The more I read and think about Facebook, the more I am convinced that it is deeply terrible for the world—and, as a corollary that few people accept, the more obvious it is to me that Facebook should no longer exist. So I am calling on Mark Zuckerberg to do the right thing: shut Facebook down.
We are in a season of Facebook criticism, and rightfully so. It is a season that should not end and should have started long ago. The company’s negligence surrounding the 2016 election is well-documented and their response is soaked in complacent naivety.
From an economic perspective, this is understandable since Facebook has no reason to make serious changes. Their place in the market is incredibly secure. So the standard ways of pushing for change are unavailable.
For instance, what about competition? It is difficult to fathom all that a competitor would need to do to be viable. Facebook’s advertising power is light years ahead. And if a company were to gain some steam in the market, Facebook would purchase it. We are all users because everyone else is (what economists call a “network effect”). As fellow vimmer Dylan has argued, we are facing a social media version of the prisoner’s dilemma: it would be better if we all left, but if only I leave, I am disadvantaged. This is part of the reason why the decision should be made from the top.
What about oversight? The government could force changes, but there is little momentum on that front. It is difficult to see what the changes would be anyway. There are some ideas, but they are either cosmetic or in the drawing board stage. Most importantly, since politics happens on Facebook, if Facebook doesn’t like the proposals, it has the power to exert serious pressure. Its treatment of the Senate judiciary committee showed just how unconcerned Facebook is about government regulation. Even if Congress were to pass something, the rate of technological development would render the law obsolete quite quickly. We are simply forced to rely on the benevolence of our internet potentates. Thus far the benevolence has, by all appearances, merely been a calculated public relations facade. My idea is that the company should take benevolence more seriously.
I’m not concerned with doing a utilitarian calculation. The harms of Facebook easily outweigh the benefits. So far the only benefit that has mattered is the money in the pockets of Facebook’s shareholders. Setting aside the profit imperative, the dominance of Facebook makes pointing out the harms an exercise in futility. Facebook, if it chooses, is here to stay, in whatever form it wants. Since we the users don’t want to appear as hopeless pessimists or silly luddites, we want to resist the conclusion that the platform is seriously and fundamentally harming society. When Facebook says that they’re ‘bringing the world closer together’ or ‘giving people voices’, we desperately want to believe them, because then our membership becomes not only acceptable but laudable. We project our own utopian visions onto their vague cliches. Facebook wants us to believe them so that we expend more attention on the site. But now that we’re addicted, what they say and do doesn’t really matter.
I would want to proclaim that we cannot afford to delude ourselves anymore. But I suspect that most people sense the problems the company has caused. People also don’t particularly enjoy the website. It is the epitome of internet empty calories. One way to achieve my goal is for everyone to abandon the platform. That certainly will not happen.
So I want to shift tactics. Instead, why not appeal to Facebook’s expressed interests as a company: the good of communities, bettering the world, strengthening relationships? What do these ideals tell us? What actions do they prescribe? The answer is simple: Facebook should see that the most natural conclusion of their goals is to shut down the website.
Why? People’s lives would improve. They would not be as depressed and distracted. They would have one less outlet for wasting their time. They would no longer be misleading their online friends with curated versions of themselves. There would be less fake news. People would have to seek out news intentionally.
Removing the site from the internet would, at best, make the world a much better place or, at worst, shift the problems to other sections of the internet. If the worst is the case, we can fight those battles, but at least Facebook will not be (as) culpable. The company can stand with us in our quest to improve the internet. Their action would be a powerful example for others.
What about the practicalities? Facebook could give the world several months or a year notice. It could (quite easily) send each member a file that includes copies of the user’s interactions, pictures, and statuses. Keep in mind that Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp. So the company itself would not need to shut down.
I leave these issues for others to deliberate. But we should take notice of how Facebook and others would respond to my call. Why is Facebook not entertaining this possibility? Shutting down the site would be a massive financial sacrifice (executives would likely be sued by shareholders). Here I think we see the one and only reason why Facebook.com continues to exist. The company is willing to make changes to its platform only if the changes are consistent with making giant piles of money. Plenty of people have realized that the changes Facebook is making will not result in any meaningful or lasting improvement to the problems Facebook has caused. That much is no surprise. They continue to collect everyone’s data and manipulate user’s emotions into powerful addictions. They continue to aid oppressive regimes, intentionally or not. Because it leads to profits.
Facebook wants to make the world a better place. Surely honesty and knowledge about one’s true intentions would be a feature of a better world. So I will reframe my demand. Is Facebook sincere about its amorphous goals? If so, they should shut down the platform. If not, they should stop lying to the world. Adopt a new mission statement: “to profit from selling the data of our users at the expense of their psychological health and global political stability.”