Sunday, October 22, 2017

Facebook: Will It Die a Natural Death or Should We Kill It?

Facebook, the social media giant, has received a lot of bad press recently, mostly focused on how it may or may not have affected the results of the last presidential election.  This spotlight has pushed into the background other concerns about it that are occasionally raised: its size and extent give it monopoly power in selling its users to advertisers; it is the most extensive surveillance organization the world has ever known (except perhaps Google/Alphabet); it is likely that Facebook uses its knowledge of its users for beneficial as well as malignant purposes; most importantly, is it beneficial to society or not?

John Lanchester wrote an essay addressing issues like these for the London Review of Books:   You Are the Product.  The title comes from the notion that if someone provides you with something for free, then you can be assured that the product being sold is you.  Lanchester begins by describing the size and scope of Facebook. 

“In the far distant days of October 2012, when Facebook hit one billion users, 55 per cent of them were using it every day. At two billion, 66 per cent are. Its user base is growing at 18 per cent a year – which you’d have thought impossible for a business already so enormous. Facebook’s biggest rival for logged-in users is YouTube, owned by its deadly rival Alphabet (the company formerly known as Google), in second place with 1.5 billion monthly users. Three of the next four biggest apps, or services, or whatever one wants to call them, are WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, with 1.2 billion, 1.2 billion, and 700 million users respectively (the Chinese app WeChat is the other one, with 889 million). Those three entities have something in common: they are all owned by Facebook. No wonder the company is the fifth most valuable in the world, with a market capitalisation of $445 billion.”

What makes Facebook and other social media platforms so popular?  Lanchester suggests that humans have an innate wish to know what others are doing so that they may copy them (mimetic desire).  This notion is attributed to RenĂ© Girard, a French philosopher.

“Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them.”

Such a notion would certainly explain Facebook’s popularity.  However, Lanchester also points out that numerous studies have concluded that use of Facebook tends to generate unhappiness and depression.  

“To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit. So maybe, one day, people will stop using it.”

If Facebook is satisfying some fundamental need, why would it be making people unhappy?  It could be because Girard misinterpreted human nature.  Keith Payne, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina provides another interpretation of human nature that suggests an explanation for why using Facebook can lead to distress.  His perspective is provided in his book The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.

According to Payne, we are interested in other people not because we want to copy them, but because we are concerned about our status and are continually checking to see how we compare.  Copying may occur but it will be driven by a quest for status.

We evolved off of the chimpanzee line, a species that forms rigid hierarchical structures to insure that the best specimens, both male and female, have optimal prospects for mating and feeding.  For chimpanzees, status was a critical aspect of life.  While humans have evolved their own unique properties over time, the tendency for human groups to form a hierarchy is still present.  All human assemblies tend to arrive at a leader or a leadership group and a bunch of followers.  While precise hierarchical levels tend to exist mainly in military organizations, all members of the assembly will be conscious of their status and concerned that they are treated properly given their status.  Psychological studies tell us that this status checking is innate and often takes place subconsciously.

According to Payne, obvious factors such as attained wealth and academic achievement are not reliable markers for high status.  What is most important is how we assess our ranking among those who we recognize as peers.  If a person feels diminished in status relative to peers this sense of inequality generates physical and mental stress and produces the same unhealthy responses as produced by living in a state of material poverty.

“….inequality is not the same thing as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it….Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.

Payne compares levels of status to rungs on a ladder

“We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates.  If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work.  The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories.  The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems.  The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”

“Let me be clear that I am not simply asserting that, if you are poor, then all of these things are more likely to happen to you.  I am stating, rather, that these things are more likely to happen to you if you feel poor, regardless of your actual income.”

This rather startling conclusion provides a convincing reason why social media platforms like Facebook are so compelling and also why they also leave us feeling depressed.  A Facebook page is a stage on which a person can present themselves in the best possible light and perhaps engage in a bit of embellishment.  An observer will be constantly comparing his/her unembellished life with that of friends as presented on the screen.  Feelings of inequality seem inevitable.

Jean M. Twenge has examined the trends observed in adolescents as they spend large amounts of time on social media and reports her findings in an article in The Atlantic: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?  She is most concerned about the effects generated because interpersonal interactions via social media have become a substitute for face-to-face interactions. 

“Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements ‘A lot of times I feel lonely,’ ‘I often feel left out of things,’ and ‘I often wish I had more good friends.’ Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.”

Social media boasts of connecting people, but it is also a mechanism for demonstrating a person’s isolation from peers.

“For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.”

“This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes.”

One of social media’s most significant contributions to society is to increase the suicide rate.

“Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.”

“These more dire consequences for teenage girls could also be rooted in the fact that they’re more likely to experience cyberbullying. Boys tend to bully one another physically, while girls are more likely to do so by undermining a victim’s social status or relationships. Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.”

Twenge then illustrates the extent to which social media provides those owning the platform with personal information that they can use to increase their profits.

“A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint ‘moments when young people need a confidence boost.’ Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers ‘tools to target people based on their emotional state’.”

Lanchester believes the surveillance aspect of Facebook’s business model is poorly understood and could become a problem for the platform if more users appreciated what was actually being done to them.

“The one time Facebook did poll its users about the surveillance model was in 2011, when it proposed a change to its terms and conditions – the change that underpins the current template for its use of data. The result of the poll was clear: 90 per cent of the vote was against the changes. Facebook went ahead and made them anyway, on the grounds that so few people had voted. No surprise there, neither in the users’ distaste for surveillance nor in the company’s indifference to that distaste.”

