Facebook is responding to the fact that it sucks and makes people sad by removing news from the Newsfeed. This makes it more of a Peoplefeed. But what if that doesn’t solve the problem? What if people are the problem?
As Facebook has gotten bigger and bigger it has more assholes, more dumbness, and is a generally less liberal place. This isn’t a problem with publishers, it’s a problem with people. What Facebook is facing is a set of existential problems you seem to get with humanity at scale.
1. The Asshole Problem
The more people you reach, the more assholes you will encounter.
Since Facebook has over 2 billion users, it has more assholes than ever assembled in the history of the world. Since Facebook has active users it is also more likely to catch otherwise normal people on a bad day. The result is a significant quantity of trolling, fights, racism, sexism, hate speech, death threats, livestreamed violence, etc.
This is not a problem with Facebook per se, it is just a problem with scale. More scale = more assholes. This is a problem with humanity, but it’s Facebook’s corporate responsibility now.
2. The Dumb Problem
The more people you reach, the more dumbness you will encounter.
The average level of critical thinking across a population is actually quite low.
The trouble is that Facebook depends on these users to prioritize content. If the users aren’t reading critically, you’ll get stuff that appeals to the lowest common denominator, whether its true or not.
Hence you had crowdsourced editing from people that weren’t very informed in the first place and, like monkeys using typewriters, it didn’t exactly produce Shakespeare. What this system did was create a huge demand for content that appealed to uneducated people who weren’t even paying attention. And that’s what we got.
Facebook is treating this like a supply problem and cutting off all publishers but this doesn’t solve the problem that low-information users are going to keep sharing stuff anyways, and that fake or divisive sources can still pay to play.
They can say that they’re getting out of the news business, but Facebook isn’t a top-down company like that. If users still want to share dumb or divisive content, they’ll still do it.
This is not a problem Facebook can fix by flipping a switch. This is a problem with the general education levels of humanity.
3. The Liberal Problem
The more people you reach, the more conservatives you will encounter.
Facebook grew by letting less and less educated people onto its platform. At first you had to have a university or high school email address, until it opened up to anyone.
When Facebook’s users were young, liberal and educated, it tended to get content along those lines. When it opened up to everyone, it got content that was far from the liberal ideals from whence it sprung.
Since Facebook now covers most of the world, its product has become more conservative, so more racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. This goes against the company’s liberal community policy, and presumably against the kind of platform Mark Zuckerberg would like his children to be proud of.
The problem here is that Facebook’s product is its users. As its userbase grew, the product became more conservative. It’s not clear how demoting publishers puts that angry genie back in the bottle.
4. The Human Problem
The more people you reach, the more you will encounter existential human problems
Facebook has gotten so big that it is effectively a proxy for humanity. The problems it is facing are unique for a corporation because they are so deeply and uniquely human.
What is truth? Why can’t we be nice to each other? Why do we lie?
These are traditionally problems for philosophers, and they are not tested or solved at scale. These problems are generally not solved at all, they are just part of the fabric of existence. Yet that is where Facebook is. They are a social network that’s gotten so big that they are now expected to solve the problems of human existence.
I personally hate Facebook right now, but I am impressed that they’re trying, and I do hope they can do it. They did find a business model, which a lot of people said was impossible. Now let’s see if they can fix human nature.