Facebook doesn’t have to be the platform that shapes our digital lives

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Don’t tell anyone that Mark Zuckerberg is electric surfing. This was the Facebook CEO’s response to a New York Times article this week that claimed the company had started a project to bolster its own image by posting positive stories about itself in user newsfeeds. Zuckerberg glossed over the report himself to claim that he was, in fact, pumping this hydrofoil with his own legs.

If you think this sounds like a flippant response to a serious accusation, you are right. The Times story by Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel detailed something called “Project Amplify” – a program within Facebook, signed by Zuckerberg, to promote stories by both Facebook and the media that revamped the image. of the company. It’s a limited test, and the stories are marked as promoted by Facebook.

It is therefore in a sense less harmful than it appears. Businesses try to polish their own image through messaging all the time; Facebook was just running what is called a branding campaign.

But on the other hand, it’s troubling for what it reports and for the company’s reaction. Despite making billions of dollars and having what is perhaps the largest customer base in human history, Facebook is clearly tired of the completely legitimate reviews it has received. over the past few years and decided to push back, and, in a small but significant way, using the power of its own platform to do so.

It’s worrying for one obvious reason: Facebook is by far the largest social media platform in the world, and if there was any doubt it couldn’t live up to being a place. neutral “or somehow objective, this already dubious ideal is now finally dead.

Yet the other is Facebook’s decision not to just react to criticism, but to disarm it. The Times article also explained how the company has also started limiting access to research tools that can help academics and others understand what’s going on on the platform. One of the reasons for the change? Facebook was angry that a tool called CrowdTangle had been used to point out that far-right figures like Ben Shapiro were extremely popular on the platform.

So you have enormous wealth, massive influence, and a growing lack of transparency. It’s a dystopian combination worthy of a wicked and evil foe in a sci-fi movie.

This is perhaps one more reason to resist Facebook, and not just at the level of the individual consumer.

Some tend to argue that social media or the web is something good, honest people should just ignore or avoid. Like bad reality TV or junk food, those in the know better should never have an Instagram account.

This is a deeply flawed view. Just as print has taken knowledge and communication from our mouths and put it on paper, with all of its aftereffects, social media takes human interaction and places it in a network and on screens.

It is a profound change and comparable to the rise of the printing press in terms of its capacity for historical transformation.

But if that’s true (and it is), which companies are dominating social media and how becomes a busy cultural competition – or, if you want a sci-fi movie phrase, a fight for the future.

Author Joanne McNeil, whose 2020 book “Lurking” was a personal history of the Internet, compares our perception of giant technology platforms to climate change. Just as some argue that climate change will bring the end of human civilization and that there is no point in trying to fight it, according to McNeil, those who accept the inevitability of technology platforms are guilty of equally pessimism. nihilistic.

But maybe there are reasons not only to lament or criticize Facebook et al, but to think, argue and work on the idea that there may be alternatives. Rather than an extremely powerful social media company that dominates much of the global internet experience, perhaps, according to McNeil, we can refuse to accept the inevitability of platforms and move on to something better.

How to switch from one to the other is not easy. Just as tackling climate change requires huge changes in infrastructure, housing, energy and more, finding a better way to build and shape our digital lives will require a combination of state intervention, business innovation and social change.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor, however. As Mark Zuckerberg sarcastically posts about surfboards and the dreams of everyone wearing Facebook-branded smart glasses, the world’s information landscape continues to be a mess. Don’t give in to the feeling that Facebook is inevitable. It only becomes so when we start to believe that there is no other better way.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance tech columnist for The Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang

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