Response To (Marginal Revolution): Counterfactuals about Social Media

See also: Against FacebookAgainst Facebook: Comparison to Alternatives and Call to Action

The idea that the primary problem with such programs is ‘they make political fights weird’ or that ‘they enable censorship’ is to miss the bigger problem. Social media is ruining our lives. Directly.

They also degenerate our politics. That’s mostly a side effect.

Social media succeeds largely because of network effects. One uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or the others mostly because others you want to interact with are using them.

Many people know social media to be terrible for them and for their lives. Many people know Facebook is terrible, in particular (whether or not the photo-based Snapchat and Instagram, which my circles never used, are even worse, as I suspect they are). Many of those would love a better alternative.

But coordination is hard. By the time many people figured this out, it was too late.

Shifting the equilibrium by force is a reasonable response.

Even if it wasn’t too late, it’s not clear many or even a majority of people knowing it is a trap are enough to stop the trap. If Facebook is where the discussions are, and Facebook is where your friends are, that is where you will be unless you are willing to pay a heavy price. The default outcome is for Facebook to continue optimizing for its usage and revenue in ways that make our lives worse, until most people are worse off than without social media and know it, but think they are better off than if everyone else was on social media without them.

I did manage to get a bunch of my friends and readers off of Facebook, such that the equilibrium shifted to a better one. It can be done. But it is damn hard.

These companies also are engaging in a bunch of profit-maximizing and power-maximizing actions, like not letting users have control over what they see, that force users to learn to do what Facebook wants and be who Facebook wants them to be, addicts constantly producing free content. All communication between friends becomes optimized to reinforce the platform. The system rewards and shows all communication based on its anticipated reinforcement of user addictive behavior. This declares war for coalition politics and playing popularity and social games, and war against truth or any attempt to accurately map or model the world. 

And yes, at some point (if they haven’t already) they will increasingly inevitably use that power more explicitly. To favor people and ideas and information they like over others they don’t. In ways far less nice than censoring ‘hate groups’ and ‘obscenity.’ To directly guide us and tell us what to think.

I don’t know what ‘censorship’ means in a world where a self-reinforcing algorithm determines whether or not anyone sees your post, ever, if it doesn’t mean what we already have.

Unless it is the distinction between ‘no one sees your post’ and ‘no one sees your post and the system punishes you for posting it, and we’re not just talking about making all your posts less visible.’ Which is, for now, an important difference, but less important and less sharp than one might think.

Where everyone is forced to look at a constant stream of low-bandwidth clay tablets chosen by a company with a profit motive, because the only way anyone sees anything is to look at the clay tablets, and we have the technology to use pen and paper and address letters, but you can’t because no one checks their mailbox, then yes you should go after the companies making the clay tablets. You definitely should not ‘equip yourself to win the hearts and minds of the people using the tactics of clay tablets.’

What we should infer about the intellectual vigor of a society that does so is that they recognize that the organizational forms of information matter and are worth fighting for.

What we should infer about the intellectual vigor of a society that chooses instead to fight with clay tablets is that they care about winning hearts and minds. Good. But they do not look at the big picture, and they can’t coordinate.

Suppose television was as bad as its earlier critics said it was. That it rots brains, turns people passive, eats their lives, makes them less happy over time. This does not seem like an unlikely hypothesis. Do you like it when you see your kids watching? Should we have done something about it when we had the chance? Were the regulations we did put on it, to require actions in the public service and prevent obscene and inappropriate content, bad for the people? Should we have just let whoever first thought to run stations run wild? Should we have done far more?

Do past examples show that such technologies can’t be improved, in their impact on us, by smart intervention? That we shouldn’t try?

So, what is to be done?

You, yes you, should abandon Facebook and its ilk to the extent feasible in your life. Encourage others to do the same and provide real incentives and reasons. Be willing to pay a real price for all this. See my previous articles on the subject.

But what is to be done as a society? With our collective action and enforcement mechanisms?

At a minimum, we should require that users have full control over the form with which they interact with major social media platforms.

They should be required to use open protocols that allow third parties to see all information the user has access to. Organize it in the way the user wants. Combine it with information from other sources and platforms. Sort and present it in chronological order, threaded order, specified priority order, a chosen machine learning algorithm with goals the user shares, or anything else the user desires. It must also allow users to post back to the platforms, including comments and reactions and everything else one can in theory do on a platform. It must be impossible for others to know which one you are using.

People could try RSS feeds, emails, email digests, custom apps and websites and programs. They could be as exact or as broad as desired. Over very little time, many free, open and very good alternatives would arise. So would a few paid ones, up to and including ‘have someone else whose job it is to read all this and curate it for me and their other clients.’

