Social media can’t be reformed, can it be replaced?

I built a platform quite a time before Facebook appeared and was before that, an avid Usenet user from its outset, as a result, I feel somehow implicated.
I plan to publish a series of pieces over the next week or two in the hope of generating more interest in critical consultations happening right now, that could, if enough people of the right sort speak up, save us from a plague worse than Covid, one that is already amongst us.
Apologies if you dont like my style, its half-way between an essay and a paper. Its never easy to judge the right format for social media discussion of a serious subject, at least not for me.

The Social Media storm and especially part Facebook plays in our lives, is a concept I’ve found myself writing about more than once. As someone who used to specialise in reforming organisations around technology, I learned the slow painful way. A Russian friend on one of my programmes once casually remarked: that plan may work, but you’re breaking it and starting again.
His remark was so profound and so right, it influenced many decisions since. This piece about “Five monkeys” was written for a workshop back then and it explains the concept a little more.

The present is a product of the past,
That concept can of course be restated as, the future is a product of the present.
A key takeaway; few decisions are made in isolation. There are usually consequences ongoing and there’s always history.

Facebook is an example and I pick it not just because it was the first big successful social media platform, but because in a recent NYT interview(1), our own Nick Cleg admitted that it can’t be reformed.

Let’s visit the past then and see how we arrived here.
Facebook hit the streets in 2004 as a way for students to make a profile with their picture and start chatting to others. A book of faces. (Book was the metaphor for a man just discovering tech and faces was the goal). He probably just wanted to get laid without having to go out like every other weedy little fresher.
In fact, Zuckerberg got in trouble for stealing University data to populate profiles. His idea spread to other Universities and indeed, as he started, he went on.

Facebook took off and the chatter grew. It got funding and before you know it Facebook was one of the big tech things with capital and excitement but no revenue and in Facebook’s case, no business model. Wall Street can be patient about profit, but less so a business model.
In fact, it took Facebook five years to show any sort of a profit. Google by comparison took three, while Amazon took nine years to profitability and Twitter twelve.
This, of itself suggests that the sector and the US, where it all happened, is unusual and from an investment viewpoint, unique, but Facebook had to find a business model while all they had was free footfall and not exactly top-drawer footfall either.
While early adapters lived on super courteous newsgroups sharing knowledge etc on Usenet, Facebook was the home of raw, muck-under-the-fingernails, beginners and so, largely, it went on.

Right back then, Facebook, Google, Amazon and quite a few more were burning money while their stock soared even through the dot-com crash. It was a talking point on my Usenet groups. Remember those hugely popular paid forerunners to Facebook. Well ,they went from being the main reason people got internet connected to being almost unknown within two years of Facebooks free service funded by venture capital. Reddit took over Usenet and it still has a loyal following.
Google gradually replaced Northern light and Yahoo and the old boy, WebCrawler, mainly by adapting a very academic approach to ranking content as opposed to the WebCrawler promise of indexing everything.

Facebook and Google both relied on content to attract users, but as any newspaper owner will testify, content is a huge expense.
Good writers don’t come cheap, then there’s fact checking and editing and of course, insuring against libel or worse. Then you have got to know and manage your audience.
These guys were academics with techie bent. Techies usually can’t spell, let alone write anything without {×=y*something!?@()} sort of stuff. Academics can explain business models but there it usually ends
These fellows relied on Spotty Sam from Southampton or Pudgy Paula from Philly writing something interesting to attract that person, someone they knew at that time, who might click a banner and earn Mark a penny. The Social Media Business Model was born and it was based on other people’s content. In-fact the term “content” was a leap of faith, it was just chatter and mostly still is, though some of it is commentary on Externally published content.
The trouble for Facebook was that people with boring friends and family had boring content and they and their friends stopped visiting. It just wasn’t fair.
There was a time when we all knew Facebook was full of dormant accounts, dead groups and so forth. One of the early attempted solutions was the launch of the now infamous Beacons(2), whereby they published your personal information about your activity on other websites to your friends in an attempt to engage them. That sort of demonstrates just how far they would go back then and how desperate they had become for an answer.

