American life. Similar marketing campaigns are everywhere now. You could say the Dove campaign was a good thing, although you could say that more easily if another branch of Unilever had not continued to sell diet pills.
But Skinner takes a dim view of that, really: The play notes that the moment a corporation reaches one demographic well, it always tries to expand the market. And, in the case of the cosmetic industry, fear of aging is the most powerful force. What these businesses do is try to keep you slightly afraid, even as they claim to want to hold your hand.
Exactly like Facebook.
This article provided by NewsEdge.