We should also ban especially vicious brain-hacking techniques like the ‘snap streak’ that reward periodic repetition of behavior to build habits. Anything that makes people feel like they have to log in constantly.

Tumblr’s requirement that each comment quote the entire post, the impossibility of reasonable sorting, and its relative ease of using photographs and videos versus text, lead to one type of social group and interaction. Facebook’s system does a second. Twitter’s does a third. Blogging does a fourth, Instagram a fifth, email a sixth, and so on. All are very different from each other. The details of the platform we use to communicate have profound impacts on how we talk, how our social groups function and how our lives work. We have a choice. We need to care, and choose wisely, how we put ‘all our ideas out there.’ 

Social media lives on network effects. Thus, we can impose rules on it. Hopefully we use that power to make the services compatible with life, and not for censorship. So far, it seems we only use that power for censorship.

The counterargument is that between different requirements, rules and jurisdictions, all we would do is impose increasingly onerous and contradictory requirements (see European privacy regulation) that would keep out challengers and reinforce the current monopoly. That’s what regulation does by default. So we should keep a light touch as much as possible, if only to discourage other actions in the future.

What would happen if we outright banned Facebook and other major incumbents?

My guess is social disruption on the order of a week, net improvement on the order of months as groups use more healthy mechanisms and the successor states are forced to fight for users.

If all we did was clear out current incumbents, we probably end up back where we started as clones rise up as the natural coordination points. People want what they’re comfortable with, so Facebook clones fight to be the new Facebook, Snapchat/Instagram clones fight to be the new that, and so on. We already see some of that with Tumblr. There would still be shifts towards healthier platforms, such as blogs and email, that survived the purge, and those effects would persist long term.

If we alter what is permitted in ways that effectively ban similar replacements, there will be an innovation race to find what is still allowed. In the meantime, the things that survived – presumably email, blogs, message boards and RSS, at a minimum – would have a window to regain coordination power and have the edge of being refined versions. People’s lives would be destroyed much less.

I don’t see how the threat of censorship gets worse by taking out the people doing the censorship.

I do think that we mostly can shut them down, and we might. Social media lives on network effects. It can’t do its job underground. Depending on what exactly we ban, and what we allow, it could be a great boon. But it would come at the cost of the precedent, the growth in government power and the resulting decay of our basic freedoms. Let us stay as much a nation of laws, not men, as we can.

There’s also risk that we end up doing what most regulations actually do, which is favor those with money and power and the ear of the legislature, and we end up even more captured by monopoly. That the law tries to dictate what comes next, imposes a bunch of terrible rules, and everything gets far worse. I don’t want to make the mistake of asking for something to be done, and accepting the something that emerges, merely because I saw a something worth doing.

So I’m not there yet. But I understand. Oh boy, do I understand.

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23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:30 PM

When you wrote "Against Facebook" a couple years ago, I had the same reaction as some of the other commenters here - that yes, Facebook was terrible, but I used it more responsibly than other people, and I had really thought it through and was getting the valuable things out of it while avoiding most (though not all) of the drawbacks.

But I left Facebook (and Tumblr) last November, and now reading this post I was like, "hell yeah, of course." I don't ever feel a desire to check Facebook - last week it sneakily logged me back in without me knowing, and I couldn't deactivate again fast enough. I had a bunch of notifications but even the thought of checking them felt disgusting.

I thought Facebook was helping me keep in touch with friends, but before leaving I made sure I shared my other contact information with anyone who asked for it, and this seems like it's solved the problem. I may not know what's going on with everyone I've ever known at every moment, but I know that I could find out if I really wanted to, by texting them or emailing them or sending them a letter. Plus, this strategy meant that one of my friends from high school, who I haven't talked to in years, sent me a postcard from all the way in Japan! That gave me more warm fuzzies than a full year of Facebook use. Since leaving social media I also spend more time with my housemates and higher-quality time with my boyfriend, so I feel that it's helped my social relationships in general, even if I have fewer now.

(One caveat is that I live in a group house, which means that if there's an event that I might want to go to or something important happens in our social circles, I'm likely to find out about it even though I don't have Facebook, because my housemates do have Facebook. So this feels kind of like cheating.)

I'm more conflicted about the use of Facebook for things other than casual socializing. On the LW/SSC meetups survey I ran, I asked a question about how people would want to communicate with people from other meetup groups, and a clear majority of respondents wanted to use a Facebook group. I really don't want to go back to using Facebook (which I'd have to if I wanted to admin the group), but I do sort of agree that Facebook groups are the best currently-existing tool for the sort of thing we want to do.