It was about then a new idea was growing legs, the newsfeed(3). The name was a tricky one and may yet prove a decision with future consequences. The newsfeed was a way to encourage us back by pretending that our boring friends we don’t meet any more are saying exciting things on Facebook. Well, that didn’t fool too many, but it did bring a few back.
The next move was to break with the friends idea and fill your new newsfeed and accompanying mailshot with anything at all you might read so you visited and clicked that banner and Mark got his penny.
This new scheme seemed to have potential, but now that he’d broken with chatter from people who knew you and largely abandoned social as the basis, he had no idea what you might click on.
As my friend suggested, he could have gone with porn, made a fortune, left democracy alone. then gone into property and run for president. Sadly. he didn’t.
Instead he met a freckled fresher with an A in math who’d been studying ways to shortlist horny girls that liked freckles. That relationship was to produce a child, the like of which had never been seen before.

Let’s just call him Feddy, a Fred without the R. Feddy was totally unremarkable and indeed, he still is. He was no great shakes at technology any more than with girls, but he remembered enough maths to draw a few impressive looking algorithms on the whiteboard. You know the kind that send you straight to the gin bottle or the sick-bag depending what day of the week.
What this (m = c-p) really added up to: apart from; money equals customers minus pennies, was the assumption, dumb in my case and a high proportion of others, that we all hang around with people who have the same tastes and interests as each other.
Even teenagers on the pull don’t fit this mask. I spent my formative years with Harry. Women loved Harry; why I never worked out, but he was happy with the less demanding ones(ugly friend sounds churlish), while I dated her sister: trouble.
Life’s never that simple, but the story makes a great project brief when you want a huge budget and Feddy was good at that.
There was no fancy stuff here, just lots of clickable assets and a like button with tags attached that identified stuff you might be interested in. It never occurred to feckless Feddy that a lad might like something a certain girl wrote without even reading it, or in-fact, when he disagreed.
Removing those tags was of no interest to Feddy, so if you accidentally clicked a fat boy picture one day. You could be on a list somewhere for ever. Neither was he concerned about who else might take an interest in your supposed preference for fat boys.
In truth, what most likely happened as many other case studies show, is that the profiling decision led to investment in marketing to prove that decision right and that led to more people exposed to more stuff and more pennies for Mark. A lot more pennies.
Who’s complaining? you ask. Nobody just yet because nobody ever expected the consequences.

What happened next was unexpected. Because Bill was apparently the dominant (most active one) in his group, Bill’s friends all saw content tailored for Bill and their lizard brains deduced that they lived in a certain kind of world and for their own security, they’d best be seen liking what Bill likes. Even Bill felt the reinforcement and resisted the normal stimuli of change. The end result was, that not only Bill, but all of his connections had very strong and sometimes militant views that they can’t even trace let alone explain. Confirmation bias then kicked in for most mortals and reinforced the lie indefinitely.

Very quickly. The amount of data being captured and stored in the ‘graph’ (the profile they hold) about each and every one of us exploded and it accumulated in a massive database. One Guardian reporter(4) who requested access to his, was stunned to discover that they held 600 MB about him, the equivalent of 400 Word docs.
Harnessing that data fully. Facebook had by now, begun to run its own advertising business and was finding its feet with a more sustainable business model.
Without any huge amount of thought going into it, this was corporate America even if the victims are global, all that data was available to any advertiser, or literally anyone using the API to build an app or whatever.
The power of some of this data, when used by specialists within verticals gave Facebook an edge they needed to start building on their new business model as an advertising business.
It also had the same self-reinforcing effect on advertisers that it originally had on Facebook users.

Now Google had a real challenger. Google helped people search, mostly in a browse mode (serendipity), but sometimes for stuff they might buy and that fed Google’s business model. Facebook on the other hand had people chatting about their aspirations, likes and dislikes and actively seeking advice and these people could be shown targeted adverts.
The difference between platforms was that Google searchers had more urgent intent, though it could be academic more often than mercurial, but Facebook users were easier and cheaper to engage and more easily targeted and segmented.

