Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” just appeared in the New York Times, but the “crisis” seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen a fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? That data would support a crisis narrative, but the best the article can do is, “its pell-mell growth has slowed.” Slowing growth makes sense for a company with two billion people using it; all companies eventually reach market saturation.

To me, the story reads a lot like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’s actual lives; I’ve been reading variations on “Why Facebook sucks” and “Why Facebook is doomed” for a very long time. It’s like the “Why this is the year of Linux on the desktop,” but for media companies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m barely a Facebook user and I agree with much of the criticism. You can argue that Facebook is bad for reasons x, y, z, and I may even agree—but what I do, anecdotally, is less significant than what users do and want to do. As always, “revealed preferences” are useful: every time someone uses Facebook, that person is implicitly showing that they like Facebook more than not and find it valuable more than not. Aggregate those decisions together, and we see that there is no crisis. Facebook continues to grow. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would say the same of television. Lots of literary boffin type persons have had the same view of TV since TV came out—you should read more books and watch less TV—but, in the data, people didn’t watch less TV until quite recently, when Facebook started to replace TV.

The conventional media sources, including the NYT, don’t want to confront their own role in the 2016 election—the relentless focus on Clinton’s email server was insane. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw nearly wall-to-wall coverage. We don’t want to acknowledge that most people’s epistemological skill is low. Why look at ourselves, when we have this handy scapegoat right… over… there?

Facebook is a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role in the 2016 fiasco. With any media story, there are at least two stories: the story itself and the decision behind working on and publishing and positioning that particular story. The second story is very seldom discussed by journalists and media companies themselves, but it’s an important issue in itself.

In a tweet, Kara Swisher wrote that Zuckerberg is “unkillable, unfireable and untouchable.” I disagree: users can fire him whenever they want. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol.” Still, large, mature markets behave differently than small, immature markets: in 1900, there were many car companies. By 1950, only a few were left. Market size and market age both matter. Facebook reportedly has two billion users, a substantial fraction of the entire human population. It has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love wasting spending time online. Maybe they’ll find an alternate way to do it (again, I’m not personally a big Facebook user), but if they do, I don’t think it’ll be because of the 5000th media scare story about Facebook. So far, I’ve read zero media stories that cite Rene Girard and the scapegoating mechanism: I don’t think the media understands itself right now.

Links: Mac Minis, the fall of driving, AbeBooks, the Neo-Puritan revival, progress in biology, Claire Lehmann, and more!

* The 2018 Mac Mini is actually a good machine, unlike the last few iterations of it.

* “Has Americans’ love affair with driving gotten stuck in traffic?: Baby boomers’ enthusiasm for the open road is giving way to millenials’ disillusionment with stop-and-go commutes that require they spend more time in their cars than they receive in vacation time.” How could it not, says I. See also my 2012 essay, “Cars and generational shift.” I expect scooter shares and the like to further erode car preference.

* Amazon’s AbeBooks backs down after booksellers stage global protest. AbeBooks is still quite good.

* “NPR: Neo-Puritan Revival.” This is something I have been wondering about (and occasionally writing about) for a while. There’s also an “everything old is new again” element, because seemingly everyone except me has forgotten about Katie Roiphe’s early-90s book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, which hits many of the same subjects we’re seeing batted around, yet again, today.

* Robert Nagle’s shift to ebooks.

* Sequencing is the new microscope, on how biology has come to bootstrap itself.

* Why We Need Innovative Nuclear Power.

* Claire Lehmann: The Voice of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web.’ If you are not following Quillette, you should.

* How the race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke became the closest in Texas in 40 years.

* Peer review: the worst way to judge research, except for all the others. It turns out that academics are susceptible to prestige bias, as are the rest of us.

* “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.” Nuclear war is still the problem that gets too little attention, as it will render pretty much everything people squabble about on Twitter and Twitter-adjacent sites irrelevant.

* “‘The Academy Is Largely Itself Responsible for Its Own Peril’: Jill Lepore on writing the story of America.” This is particularly annoying: “[W]hat you’re being trained to do is employ a jargon that instantiates your authority in the abstruseness of your prose. You display what you know by writing in a way that other people can’t understand. That’s not how I understand writing.”

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