I also used to have a feeling that Facebook was really the only place to go to ask for things like borrowing items or finding volunteers for events. That's somewhat less true for me since people in my neighborhood coordinate over Slack and Discord, but I do think there's a lot of value in being able to broadcast requests to hundreds of people at once.

tl;dr I personally hate Facebook but am not sure about the feasibility of replacing it. Not a very unique position, I know.

Would you mind being more specific about what you find lacking in other tools?

Your post is heavy on shouldness, and light on how to change things you personally don't like (a lot of people clearly love social media, and, as you said, find their niche, or ten). What alarms me is that you are trying to tell other people how to live their lives, always a huge red flag. If you think you can do better than facebook in meeting and especially shaping people's needs, then figure out a way to create a platform that can compete. Extra regulations, beyond basic privacy controls already in place, just not really enforced, are also a dangerous idea, again, as you point out.

Let us stay as much a nation of laws, not men, as we can.

This sounds quite US-centric. Maybe a patchwork of nations, groups and subcultures.

In general, your post comes across to me as radicalist, trying to ignore the Chesterton fence without understanding why they keep appearing.

The question of whether regulating social media is a good idea (and if so, how) is a tricky one, and I don’t know that I have a sufficiently informed opinion on that. But on the question of what to do individually, Zvi is entirely correct.

I do not use Facebook. I do not use Tumblr. I do not use Twitter. I do not use Instagram, Pinterest, or Snapchat.

My life is visibly better for it than that of everyone I know who does use these things.

I encourage everyone who reads this to abandon these platforms. Whatever they give you can be had elsewhere—and without paying such a terrible price.

I use FB occasionally to stay in touch with family/friends.

I subscribe to interesting people on Twitter and find it a great source of intellectual information.

I know these are harmful to some people, and I've occasionally noticed addictive behavior in myself, but overall seems like a good trade. If someone wants to explain/convince me that this is highly dangerous to me in a non-obvious way or that **my kind** of usage is endangering the commons I'm open to hear it.

Your kind of usage contributes to the popularity of the social networks—the “network effects” that give them the attractiveness and power that Zvi describes. The more that people like you do what you describe, the more incentive other people have to use Facebook and Twitter, and thus the more power Facebook and Twitter have—and what they do with that power is, as we see, quite bad.

You are, indeed, endangering the commons, because you are deriving personal benefit from it, in exchange for giving power to the companies whose entire business model is building a giant pyre on which to burn that commons—and our society along with it.

I get that my usage hurts indirectly, my question was specifically if everyone used FB occasionally and for similar purposes as I do, would FB still be detrimental? Harming other people because they have unhealthy patterns of usage is still a concern but a lesser one to me

I think part of the question is:

1. Do you produce/distribute content via those sites?

2. What are they for? Are you killing off alternatives/not developing things in that vein yourself? Because you use them?

If someone wants to explain/convince me that this is highly dangerous to me in a non-obvious way or that **my kind** of usage is endangering the commons I'm open to hear it.

Perhaps: Facebook uses what it gains from you (money from ads?) to fight their 'better alternatives' (BA), such as via government lobbying, as well as via the normal channels (you're using them instead of their competitors (this has the clear side effect that FB is more DOS resistant than BAs).

Sub-questions that I'd like to answer:

1. What value am I actually getting out of social media, and is that value good?

Keeping in Touch With Friends

I have a perception, similar to Dr_Manhattan, that I am actually using facebook for a fairly reasonable thing (that it seems to actually aspire to be good at) which is keeping in touch with friends, in a way that most other platforms do not enable.

I can imagine this turning out to either:

  • Not be true – it's simply an illusion that the thing I'm doing is "keeping in touch with friends", and I'd be much better off if I just "actually kept in touch with friends" using some other process.
  • True, but a much weaker version of the thing than it should be – Maybe facebook actually helps me keep in touch with friends, but naturally forces it into a milquetoast version itself. Maybe I'd be better off if I had a small number of friends that I was closer to, and didn't even pretend to keep in touch with the others. Maybe I could keep loose connections going more easily if facebook didn't have a few behaviors that actively sabotaged it.

(both of the above are separate from what other costs FB might be imposing)

Marketing Products and Ideas

FB enables certain kinds of grassroots marketing that's hard to do otherwise. I've most-obviously used this to promote the Secular Solstice. I also sometimes use it to recommend products that actually served me well that I want to reward.

I have a sense that this is actually good when done at small scales, encouraging entrepreneurship that generates new valuable things for the world. And meanwhile people have a fair degree of control over whether to subscribe to a given person's self-promotion, so there's incentives for the promotion to be actually useful. (Insofar as people don't have that control it's because FB is separately manipulating people with skinner box tech)

I have a sense that this is bad, when it reaches certain thresholds of commercial-ness, or simplified-for-the-masses-ness (which I think my solstice promotion has sometimes reached), where the tails come apart.