On top of, or rather, in the darkness behind all this data collection lies a furiously active ecosystem of data brokers and aggregators(5) The better-known of these include Datalogix, owned by Oracle, and Acxiom, which is said to hold 3,000 data points on 700 million people. (6). These brokers bought data about every user from anyone willing to sell it and then they sold that data to anyone willing to pay for it. Naturally Facebook and others were able to access this data to enrich their profiles.

Then politicians began to increase their interest in Facebook as a channel to engage audiences. Most political parties were already using polling apps that provided entire electoral rolls with estimations of their affiliations and likelihood to vote, estimated and identified swing votes and the usual paraphernalia, adding social media was not that huge a thing, or so they thought.
Facebook engagement and tracking gave those estimates a laser-like accuracy. That in turn drove vast billions in revenue into the coffers of Facebook as not only political parties but governments spread propaganda with these tools.

That was the tip of the iceberg however, because on top of advertising, they had hundreds of thousands of fake accounts spewing out polarising content every day into echo chambers.
They used clichés to polarise people and once an echo chamber reached a viable size, they added it to their rhetoric to reach these voters.
Emotional contagion is the term that describes how a social Media network, via echo chambers can transfer emotions to millions of people.

Echo chambers create emotional contagion leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. Emotional contagion is well established via laboratory experiments, people are seen to be transferring positive and negative emotions to others. Data from a large real-world social network, collected over a 20-y period suggests that longer-lasting moods (e.g., depression, happiness) can be transferred through networks(7)

Three further studies have laid the groundwork for testing these processes via Facebook. Much research was funded or undertaken by Facebook(8) itself into this subject and therefore there is no question of pleading ignorance of the effects.

Some benefits of echo chambers.
You could save a fortune by convincing people you had done something rather than actually doing it.
The party with the biggest digital budget has won every election since Obama came to power.
Mark was no longer collecting pennies, but Billions. It came from consumer brands, politicians and a whole range of entities focused on emotional decisions by consumers.
Although one firm advertising and posting political content was a Russian firm based in St Petersburg who accessed 30% of the US population with the aim of getting Trump elected, the firm that burst the bubble was a British quasi-military (dis)information and political campaigning contractor focused directly on these methods of spreading and manipulating information for gain. Their name: Cambridge Analytica(9).
They had created a huge database incorporating fairly accurate personality analysis based on a widely shared personality test app that helped them understand the optimum approach to convincing each individual for, or against a specific action.

They, and a US copycat, Palantir with military and espionage links, between them are credited with inflicting severe damage on democracy in many countries and perverting policing and justice via their immoral and mostly illegal (by human, civil or constitutional rights) surveillance. I’l be bringing you a deeper look at this in the next week or two.
Facebook may well have been unfortunate to bear the blame for such an evil pair, but they did sell their souls and they do refuse to show any remorse or offer any believable assurances.
The founder of Palantir is also a founding director of Facebook and that’s not the only link.
Their willingness to expose private data to such firms without express permission of the owners in return for ad revenue is the thing that will continue to dog them.

Even now, although you can no longer access some of this data via the API, if you know how to set it up, your ads will be shown to potentials on the basis of such private data, I. E. Facebook will do the donkey work for you. If you know how to do it, commercial results remain strong.
If you build apps that access the graph, you will be painfully aware of the furious paddling of this duck beneath the water as they try to continue milking this thing without getting in too much more trouble. It’s really a legally driven approach with the intent to make app owners responsible, should they misuse your data via Marks platform.
I wouldn’t bet too much on that strategy, but I’m not a gazzillionaire.

