Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Platform wars?

Over on Facebook, Jason Antrosio mused about ... getting off of Facebook, in light of the way the platform let Cambridge Analytica misuse their data, and their response since, which has been the opposite of reassuring.

I wondered about an alternative platform (for convenience, let’s call it Platform 9-3/4), which had similar capabilities as far as the methods it provided for sharing information—though of course pretty much by definition it would lack Facebook’s dominant position where “everybody” is on the same site.

If a bunch of people moved to this new site, it seems to me that you could end up with a bifurcated population.

Platform 9-3/4 would end up with a relatively large following among people who don’t like Facebook’s role in bringing about the current mess.

But absent that motivation, people wouldn’t have a good reason to move away from the dominant player to the upstart, so Facebook would hold onto people who:
  • Like Trump
  • Don’t have particular opinions on the man one way or another (I don’t really understand how that’s possible, but I hear it’s a thing)
  • Maybe don’t like Trump, but don’t see the connection to Facebook as being all that important
Jason responded, “If all the ‘good guys’ leave, only the ‘bad guys’ will be left. It’s not quite an ‘only a good guy with a gun’ argument, but close.”

This comparison to gun-control argument and the “good guy with a gun” trope brings out two aspects of the proposed migration, while a third point comes from the observation that only the “bad guys” will be left.

First, the analog to the “good guy with a gun” argument would be: We don’t need to regulate or break up Facebook. Rather, we need a “good” Facebook to compete with it and thereby stop it from doing its damage.

The point about only “bad guys” being left brings to mind the trope, “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.” If people who care about reality-based discourse leave Facebook, then Facebook will still exist, but it will be a collection of harmless family photos, mixed in with deranged political content unleavened by rational pushback.

The further consequence of migrating away from Facebook would be that it would reinforce the extent to which we already live in information bubbles.

I don’t watch FOX nor visit Breitbart, InfoWars, etc., but there’s a good chance that I know the main themes covered over there just by reading comment threads on New York Times or CBC articles. Consider the logical pretzels and assertions of verifiable falsehoods, or broad statements like, “Trump has accomplished more in his first year than any president ever in the whole term.”

I can’t bring myself to believe that people are stupid enough to come up with that material on their own, so it follows that they must be getting it somewhere, and my occasional forays into right-wing media suggest that they are indeed the source, at least for some of it.

If I get off of Facebook, then that set of ... well, let’s call them “ideas” will become less visible to me, and that invisibility may be dangerous.

Let’s go back to the idea of migration away from Facebook as an alternative to regulating it, and how that would affect what was left on the old site.

Yes, if there’s a migration to Platform 9-3/4, there’s a danger of Facebook ripening into an even more toxic brew.

But I’m more optimistic about the possible outcome, because of the possible economic effects of the outmigration.

Assume that Facebook isn’t actively trying to undermine democracy, but is simply interested in maximizing profits, and their path toward higher profits just happens to go by way of dangerous poisoning of our mediasphere.

My sense is that Facebook’s success depends not merely on being open to letting their users’ data be misused, but also on being the de facto universal platform. Then it becomes a question of which option is more attractive to them:
  • Being a responsible universal platform
  • Being an irresponsible platform that is only 2/3 universal. Universality is a uniquely attractive attribute for users willing to pay in order to reach people, so if Facebook loses even a third of its users, it may lose more than a third of its ad revenue.
One obvious counterargument is that, though Platform 9-3/4 may start off benevolent, the natural pressure for profits will still drive it in the direction of the same shenanigans that Facebook ended up engaging in. The conclusion is that the only solution that really gets at the problem is some sort of regulation, more or less as a public utility.

That may be true, but even if it is, an outmigration would be useful, because it would weaken Facebook, making regulation more possible.

In the meantime, Jason is talking about staying on Facebook but:
  • Only post links to things that take you off Facebook
  • Don’t inhabit comment streams
  • Don’t link to FB-hosted events.
Those seem like good ideas.



  1. Wow, thanks!

    I think I would only add to your beginning bit that there may be a lot more people wanting to migrate away from Facebook not just based on Trump but on the overall data-selling and data-security issues, as well as other campaigns like Brexit.

    There does seem to be a significant out-migration in terms of a company executive and the share price. I've also heard that user time is down as well. These things may prompt Facebook to get more serious about its response and decide what kind of company it wants to be.

    Hm, kind of like how people say that we need to do our Middle States accreditation before "the Government" does it? (Although would that really be so much worse? Veering off topic here...)

  2. Reminds me of the Borg: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated!" By virtue of using computers for anything, we are already all connected in the Borg collective. As such we are vulnerable to toxic memes which (as we have all seen) can spread wicked fast. The collective could therefore potentially be destroyed by one of these infectious "bugs". Maybe on the brink now. I have also (briefly) considered extracting myself, but what's the point? The problem is, extracting ourselves also isolates you from important information (e.g. Fulbright uses FB a lot, not to mention my entire family and many of my colleagues, former students of mine, and I get reminded of blogs like this one, etc. etc. etc. ). It is also an important source of entertainment, like TV used to be. The difference is it is more of a "social glue", which has its attractive aspects. When I sit back and think about it, it sometimes seems like we are whitewater canoeing, in waters that are both exciting and potentially dangerous. Whatever similar metaphore or analogy you want to use, I prefer to think that we are capable of adapting, even if (or even especially if) it is a predator/prey situation. Or maybe symbiosis is a better term (which includes mutualism as well as parasitism). I think as we find out more about how it all works, we are becoming more cautious, and also more skilled, even if it is not feasible to actually outsmart it. I therefore think walking away is pointless.

    1. I lean toward the biological metaphors in this. We're like neurons in a giant brain, and social media is changing both the wiring that connects us and the chemical bath in which we sit.

      Fun times, to be sure.

  3. I suspect the proposed 1/3 migration may be wildly optimistic. Many demographics (like, say, whitewater canoeists) use Facebook not only to network & stay connected, but to plan events (both major events & day-to-day stuff), facilitate training and mentoring, track and disseminate safety information, buy & sell tools/gear, recruit new members to the community, etc.: it HAS become an essential communication utility of our time. It's near universality is key to it's effectiveness as a platform, and it's that effectiveness that is going to make it hard to draw people away from it.

    1. Yeah, I imagine you're right that the outmigration wouldn't be that large. I've seen many people arguing along similar lines as you are, ranging from hobbies and leisure activities, through keeping in touch with wide-ranging circles of friends, through political organizing on behalf of the very things that are threatened by the folks who hired Cambridge Analytica.

      By achieving near-universality, Facebook has made itself irreplaceable.

      But by that same token, it has made the strongest possible argument for having itself regulated, as Jason Antrosio has been advocating.