Facebook was launched a dozen years ago as a place for Ivy League college students to connect online and answer burning collegiate questions like “Who’s hot and who’s not?” But even before they made a movie about it, Facebook had gone from being an online distraction only potentially more interesting than World of Warcraft into something between a broadcast network and a public utility.
Perhaps this is why, when charges were made that Facebook had been taking down posts and banning users for expressing political opinions that didn’t expressly violate their much-vaunted “community standards,” conservatives claimed that they were being censored. The way they saw it, Facebook was showing their intentions as openly as the newspapers, magazines and TV news programs whose liberal bias had set the tone for mainstream culture for at least a generation.
If it’s true – and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t – the implications are considerable. In a recent piece on the “social journalism” website medium.com, journalist and former Liberal party speechwriter Colin Horgan talked about how social media like Facebook have increasingly become the place where many of us are getting our news, away from newspapers and before we take the initiative of a Google search.
Horgan points to a job posting on Facebook, seeking a reporter to join the site’s Facebook Stories project. It’s pretty much a boilerplate description of any desk reporter’s job, and a sign that Facebook is making small but significant moves away from inserting news stories in between your friends’ cat pictures and re-tweeted memes and into the production of news content of its own.
Facebook has a long way to go before it starts reaping the sort of online advertising dollars that Google earns, Horgan notes, but with its far more efficient means of data mining from its users, it stands a very good chance of catching up very soon. He also describes the opening skirmishes between Google and Apple over ad dollars, and how Facebook and Apple could become unwitting allies in their war for online market share with the search engine colossus.
It’s worth recalling how quickly Facebook has evolved from its early days. Enemies of the site like to claim that its days are numbered, as the young people who helped it grow in its early days have largely abandoned it in favour of social media that feels more exclusive and direct, like Snapchat and Instagram. A site that only a young person’s friends and their friends knew about is now the sort of place where your parents share your prom pictures, your grandmother “likes” your reposting of a Huffington Post article, and your uncle argues about old Styx records on a forum for collectors of vintage tube stereo equipment.
Which makes predictions of its demise a little premature – if any single social media outlet is a model of growing its audience into near-ubiquity, Facebook is the model. You might profess to hate it and make non-membership a badge of your rugged individualism, but it claims some 1.23 billion regular users (as of 2014) and a host of competitors that would love to become as uncool as Facebook has become.
It’s hard to imagine a corporate entity this size unable to resist the urge to exercise control over its “product” – the posts that its clients create and presume they own (section two of Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”: “You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook…”) but which remain on the site under conditions set by Facebook (section five of Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”: “We can remove any content that you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement or our policies.”)
I won’t hazard a guess as to how many lawyers Facebook retains as legal counsel, but I’d venture they might be behind recent news that the site rejected a photo of a plus-sized model wearing a bikini posted by Cherchez la Femme, an Australian feminist group, for violating their “Health and Fitness Policy.”
“The image depicts a body or body parts in an undesirable manner,” read a helpful letter written by “Jenny” from Facebook’s Ads Team. “Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable.” Which allows for an awful lot of leeway for official disapproval, any way you read it.
Huge companies once boasted of their paternalistic policies, setting moral standards for their workers and even building model towns for them to live in, presuming that an employee living within what they presumed to be self-evident moral, social and hygienic standards would be more efficient and, when union organizers came lurking, beholden to their employers. It didn’t work out that way, so perhaps one day we’ll look at the efforts of social networks to coerce their customers into better versions of themselves as yet another rear-guard bulwark against real liberty.
In any case, I found the protests of conservatives against Facebook’s targeting of their opinions to be undignified and even confused. Facebook is, after all, a private company and allowed to exercise its preferences however it wishes within legal limits, and anyone using the word “censorship” outside of the official actions of government doesn’t really understand what the word means.
Given the political tendencies of tech companies, their owners, and employees, I’d always assumed that Facebook would favor this sort of ideological policing in some form. The reasonable response is to log onto Facebook the way I walk into an evening spent with old friends or family – to be sure you’re going to offend somebody if you’re not careful with what you say, and to decide how much you care if you’re never invited back.
The alternative, of course, is for someone to start their own, conservative Facebook. The challenge is trying to get investors for a social media network that will never hope to attract more than half of its possible audience, at best. The internet is littered with the ghost towns of failed social media; a dormant MySpace page marks a certain vintage of internet user, and does anyone remember Ello, Ning, or Path?
Personally, as much as I might cringe at what friends post on Facebook (and hit the “unfollow” button more than I’d like to) I still think there’s something unhealthy about an echo chamber, and can only imagine how tedious a right-wing Facebook might be – until the inevitable internecine squabbles break out. Isn’t it better to provide constant, uncomfortable reminders to your friends on Facebook (and the thousands of FB employees squinting at their terminals in the company’s offices all over the world) that a healthy society is rampant with heterodoxy? Personally, I thrill to the idea that I might be the sand in someone’s ointment, and if the day comes when some disapproving Jenny decides to suspend my account, I’ll just go out and try to annoy my friends and family in real life.