Facebook today has moved a long way from the boyish operation that helped students get laid and its business model delivers spectacular financial results.
On the balancing side, it’s model is under severe scrutiny and seems unlikely to be able to survive in its current mode other than to prolong the party via legal activity such as lobbying and you’d have to suspect, special favours to politicians, even their detailed personal knowledge may occasionally be telling. Without even considering people who organise illegal sexual favours n private islands, can you imagine the leverage a business might have when knowing every online move, every conversation and purchase, even every brief stop anywhere on almost any website over a number of years, especially when nobody suspected they were being stalked. This is the sort of democratic risk we are talking about and its must worse.
The consequences of their misuse of data, whether for ad-placement, or the newsfeed, has in the view of many commentators, almost brought down US democracy, seriously side-lined British democracy and remains a threat to democracy everywhere.
More recently, governments like UK and US, yet again, are forcing the platform to remove any commentary that is not complimentary, or questions their current propaganda. This twist in the story could well be the final straw. There are many other risks too, from misuse by terrorists to hate speech and much more. It must feel, and in some ways, it is, unfair.
Facebook began with a harmless directory of students and if you can believe it, set sights on an alternative or “virtual world” where people can meet similar souls based on interests. Harmless escapism, if with obvious risks.
Mark is on the record as saying that privacy is the cornerstone of their model. That doesn’t sit well with what they’ve become.
It is also reported that In 2004, as Mark Zuckerberg was watching from his Harvard dorm room while his classmates uploaded personal details and photos to Facebook’s early prototype, he had a quick but telling exchange with a friend over Instant Messenger.

“Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard… Just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS… People just submitted it. I don’t know why,” he wrote. “They ‘trust me’… Dumb fucks.”

My personal take is that; inevitably, they were forced by corporate culture i.e. Wall street, to enter in competition with Google and others and there lay the road to near self-destruction.
Had they remained faithful to mission and risk managed the obvious, they’d be a smaller, healthier, fast-growing and secure business today. It saddens me that few in the business world can see the value in that. Others say and not without merit, that they never had a saleable product. Any fresher can give stuff away, the secret of product management is getting paid for it making a margin and ultimately delivering ROI.
The product was never theirs to sell, their business model is that of pickpocket and more recently espionage. You must form your own opinion. Facebook, in other words, set themselves up for it through risky decisions .

Now they have three choices in my view.
1. Produce costly edited content and compete with Forbes and NYT a still struggling model unlikely to succeed as is, or
2. Go back to a free version of Usenet only now moderated and start searching for a new business model.
3. Become a reseller of newspapers with curation or commentary below.

Data.
Governments have already decided if not yet fully enforced their assumed ownership of vast data about private individuals globally. That doesn’t lend itself to Facebook also owning it and the right hand of God ( or rather the president) moves as Presidents change.
There is a strong likelihood of the US and remainder of the world steering different paths on this and more countries are likely to ban or change the GAAF.
Europe and US states are already piling in with antitrust lawsuits.
For me, this suggests a political cop-out. If serious, it means they accept the unauthorised surveillance at a level we don’t accept, willingly at least, from government.
The US has a dismal record on antitrust and their framework lags far behind Europe, something that doesn’t bode well.
Trading on private data the way Facebook have done is unlikely to be an ongoing option once someone takes this seriously
The current discussion is one where Mark proposes that he and Ultimately the world adapts GDPR as a way to protect personal data. He wants to get away with selling us yet more dodgy AI as a solution and carry on more or less as before.
We are already seeing this deplorable AI on many platforms banning people and blocking posts for no reason anyone can fathom as they respond to US and UK politicians demands. Next week, I’ll give you some thought provoking insights into this AI.

Brand/Tie-in/monopoly.
Facebook are more an Oligopoly in my view and an extremely aggressive one, but if they lose that dominance many will go with them.
Tie-in is more by choice, laziness and habit, but also because there is no other place to chat informally to others at that level. There is no browser, or OS forcing people to use Facebook as there is with Google. On the contrary, their power begins after they get space on Google and Apple browsers and platforms. Their advantage is being huge and a Brand, if TAINTED. That position still relies on being allowed onto these platforms and access to so much data that absolutely cannot be taken for granted.
Laziness of people to rebuild connections on alternative platforms is a big part too, but Microsoft /outlook has never really been able to build on that for their linkedin platform and Google gave up too despite both having significant advantages.
Competitors are either bought or copied. Even API partners find their innovation being copied as with all these monster platforms. . <. >
A sensible soul, especially one a with a modicum of technical understanding must surely wonder why nobody so far has thought of locking the browsers and phone OS to prevent data theft. That’s a mystery for the history books.

US antitrust as mentioned, won’t normally move too strongly as long as the firm is popular, regardless of control. Add other arguments such as privacy and it may tip the balance with many states already queueing for a shot at them.
At any point in time, whoever wins an election, will surely feel beholden to Facebook and slow to damage them. Huge makes advertisers happy, but not so much a Fresher wanting to chat to old friends. I see this as neither strength nor weakness.

