The emerging Facebook dilemma: Global public good vs. commercialisation and rorts

Is the new Facebook policy re: user newsfeeds a sign that Facebook (FB) has rediscovered its original ‘social media’ mission to connect people (and provide an alternative source of information to the top-down, corporate-dominated media agencies)? How did FB apparently ‘lose its way’ with its business model? Why is this so important for the world and not just FB investors?

After Facebook announced a change to its newsfeeds algorithm last week (1), its share price went down more than US$4 Billion (2). This is in large part because of a related backlash to recent efforts to commercialise FB by allowing publishers, ‘brands’ and firms to directly target people (which in any case had not worked so well anyway). The big question here is whether this change also represents a a possibly renewed effort to get back on track to the original mission so often voiced by Mark Zuckerberg – that FB is primarily about connecting people as a tool of global community and communication (e.g. 3) [Is that what MZ really intended by the new direction?]. Thus, this change was promoted (perhaps somewhat disingenuosly) as about re-focusing more on or about the meaningful interaction of family and friends.

However, this all needs to be seen in the larger context of: (a) other FB changes in recent years which have increasingly promoted superficiality, sensationalism and short attention spans rather than thoughtful reflections and sustainable hubs of the community interests or affiliations originally conceived as a central purpose of FB (posts are quickly ‘killed off’ and denied a real forum if not meeting that formula) and (b) the general trend of viewing FB posts and Pages in terms of an emerging business model encouraging people to pay (more and more) to get more views of their posted content – and also the notions that everyone should aim to go ‘viral’ and ‘monetise’ their FB posts and interactions (4). Such an aspiration sounds okay but it is perhaps doomed to largely fail because of how these aspects of the FB algorithm are clearly not really going to change.

In other words, the changes being made are really just more an acknowledgement that (a) the very businesses (e.g. newspapers) and commercial brands being undermined or even sent bankrupt are (not really being able to harness the power of FB ‘marketisation’ enough to offset this (e.g. 5), and (b) Facebook This is exemplified by how FB either fails or to refuse to account for how its algorithm perhaps inevitably provides ‘secret censorship’ as well as more obvious censorship rules such as prohibition of swear words and nudity (6). Also, it has increasingly devalued WORDS and THOUGHT (i.e. reflective thinking, analysis and insight associated with quality communications) and rather focused on (brand vs. identity/’selfie’) images and especially videos. In this way community groups, information services, and pages (like Aussie Watchdogs’ Rort of the Week) which try to encourage thought and action in a changing world of corporate greed and governance deception are perhaps increasingly discouraged by FB (e.g. 7). As an insightful Guardian article observes, the new FB algorithm policy mainly signifies a sell-out of the importance of public content (and relevant information) for what it accurately refers to as the ‘business of trivia’ (8). Perhaps this is exemplified by how the promotion of the present Post you are reading here (originally on our FB page) was denied for breaking FB rules – apparently FB has a rule that posts should not critically focus on and/or refer to FB itself.

FB’s selective view of the kind of more ‘meaningful interaction’ (9) cited to justify the change is further linked to several related concerns that have been growing in recent years. After the last US election and ‘fake news’ abuses of FB by Trump and also the Russians (not to mention uses of FB by terrorists and extremist political views and interests as well as a range of dishonest crooks and scam-artists also) (10), FB has struggled to re-assure the world that it can help sort out the use and abuse of what is obviously the main exemplar of a very powerful and important medium for and revolutionary force in human communications. But at least there seems to be a genuine effort to address such challenges, even if FB is struggling with this (11). A much more difficult challenge that is caught up in the problem of what is the right kind of ‘meaningful interaction’ – which FB should be allowing, encouraging and/or promoting – has actually been raised in the last couple of weeks by an early FB investor (and MZ ‘mentor) Roger McNamee (12). Encouraged by a related challenge to Apple by a couple of its key investors (13), McNamee warns that by veering away from its original empowering purpose Facebook has unwittingly become a focus for social media as also or alternatively a rather disempowering mode of internet addiction for many people (cf. also 14) – a development other social media ‘insiders’ are challenging as an apparently emerging ‘smartphone dystopia’ (15).

Up until now the main challenge to FB’s emerging global domination of the internet and not just ‘social media’ has come from China – which for both political and business reasons has obstructed FB’s efforts to enter the largest market whilst various protected and cashed up Chinese players now have focused on taking over the internet business ‘free world’ (e.g. 16) – especially Ten Cent (the China FB now worth more than FB) (17). Perhaps the games FB has been forced to play with the Chinese authorities about politics and business in the hope of being allowed into China (18) are linked to some related confusions about getting the right balance between business on one hand, and ethics, accountability and social responsibility on the other hand? So, in addition to the continuing fallout from the US election false news scandals, FB has grappled with the challenge of becoming a good corporate citizen in charge of new communication ‘public good’ also in various terms – such as even promising to avoid past practices of corporate tax avoidance (19). The challenges of getting the right balance also with this is typified by not just a recent ‘revenge porn’ controversy (20) but also: (a) its clumsy efforts to try and assist people with the ‘safety check’ application to assist with social crises (21), and (b) likewise with its continuing dilemmas about ‘political censorship’ questions (22).

There are critics who are not confident that Facebook can get the right balance as it moves ahead (e.g. 23). Others have offered some advice on the right directions (24). However, this all remains to be seen. AW believes that like every individual and society, MZ and FB need to decide whether they are ultimately more interested in the global public good or rather in the hidden rorts of vested commercial (and political) interests.
CKR, 27/1/2017





















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