There's a similar thing for the marketing of ideas, where there's a low-barrier-to-entry way to share your thoughts and have it naturally scale. At low doses this is good and fruitful. But supercharged with goodhart's law it turns into bad political memes.

I'm less confident that these things are net good. And, if I'm correct that they are good at low doses but bad at high-volume, less confident that there's a principled way to fix that.

What are the current alternatives? How hard is it to build a real alternative?

Assuming there is value to social media that isn't an illusion and is net-positive....

First, are there actual alternatives that do all the things well? (I don't know, feel free to pitch me on a thing I'd want to coordinate to move my friends and my family to that already exists. Zvi, insofar as you've gotten people to leave facebook, where did they go?)

The Ferrett recently wrote a post on how commercial social media wants lots of users, which intrinsically pushes against the ability to make choices to maintain high quality.

Could a nonprofit funded by people with good-judgment be incentivized to make a "good" social media platform? I have a sense that this would be challenging but mostly a matter of executing well on the obvious things, and would be a good project for someone in the rationalsphere to just do. (I'd default expect it to fail for the generic competition-is-hard-reasons, but given the right founder I could imagine it having enough chance of working to be worth it)

The easiest way for friendships to build is out of repeated low stakes interaction. The more atomized society gets, the less those happen naturally. Jumping from "hey I met you at a party" to "let's eat 1:1" is hard, and puts pressure on the 1:1 interaction. I've found facebook and blogs to be good ways to bridge that gap.

Things I like about facebook, beyond what you and elizabeth have mentioned:

  • Makes my day more fun by showing me amusing things.
  • Shows me interesting discussions that I can join in a low-stakes way, and yet the discussions still go places.
  • Introduces me to people I don't know via those interesting discussions, making it a bit easier to get to know them in real life.
  • Helps people around me run events that I'm invited to.
  • Helps me get answers to quick questions I have.
  • Shows me aspects of friends' lives that I wouldn't otherwise be aware of.
  • Lets me poll my friends about topics of interest.
  • Created a centralised messaging system that ~everybody uses.

One interesting sub-problem – I think FB does a good job of keeping in touch with most friends. It does an actively bad job of me keeping in touch with my parents and some relatives, because most of what they post is political memes, so I unsubscribed from them.

Eventually my family made a messenger group including my parents, sister, and maternal grandparents, which works OK for this.

Here's a radical solution: we could try outlawing or taxing away most kinds of profit-making on the internet, except for online stores (with clear criteria on what counts as a store). That could deal with most "attention economy" websites that profit from making users spend more time online, compete with each other on popularity, etc.

Is the idea here that the internet becomes a place only for people who are intrinsically motivated to do whatever they're doing?

I could imagine this turning out to be a good outcome but it seems politically like a non-starter.

Is the idea here that the internet becomes a place only for people who are intrinsically motivated to do whatever they’re doing?

No, why? I think it's fine if people waste time online. The harm from that is self-limiting, as long as there are no companies trying to escalate, manipulate & profit from that harm.

No, why? I think it's fine if people waste time online.

Huh, I didn't mean for "wasting time online" to be a key element in my sentence.

(I think I'm about as confused about the inference you made in your comment about my comment about your comment as you were about mine)

It seemed like a natural consequence that if you remove financial motivators from the attention economy, most of what you're left with is people using the internet to either do things that they personally were motivated to do, or are paid to by someone directly motivated to sink money into the system)

(There'd probably be a reorganization of currently attention-economy websites into "store" websites, which I think would be fine. There's a talk transcript somewhere about how there was a window where the internet might have been built around microtransactions and then for some reason wasn't, which would have enabled a very different incentive landscape)

Ah I see, I misread your comment. Yeah, if my plan were implemented, people wouldn't be able to make a living on youtube. But that seems like a small effect, because very few people make a living on youtube.

Would you get most of the benefit from this if you were able to ban advertising specifically? (not sure if you can easily do it that easily, people can probably do various under-the-table things to trade advertisements, and selling user data for advertisements offline might be an issue.)

Patreon-style funding schemes seem more likely to be sane-in-the-limit to me.

Yeah, that'd probably work.

I’ve stopped using Facebook since December of 2018. I currently have no desire to go back to it. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything either. After being off it for two months or so I went and checked all my notifications. There wasn’t a single post that I felt like “wow, I can’t believe I almost missed this.” (I still use Messenger and FB events.)

Most of things I'd expect to miss wouldn't be in the form of notifications, but in terms of posts I hadn't read, and potentially friends that I lost touch with.

Seems to me you're on about treating (or more to the point, dreaming about treating) the cure rather than the symptoms that make people vulnerable to the social network sink in the first place. The same fundamental weakness probably has a lot of other failure modes.