The question for me is this:
Is there a baby to throw out with bathwater and is it worth saving if it could be identified?


Globalism.
Facebook is part of an alarming and growing group who apparently answer to nobody and have departments focused on ignoring or circumventing any local laws they don’t like. I suspect they may remain aloof for now as the world deals with more pressing problems.
Never in a century has the world been less united and geared to deal with global capitalism, especially when that capitalism is equipped with such potentially poisonous stings, but weapons that have proved valuable to politicians in the past. OECD, G20 and G7 combining to tackle taxation is a promising start, but I won’t hold my breath. Taming Big tech is most likely to result in a general fudge that nobody, but the tech CEOS really understand and leaves them largely unperturbed

Conclusion
Facebook remains and will be aloof and largely untouchable if they play it right, but their Achilles is a dependence on data that belongs to someone else and all the embedded risk that entails.
Mark seems petulant at times, but for now he has the upper hand. As an advertising platform they have a market and a business model that works and can continue to, but unless they get out of politics all this could change for the worst at short notice when things go wrong for the wrong person. On the other hand, this political integration provides insurance in the short term. I still feel it carries the seed of their ultimate destruction
What the world should fear most is an alliance between Murdoch and Zuckerberg or similar ganging up. We know that Big Tech has begun to circle the wagons, but I fear other media poses equal problems.

Why did I publish this now?
As we speak, the UK is running a public consultation on how to deal with big tech.
I feel in my bones that this is nothing more than a ruse to justify taking total control of the messaging via social media in order to defend their own position and Bury their mistakes by continuing to censor Social media channels.
As you will have seen if you read the piece, there are many and very pressing issues in the area of big tech and especially social media. In my view, we should be:
1. Prioritising and tackling all of these issues and not dealing with them piecemeal.
2: Strongly resisting any move that allows political parties or government, one and the same, to drive the news agenda, or to edit or tamper with it in any way.

  1. Produce costly edited content and compete with Forbes and NYT a still struggling model unlikely to succeed as is, or
    2. Go back to a free version of Usenet only now moderated and start searching for a new business model.
    3. Become a reseller of newspapers with curation or commentary below.

Data.

Governments have already decided if not yet fully enforced their assumed ownership of vast data about private individuals globally. That doesn’t lend itself to Facebook also owning it and the right hand of God ( or rather the president) moves as Presidents change.
There is a strong likelihood of the US and remainder of the world steering different paths on this and more countries are likely to ban or change the GAAF.
Europe and US states are already piling in with antitrust lawsuits.
For me, this suggests a political cop-out. If serious, it means they accept the unauthorised surveillance at a level we don’t accept, willingly at least, from government.
The US has a dismal record on antitrust and their framework lags far behind Europe, something that doesn’t bode well.
Trading on private data the way Facebook have done is unlikely to be an ongoing option once someone takes this seriously
The current discussion is one where Mark proposes that he and Ultimately the world adapts GDPR as a way to protect personal data. He wants to get away with selling us yet more dodgy AI as a solution and carry on more or less as before.

We are already seeing this deplorable AI on many platforms banning people and blocking posts for no reason anyone can fathom as they respond to US and UK politicians demands

Brand/Tie-in/monopoly.

Facebook are more an Oligopoly in my view and an extremely aggressive one, but if they lose that dominance many will go with them.
Tie-in is more by choice, laziness and habit, but also because there is no other place to chat informally to others at that level. There is no browser, or OS forcing people to use Facebook as there is with Google. On the contrary, their power begins after they get space on Google and Apple browsers and platforms. Their advantage is being huge and a Brand, if TAINTED. That position still relies on being allowed onto these platforms and access to so much data that absolutely cannot be taken for granted.
Laziness of people to rebuild connections on alternative platforms is a big part too, but Microsoft /outlook has never really been able to build on that for their linkedin platform and Google gave up too despite both having significant advantages.
Competitors are either bought or copied. Even API partners find their innovation being copied as with all these monster platforms. . <. >
A sensible soul, especially one a with a modicum of technical understanding must surely wonder why nobody so far has thought of locking the browsers and phone OS to prevent data theft. That’s a mystery for the history books.