Sue Halpern obtained access to some of the information Facebook had gathered about her and provides some interesting insight into how it works in a New York Review of Books article: They Have, Right Now, Another You

Halpern tells us that Facebook accumulates 98 data points that it uses to characterize an individual.  These factors are intended to help advertisers decide whether or not it is worth putting an ad in front of this person.   Some of these are self reported by the individual of interest, while most are extracted via other means.  For example, if you provide Facebook with a photo of yourself, its facial recognition software is good enough to pick you out of other peoples’ photographs.  It can clearly mine information from posts by you and those who it associates with you, but since they wish to make money by selling you to vendors, they need to learn more than you are likely to be willing to share.

“Facebook also follows users across the Internet, disregarding their ‘do not track’ settings as it stalks them. It knows every time a user visits a website that has a Facebook ‘like’ button, for example, which most websites do.”

“The company also buys personal information from some of the five thousand data brokers worldwide, who collect information from store loyalty cards, warranties, pharmacy records, pay stubs, and some of the ten million public data sets available for harvest. Municipalities also sell data—voter registrations and motor vehicle information, for example, and death notices, foreclosure declarations, and business registrations, to name a few. In theory, all these data points are being collected by Facebook in order to tailor ads to sell us stuff we want, but in fact they are being sold by Facebook to advertisers for the simple reason that the company can make a lot of money doing so.”

What Halpern learned about Facebook’s characterization was that it was often misleading and in some cases incorrect.  Some of the mistakes were so outrageous that Halpern began to wonder if Facebook has purposely created a more marketable persona for her in order to attract higher priced ads to the pages at which she would be looking.  This makes one wonder just how far Facebook would go in order to make more money.

Many of us think that a social media company that collects data on us in order sell ads presenting us with something we might be interested in buying is a harmless nuisance.  However, there is a dark side to this practice.  Cathy O’Neil provides a number of examples in her book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

O’Neil tells us we should be concerned because big data, such as that accumulated by Facebook, can be used to pinpoint vulnerable people and take advantage of their vulnerability.

It has been demonstrated that degrees from for-profit colleges are of little value to students.  They are much more expensive than equivalent education from a community college and less highly valued by employers—in fact, little better than a high school education.  These schools make nearly all their money from government-guaranteed loans.  Whether students succeed or fail has little to do with their business plan.  Platforms like Facebook have all the information required to provide vulnerable targets for these outfits.

“Vatterott College, a career-training institute, is a particularly nasty example.  A 2012 Senate committee report on for-profit colleges described Vatterott’s recruiting manual, which sounds diabolical.  It directs recruiters to target ‘Welfare Mom w/Kids.  Pregnant Ladies.  Recent Divorce.  Low Self-Esteem. Low Income Jobs.  Experienced a Recent Death.  Physically/Mentally Abused.  Recent Incarceration.  Drug Rehabilitation.  Dead-End Jobs—No Future.’”
What might you think of a social media company that would assist an organization in inducing people like these to take out large school loans with little or no prospect of ever being able to repay them? 

Lanchester has clear feelings about Facebook.

“I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me.”

In fact he was moved to consider how Facebook might stumble and fall. 

The first possibility is that its growth is likely to slow dramatically.  There are only so many eligible people in the world.  The next billion users will be difficult to find.  This will keep it generating large profits but its stock price will likely fall.

Other eventualities could force Facebook to change its business model.  Lanchester wonders if people will begin to reject the platform once they fully realize the extent of Facebook’s surveillance activities.  Users might also just grow tired of an activity that makes large numbers of people depressed and unhappy.  The government might also step in by recognizing that Facebook’s size and influence has made them too big to exist in its current form. 

Perhaps the most likely occurrence is that the business of selling places for ads on web pages may dry up.  The model is burdened by rampant fraud.  It is easy to create a webpage, place ads on it, and then schedule a bot on another platform to come and click on those ads as often as one wishes.

“The industry publication Ad Week estimates the annual cost of click fraud at $7 billion, about a sixth of the entire market. One single fraud site, Methbot, whose existence was exposed at the end of last year, uses a network of hacked computers to generate between three and five million dollars’ worth of fraudulent clicks every day. Estimates of fraudulent traffic’s market share are variable, with some guesses coming in at around 50 per cent; some website owners say their own data indicates a fraudulent-click rate of 90 per cent.”

Facebook is not responsible for that fraud, but it has been caught using dubious methods in presenting its value to advertisers.

“….many of Facebook’s metrics are tilted to catch the light at the angle which makes them look shiniest. A video is counted as ‘viewed’ on Facebook if it runs for three seconds, even if the user is scrolling past it in her news feed and even if the sound is off. Many Facebook videos with hundreds of thousands of ‘views’, if counted by the techniques that are used to count television audiences, would have no viewers at all.”

The best eventuality for society and Facebook users would be for this ad-driven model to fail and disappear.  That presumably would force Facebook to adopt a fee-for-service model to acquire its income.  Surveillance would no longer be necessary and users’ selected preferences would control how the platform interacts with them.

If something like what is suggested above does not occur, we face an unknown future that is greatly feared by Lanchester.

“Automation and artificial intelligence are going to have a big impact in all kinds of worlds. These technologies are new and real and they are coming soon. Facebook is deeply interested in these trends. We don’t know where this is going, we don’t know what the social costs and consequences will be, we don’t know what will be the next area of life to be hollowed out, the next business model to be destroyed, the next company to go the way of Polaroid or the next business to go the way of journalism or the next set of tools and techniques to become available to the people who used Facebook to manipulate the elections of 2016. We just don’t know what’s next, but we know it’s likely to be consequential, and that a big part will be played by the world’s biggest social network. On the evidence of Facebook’s actions so far, it’s impossible to face this prospect without unease.”

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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