Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: Are we building the world we all want?
Mark Zuckerberg, 2017
Sixteen years ago, give or take a week, I waded through a packed (and now-nonexistent) computer cluster in the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library to check email after retrieving some books from the stacks. As I claimed a computer, I noticed that my neighbors gave their fullest attention to whatever it was that they were doing, but, in keeping with the etiquette of the time, I politely avoided peering directly at their monitors. When I stood up to leave a few minutes later, though, I couldn’t help but notice the curious uniformity of the screens running down my row. All of my neighbors were using the same website. In a blue bar running atop the page, I read that site’s name in white lowercase letters: “facebook.”
Facebook was still an undergrad phenomenon at the time. A decidedly unhip graduate student, I knew it only by rumor, but seeing it in person, I immediately understood why an undergraduate population would be entranced by it, particularly during those last weeks of the semester when students, bored, discouraged, and sleep-deprived, would be grateful for such a means of escape. The site was a gift to procrastinators everywhere. From organic chemistry exams and term papers in abnormal psych, Facebook offered ready relief, its prompts brief and easy to answer and those answers permanently malleable. Plus, its assignment was a fascinating one: the state of you! And you weren’t tackling that assignment alone. Since your friends (an ever-expanding pool of fellow Facebook users) were almost certainly avoiding their work too, new content would surely be available whenever you checked back in. Facebook was a total waste of time, I realized, and for that very reason a brilliant product for college students—especially since membership was entirely free. Or so it seemed then.
We have since learned—from experience and the work of its many critics—that Facebook is free only in the most superficial sense. Signing up may be free, but by logging in you enter into an economic relationship with the company in which you provide Facebook with the attention and personal information that the company requires to maintain its record-setting profits. It doesn’t feel like a business relationship to most people, though, because the average user sees no money changing hands.
But money is changing hands, constantly and in enormous quantities. As Shoshana Zuboff chronicles in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Facebook makes money not by creating things but by selling ad space—on its users’ customized pages. By gathering as much information about you as it possibly can (some of which you knowingly turn over, much of which you don’t realize you’re supplying), the company can make remarkably precise predictions about what you might like to buy, what you might like to read, where you might like to visit, for whom you might be persuaded to vote. Those predictions are, unsurprisingly, coveted by advertisers, marketers, and political campaigns, among other hawkers, who then pay Facebook for the chance to advertise their wares (or destinations or causes or candidates) in your specific feed. There is, to put it another way, an 80-billion-dollar marketplace happening behind the scenes, one in which everyone but you is capitalizing on all that information you’ve given to Facebook. The real free product is you.
Yet the meaning of Facebook’s “free” cannot be reckoned only by tallying what’s extracted from individual users. Consider how Christopher Mims, writing for the Wall Street Journal, begins his report, “Why Free is too High a Price to Pay for Facebook and Google”: “Over the past two years, Facebook and Google have taken fire for their roles in everything from eroding democratic institutions to damaging mental health to undermining our collective immunity to preventable diseases.” You may now be shaking your head in agreement—these have indeed been two difficult years for Big Tech. But Mims in fact wrote these words in 2019!
Go back two or so years from there, and we’re talking about the revelation that 87 million Facebook users’ data had been collected without their consent in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, how Russian troll farms used Facebook to disseminate fake news during the 2016 election, and (among still other stories) how Facebook used its enormous wealth to hire the “opposition research” firm Definers Public Affairs to deflect criticism by disparaging those who protested Facebook and other rival tech companies. Mims himself was primarily concerned with “how free harms competition,” pointing specifically to how Facebook has bought up competitors—most importantly, Instagram and WhatsApp—and then used its superior scale and revenue to drive other rivals (such as Snapchat) out of the field.
Two years later, the social costs are even more glaring. Indeed, with the (ongoing) release of the Facebook Papers and the recent publication of MIT Technology Review’s exposé on “how Facebook and Google fund global misinformation,” we are once again confronting evidence that Facebook is “eroding democratic institutions,” “damaging mental health,” and “undermining our collective response to preventable diseases.” In fact, spend even a few minutes (as I’ve been doing recently), revisiting reports on Facebook dating back to the late aughts, and you’ll see the same themes—lack of transparency with users, data mismanagement, shady business practices, and deleterious effects on mental health and democratic institutions—surfacing again and again.
One needs something like Facebook’s Timeline feature just to keep track of the company’s scandals, public apologies, and repeated failures to live up to its promises to correct its profoundly consequential mistakes. Do you realize, for example, that since the hearings on Cambridge Analytica in 2018, “Facebook has been a subject of some 70 hearings on privacy, competition, content moderation, misinformation, security, and diversity and inclusion,” as a recent Brookings report recalls? In light of this increasingly checkered history, Facebook’s creators seem wise to change the company’s name and retreat into the metaverse. Would paying customers have tolerated such antics for so long?
Sixteen years ago, one could, as I did, write off Facebook as a mere time sink. But that’s no longer possible now that we know how Facebook works—how its seemingly free service actually depends on extracting and monetizing our data—and how it spends the money we generate for it—including buying up the competition (and thereby diminishing our options) and, as the Tech Review exposé reveals, paying fake news engines that keep users engaged. Most Facebook users’ daily activities are no doubt benign. Yet simply by logging in, each user contributes to the problems that I’ve named, since the business model works only if people show up and thereby entice others to join them there. Because we cannot directly withhold payment from Facebook, the only way to signal our alarm at what it has become is to withhold our attention.