“Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” uses the word “crisis” in the headline, but the “crisis” cited 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.
“Delay, Deny and Deflect” reads 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 at least a decade, along with predictions of Facebook’s decline. These kinds of stories are like “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 will likely nod along—but what I do, individually and anecdotally, is less significant than what users as a whole do and want to do. “Revealed preferences” matter: every time someone uses Facebook, that person shows 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, because Facebook continues to grow by most metrics; if their growth is slowing, it is because virtually everyone with an Internet connection is already on Facebook. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would also 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.
Why is the media so vociferously anti-Facebook right now? 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, for example, was insane. That minor story only got the relentless play it did because most big media sources worried about being accused of “bias” and wanted to find a “both sides” narrative. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw ceaseless wall-to-wall coverage. Bias concerns meant media sources felt they had to keep pushing the email server as a story. At the same time, 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, but they haven’t, or haven’t yet. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol,” although that’s a retort that rebuts her original tweet. While she has a point about Facebook conceivably following into senescence, as AOL did, 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; as mentioned elsewhere in this post, a substantial fraction of the entire human population uses Facebook. Facebook has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love
wasting spending time online. Maybe current Facebook users will find an alternate way to spend/waste time online (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.
Way back when, I read the tech nerd site Slashdot, which for many years declared “year x is the year of Linux on the desktop.” The year people would get tired of paying for Microsoft operating systems and embrace freedom. Normal people didn’t care, and Microsoft was 100 times more monopolative than Facebook. Today, most desktop machines still overwhelming use Windows, Linux is still 1% of the desktop population, and MacOS has grown some in popularity but is still too expensive for most people. What tech nerds and journalists desire is not necessarily what normal people care about.
EDIT: Former newspaper editor Andrew Potter explains succinctly how the media works in “Why everyone hates the mainstream media: Judgements about status are embedded in almost everything aspect of the news. To read the news is to be insulted — which is why people are fleeing the mainstream media in droves.” Since November 2016, the media has been ceaselessly working to lower Facebook’s status. It seems to have succeeded in terms of lowering Facebook’s status among journalists and media pundits, but it seems to have failed to change mass behavior, much as the thousands of essays about how TV is bad failed to change TV habits. Most media pieces attempting to lower Facebook’s status use every kind of rhetoric conceivable except the numbers Facebook cites in its quarterly reports.
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Besides the unwillingness to deal with 2016, I think there’s another factor: Journalists are members of an industry that has been directly harmed by competition with Facebook. Every journalist writing about Facebook might plausibly have a higher salary in a world where Facebook didn’t exist. That’s not a great environment for objective reporting.
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