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 whole thing seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen an actual fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? 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. And 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. 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.

I think the conventional media sources, including the NYT, doesn’t want to confront its 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?

The odd salience of older books: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions: Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel? The good guy? These ideas called for a dangerously unstable politician, it seemed to me—a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes’-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way. (Greg Stillson’s campaign tactics as I imagined them twenty years ago were very similar to the ones Jesse Ventura used in his successful campaign for the governor’s seat in Minnesota. Thank goodness Ventura doesn’t seem like Stillson in any other ways.)

On Writing was published in 2000 and in the book King says he wrote it in 1997. When I first read it, nothing about this passage stood out. Today, everything about it stands out. I wonder if The Dead Zone has seen a sales bump in the current political climate.

Millennials “need” to start voting and probably won’t

Millennials Need to Start Voting Before the Gerontocracy Kills Us All” is another one of those articles that, with minor changes, could have been published anytime in the last twenty years. I suspect that the writer will be able to adjust it, with minor changes, and re-publish it anytime in the next twenty years. As far as I know, younger people have always voted in lower numbers than old people, and this election is likely to be part of the trend:

The consequences of that election have not persuaded America’s (predominantly left-leaning) millennial nonvoters of the importance of political participation. A new survey from PRRI and The Atlantic suggests that only one-third of 18-to-29-year-old voters are certain to cast ballots next month. Among Donald Trump’s cohort, that figure is 81 percent.

Voting is more important than most other political behaviors, yet other political behaviors (like posting to Facebook and Twitter) may feel better in the short term. While Grandma and Grandpa may not be tweeting much, they get to the polls and consequently no one is willing to touch the issues they care most about.

There is a book out right now about how women are supposedly mad and that’s going to translate into big political changes. Maybe that’s true, but I’ve been reading similar articles for, again, as long as I’ve been politically aware; I mentally file them next to the articles about how the Democratic Party is going to forge a permanent majority coalition because of the rising number of minorities, who are routinely mocked and alienated by Republicans. I predict that Democrats gain seats in the House and likely take it in 2018; that the Senate remains near parity; and that the 2020 election is highly competitive. The first two predictions are based solely on historical trends: the party in the presidency tends to lose House and Senate seats in mid-term elections. Whatever anger women may feel or not feel, and we’re likely to see continued trends in historical terms.

I posit this: it’s useful to remind myself how many people live in the United States as a whole (about 325 million in 2017, according to the 2017 Census Update). It’s extremely easy to convince ourselves that the bubble we inhabit represents the whole. It’s almost impossible for the human mind to truly grasp just how large 325 million is. At the same time, most people who work in the media and write books live in the California-New-York-DC media complex. The people who live in the media complex don’t fully grasp just how small their world really is (and I would include myself in this group).

Do Millennials “need” to start voting in this election cycle? Yeah, sure, just like they did in the last one… and the one before… and the one before that. Are women “angry?” Maybe, but the data I’ve seen indicates that something like 45% of women who voted, voted for Trump, and something like a third to 40% of eligible voters didn’t vote at all—many of them presumably women. Today, Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter remains the best explanation of political behavior I’ve read. Books like the one about how women are angry describe a small set of information-dense persons really well and the majority of the population not so well. I’m one of those infovores and if you’re reading this you probably one too, but you are not like most people and the number of people reading this is totally dwarfed by the total US population and total US voting population.

Media people: Let’s get real!

By the way: I’ve been bamboozled by arguments like the one about Millenial voters or the one about angry women many times. That’s why I’m skeptical. Left-wing anger and dismay seem to have grown more acute from the period going from 1994 to the present, and yet the right seems to have won more elections in that period. What, if anything, should we infer from this?

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

No one takes the next step

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article, “Thanks for the painful reminder,” that starts, “Six months ago, our teenage son was killed in a car accident. I took a month off from work because I couldn’t get out of bed.” Almost everyone knows someone who was killed, almost killed, or seriously mangled in a car crash, yet no one is thinking or talking about how to reduce reliance on cars. In 2016 34,439 died in car crashes. None or few those parents and spouses start organizations dedicated to reducing car usage. Why not? School shootings keep inspiring survivors and their families to start organizations around guns, but the same doesn’t seem to happen with cars.

The author of the article doesn’t take the next step, either. It’s an omission that almost no one talks about, either. We’ve had the technologies to improve this situation for more than a century.

“Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan”

Today’s Federal Register has an unintentionally funny program from the Department of State: “Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan.” Usually this is the sort of program I’d ignore, but I immediately thought: “I’d like to increase citizen access to objective information in the United States.”

(Although, strictly speaking, the access is out there—but we simply choose to ignore it.)

Sounds weirdly like modern politics, no?

“When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents or simply our neighbors, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop being aggressors and become defenders. The envy, greed, or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self defense. . . . The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs.”

That’s a speech given by Andreas Corelli in The Angel’s Game (a great novel, and its English translation came out in 2009).

Oh, and he’s the devil. So we probably ought to be wary of what he says.

Reading such passages is a reminder of why politics in the post-literacy era may not be going so well. It would be hard for a high-literacy person—like most of the “founding fathers” were—to have made some of the recent political choices that voters have made.

 

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