US antitrust as mentioned, won’t normally move too strongly as long as the firm is popular, regardless of control. Add other arguments such as privacy and it may tip the balance with many states already queueing for a shot at them.
At any point in time, whoever wins an election, will surely feel beholden to Facebook and slow to damage them. Huge makes advertisers happy, but not so much a Fresher wanting to chat to old friends. I see this as neither strength nor weakness.

The question for me is this:
Is there a baby to throw out with bathwater and is it worth saving if it could be identified?

Facebook is part of an alarming and growing group who answer to nobody and have departments focused on ignoring or circumventing any local laws they don’t like. I suspect they may remain aloof for now as the world deals with more pressing problems.
Never in a century has the world been less united and geared to deal with global capitalism, especially when that capitalism is equipped with such potentially poisonous stings, but weapons that have proved valuable to politicians in the past. OECD, G20 and G7 combining to tackle taxation is a promising start, but I won’t hold my breath. Taming Big tech is most likely to result in a general fudge that nobody, but the tech CEOS really understand and leaves them largely unperturbed.

Facebook remains and will be aloof and appear largely untouchable if they play it right, but their Achilles is a dependence on data that belongs to someone else and all the embedded risk that entails.
Mark seems petulant at times, but for now he has the upper hand. As an advertising platform they have a market and a business model that works and can continue to, but unless they get out of politics all this could change for the worst at short notice when things go wrong for the wrong person. On the other hand, this political integration provides insurance in the short term. I still feel it carries the seed of their ultimate destruction
What the world should fear most is an alliance between Murdoch and Zuckerberg or similar ganging up. We know that Big Tech has begun to circle the wagons, but I fear other media poses equal problems.

As we speak, the UK is running a public consultation on how to deal with big tech.
I feel in my bones that this is nothing more than a ruse to justify taking total control of the messaging via social media in order to defend their own position and Bury their mistakes by continuing to censor Social media channels.
As you will have seen if you read the piece, there are many and very pressing issues in the area of big tech and especially social media. In my view, we should be:
1. Prioritising and tackling all of these issues and not dealing with them piecemeal.
2: Strongly resisting any move that allows political parties or government, one and the same, to drive the news agenda, or to edit or tamper with it in any way.

1. I believe we should be looking for balanced approaches to fake news and punishing government even more than individuals when they break the rules. Individuals can be more effectively dealt with via correcting their error publicly and keeping a little tally of their misdemeanours for everyone to see.

2. I believe we should be clamping down very hard on data profiling of individuals, or indeed retaining any data other than login credentials. It can’t be justified, however much they protest about it.

3. I believe we should curtail the ability of platforms to randomly ban people who now rely on some of these platforms for basic communication with family and friends. For many it equates to a social shaming and isolation that can have profound impact on mental health for many people. They have become social and engrained to an extent that running these networks carries responsibility.

4. I believe that all platforms should lose their ability to damage businesses that have been built with total reliance on that platform, either through stealing their niche, or changing the rules or API without reasonable consultation or nabbing them for whatever reason. An example might be advertising agencies who sell their advertising products.
There is room for a powerful watchdog, but not for direct interference and that watchdog absolutely must be independent of government in every way and with real teeth.

Resources:
1. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/01/opinion/facebook-zuckerberg.html

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook_Beacon

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_Feed#History

4. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/28/all-the-data-facebook-google-has-on-you-privacy

5. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/personal-data-ecosystem/

6. Data brokers, who are hey? https://www.avg.com/en/signal/data-brokers

7. [Fowler JH, Christakis NA (2008) BMJ 337:a2338].

8. Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock (2014) PNAS akramer@fb.com.

9.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook%E2%80%93Cambridge_Analytica_data_scandal

Other resources
Click here to see your facebook data: https://www.facebook.com/help/131112897028467

Data exploitation in UK https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/data-brokers

Corporate surveillance https://crackedlabs.org/en/corporate-surveillance

Ed has enjoyed a dual career moving backwards and forwards between leadership roles in software engineering and transforming marketing functions.