Much ado about Faceplace

I just started listening to Ezra Klein’s interview of Mark Zuckerberg on his podcast (highly recommend, btw), which you too can listen to right here:

I’m not through the whole thing yet, but what struck me (other than Zuckerberg’s weirdly robotic delivery) was this: There is no way in hell that Facebook is going to come out of this as a sovereign company. Or rather, I hope they don’t. Facebook should be regulated, and heavily.

To make this explanation as roundabout as possible, let’s do a thought experiment: What would an entirely virtual government look like? One that somehow had no actual, physical land to occupy,  but still had millions of citizens desiring co-existence in virtual space? In no particular order, I think you’d need these following, agreed-upon elements:

  1. A mechanism for choosing leaders and administrators
  2. A platform for those leaders to effectively interact with, and respond to, citizens
  3. A platform that could simultaneously “house” all of the citizens, and sustainably provide the online services they required
  4. A mechanism for citizens to interact with each other
  5. A mechanism for grouping said citizens into manageable communities
  6. A system for proposing and enacting regulations
  7. A method to enforce and adjudicate the following of regulations

It’s a much more circumscribed list than any real-life country needs, because most of the citizens physical needs are presumably being met by meatspace governments. I almost added a final bullet about a “fair and equitable society,” but I’m not sure that’s a need so much as a want. Many governments have existed for decades if not centuries while ignoring both fairness and equity.

I’d go so far to say that any online community would eventually need to adopt systems for each one of the above bullets in order to sustain a functional culture. Knock out any one of those and it wouldn’t survive intact. No authority figures? A nice idea, but online Communism doesn’t have any more chance than the offline kind. No way to elect leaders? Good luck providing services, growing, or adjusting to changing circumstances. No enforcement mechanisms for the rules? Say hello to the cyber-community equivalent of YouTube comments.

I gave this a fair amount of thought, and I’m sure I’m still missing a few essential elements (please feel free to add any in the comments). It’s a fun thought experiment to imagine a truly functional online government, except… it’s not an experiment anymore. Facebook has 2.2 billion active monthly users – nearly one-third of everyone on Earth. Active. It’s difficult comprehend the scale of their platform – the number of people using Facebook is bigger than every single country on our planet by a significant amount. So, in essence, whether we like it or not, our virtual government has already been created – and it’s missing major pieces.

Let’s see how Facebook fares relative to the items above:

  • A mechanism for choosing leaders and administrators

Yeah, not so much. Zuckerberg owns a controlling share of the entire company, and a vanishingly small group of appointed (anointed?) humans in California make up the power structure. We certainly didn’t elect them – nor do we have any sway over whether they stay or go. I wouldn’t call this a functional system for choosing leadership.

  • A platform for those leaders to effectively interact with, and respond to, citizens

If we’re talking about the Prophets on High at Facebook HQ, well, good luck ever getting their attention. Don’t even bother calling. But if by “leaders” we mean group admins or managers, there’s a small amount of truth to this – anyone who’s been a part of a functional Facebook group has probably interacted with mods or admins. But unlike any functioning government, the rules of groups aren’t designed for responsive leadership – there are no real strictures placed upon leaders that require them to respond to anyone. And nothing prevents these unconstrained leaders from being perfectly horrible, which they sometimes are. This is a huge threat to group culture and cohesion, which is the definition of the opposite of a well-governed group.

  • A platform that could simultaneously “house” all of the citizens, and sustainably provide the online services they required

Since their revenue depends upon keeping customers serviced, this is one thing they’ve mastered better than almost any other company in history. Here I must digress, because this is one area where I think Facebook truly has made the world better (admittedly my geek-centric world, not the one where the rest of the normies live). Facebook’s need for vast server farms to power their empire requires them to spend enormous amounts on computers and networking equipment, but several years ago they realized they were rich and powerful enough to decide they weren’t going to play ball anymore. So where most companies buy off-the-shelf components from manufacturers like Dell, HP, or Cisco, Facebook’s designed their own hardware. They then went directly to China and hired factories to make this gear – another snub of any number of companies specializing in exactly this work. This is analogous to a steakhouse skipping the farmers market, snubbing the actual farmers, then choosing to run a cattle farm and a slaughterhouse out back. It’s simply not done – or it hasn’t been until now. Not only that, but Facebook has some of the most energy-efficient and sustainable server farms in the world. They’ve even shared their designs with the world via the Open Compute Project, so in theory any company can follow their lead and tell Dell to piss off with their switches and servers. All of this amounts to a totally subversive move that has Big Computing quite nervous. Imagine that: a corporate tech giant openly promoting sustainable, responsible, and anti-corporate practices. It’s a rare example of an area where we should be thanking Facebook and not attacking them – they’ve created a sustainable commons for the cyber-communities. I believe this may be their greatest legacy, in the positive column anyhow.

  • A mechanism for citizens to interact with each other

This is pretty much a definition of the platform. You can debate whether or not it’s productive discourse, but interaction (and the money-making eyeballs that come with it) is not in short supply.

  • A mechanism for grouping said citizens into manageable communities

Pages and groups arguably fulfill this requirement, although it seems to devolve into high-school-like cliques more often than we’d like. Or is that just me getting shut out of your club? C’mon guys, let me in. Guys?

  • A system for proposing and enacting regulations

A resounding “no” on this one! Nobody at Facebook makes the rules except the chosen ones at Menlo Park. There is no democracy here, and that’s a big, big problem. Even groups and pages don’t have ways of imposing rules on their members, and are therefore deprived of some powerful tools for shaping community culture.

  • A method to enforce and adjudicate the following of regulations

Ever tried to log a complaint or flag content for Facebook? Did you feel heard? I thought not. Zuckerberg himself acknowledges in the podcast that the lack of an appeals process within the platform is a huge problem. Again, not a ton of democracy, or really any other form of representative society, at work here.

I realize that I didn’t even address privacy at all in the above paragraphs, which is an interesting omission both culturally and psychologically. (My next post will in fact be about the steps I’ve taken to protect my own Facebook privacy.) I think this is a reflection of my innate American-ness – a European writer would have included privacy in her/his list of essential governmental elements, but here in America we seem not to care. Until we do.

My long-winded point is this: Facebook has created the equivalent of not just one but several online governments without anywhere near the level of governance required to sustain it. The platform is, to put it bluntly, catastrophically unmanageable. It’s orders of magnitude larger than anything that can possibly be contained. Let’s face it, up until recently they’ve had little reason to want to manage anything – the unimpeded eyeballs of 2.2 billion people have made them oceans of cash. And in the immortal words of Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

There’s been a lot of talk about Facebook possibly needing regulation, and just minutes into this podcast that was my “aha!” moment. There should be no “possibly” about this – Facebook should be regulated. Just like banks and energy and cars and our water supply (and, someday, guns). Because when things go wrong on Facebook, countries fail. Elections are compromised. People die. No one company, in Menlo Park or anywhere else, is capable of shouldering that kind of responsibility, and we shouldn’t allow it. Facebook is an agency of governing, and thus should fall under the aegis of government. Heavily.


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