Today may be the long-awaited day of reckoning for Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Even if it’s not that dramatic, this (October 4, 2021) will probably be a significant day in the company’s history. As of this writing, Facebook and its other services including Instagram and WhatsApp are down, and there has been significant damage to its digital infrastructure. Yesterday, a company whistleblower appeared on the news show 60 Minutes and explained how the company, and Zuckerberg, are well aware of the havoc Facebook is causing in America and the world—disinformation, stolen elections, mental health problems, and the pushing of toxic right-wing conspiracies among them—but choose not to address them because these things are profitable. I saw a story this morning that Zuckerberg himself has lost $7 billion in net worth today alone, which, if true, is staggering. Clearly the social media giant is, as they say, having a bad day.
My purpose in this article is not to offer an opinion on whether to delete your Facebook account. I’m not the guy to ask about that. I think it’s definitely a good thing that people are focusing on the issues surrounding Facebook and the horrors it’s wreaking on our society, but something about the debate seems to miss the point. In evaluating my own thoughts on today’s events, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m profoundly pessimistic about Facebook, but I don’t think we, as a society, are going to abandon it, nor whatever social media giant might arise in its place if Facebook itself collapses. Facebook, like Twitter, is a perfect mirror of our broken society and its misplaced priorities. It’s not that the awesome power we’ve given Facebook over our lives and our society—a responsibility that Zuckerberg is totally and monstrously unsuited to handle—shouldn’t, in a perfect world, be used carefully and judiciously. It should be. But Facebook, with all its flaws and dangers, is unfortunately what we deserve, given the poor choices we’ve made.
That Facebook would ultimately come to be more of a villain than a hero in our society shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows its history. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Zuckerberg, a very smart person, created it mainly to objectify and harass members of his class, especially women. The original app was called FaceMash, and it was a “joke” where users were supposed to compare and rate pictures of Harvard students against each other and vote who was hotter. The people whose pictures appeared on FaceMash didn’t have a choice about appearing there. If FaceMash sounds only mildly disconcerting, consider that in fact Zuckerberg’s original idea for the program was not to compare Harvard students to one another, but to compare them to pictures of farm animals.
Though nominally a joke, there’s still sort of a sharp, hostile edge to FaceMash, and it did not go unnoticed; the Harvard administration almost expelled Zuckerberg for it. Finding a legitimate use, and ultimately an economic opportunity, for a program conceived as a harassment tool is the story of the development of Facebook as a commercial product. But that sharp, hostile edge that Zuckerberg clearly intended—indeed, the very reason for FaceMash’s existence—lingers over modern Facebook as a sort of original sin. I don’t know how straight a line you can draw between the cyberharassment of FaceMash in 2003 and the colonies of right-wing, Trump-worshiping antivaxxers who are using Facebook to kill themselves (and others) with coronavirus disinformation 18 years later, but I can’t help thinking there’s a relationship.
Facebook’s legitimate use is, if you think about it, only marginally less cynical than its original purpose. The site seeks to monetize personal relationships: emotional connections between human beings that are based on factors that neither a computer, nor a corporation, is capable of understanding. Somehow through its algorithms and its economics, it must translate those human connections into numbers that it understands, but the essence of human relationships will always, always be lost in that translation. My husband, the person with whom I have a deeper connection than with any other human being, used to my friend on Facebook before he deleted it. So is a guy I’ve never met in person, who’s in a metal band I like and whom I’ve chatted with on Twitter a few times. Can Zuckerberg’s algorithm, or the advertisers he sells my eyeballs to, understand that difference? Do they care? Probably not. And that’s part of the problem.
The core of Facebook’s failure—and it is, in human terms, a failure, regardless of what its stock is trading at—is that it dehumanizes us. My husband and I both love dogs and puppies. Almost every day, we send each other funny pictures of adorable puppies on a messaging app, even when we’re in the same small apartment a few rooms away from each other. Until he quit Facebook, we used to do this on Facebook Messenger. Why we do this, why it’s meaningful to us and the joy it brings to us, honestly has very little to do with puppy .gifs; it has to do with why we connect as people. But Zuckerberg’s algorithm, and the Wall Street vortex to which it’s tethered, observes this activity and sees, “There are two guys who obviously like dogs. Maybe we should put some ads for PetSmart in front of them?”
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently immoral about that judgment; it’s commerce. We all have to make a living. But it’s a distortion of the real human value that the puppy pics represent. Maybe we’ll be loyal PetSmart customers; maybe not. But that’s not the point. Facebook, however, thinks it is the point. Short of imbuing a computer with emotion, the stuff of science fiction, I don’t know how to fix that. Zuckerberg certainly doesn’t.
So this is how we get mindless distractions like Farmville and Candy Crush Saga, like the fulsome Instagram filters that put dog noses and terrier ears on our photographs, and a grotesque rogues’ gallery of distorted emojis, a race of hellish leering faces like creatures out of Dante’s Inferno to whom we have abrogated the basic human function of communicating our emotions. It’s also how we get racist Pepe the Frog memes and Russian agents provocateur pumping toxic falsehoods into our timelines hoping to induce us to vote to dismantle our own democracy—an effort at which the new Tsar of Russia (Putin) has been much more fabulously successful than he could ever have dreamed. Facebook was built to be exploitable by forces, principally economic ones, that lack understanding of or compassion for the human relationships that Zuckerberg told us his invention would enhance. It’s ironic that Russian autocrats have become Facebook’s best customers, because Facebook itself is something out of Russian fiction.
Compounding the problem is that we, the humans whom Facebook misunderstands, manipulates, disserves and occasionally kills, don’t seem to care. Take the 2010 film made about Facebook, The Social Network, directed by David Fincher. It purports to tell the story of Facebook’s origins (including FaceMash), but the story it tells is about the ups and downs of the creation of Facebook as a commercial product and a technological venture. Unlike the vast majority of critics and viewers, I thought the film has serious problems. Never once does it dare to ask what Facebook means on a human level.
The film doesn’t seem at all interested in how the story of Facebook changes its main character, Zuckerberg, who is impersonated more than portrayed by talented actor Jesse Eisenberg. The Social Network is a terrible and soulless film, and yet there’s a sense that the film’s failure to resonate is not really Fincher’s fault, nor that of the writers. The picture was a financial success and nominated for numerous Academy Awards. Fincher put on the screen what we wanted to see in a movie “about” Facebook. Going back to Russian literature, I wonder what Dostoevsky would have done with the script of The Social Network.
The fact that we have no clear idea what Facebook is, or what we want it to be or think it should be accounts in part for its difficulties. Sometimes we treat it like a toy, something we think should be fun, harmless, and benign. This is what we think when we play Farmville or do the dog-ears Instagram filter.
Then we get uncomfortable when we find out our toys are spying on us and selling our data to the Russians, as well as fostering toxic undergrounds like the one that gave rise to the January 6 insurrection. We probably should be uncomfortable at that. But Zuckerberg sold us his machine not by marketing it as a toy, but by promising deeper connections. You can see friends and distant relatives you haven’t spoken to in decades! And sometimes Facebook is a commercial opportunity. I have placed Facebook ads; I occasionally buy them to promote my classes or my books. Maybe your distant relative whom you haven’t spoken to in decades saw it. What you want Facebook to be, or what you think it is, has no uniformity or consistency, which is a telltale sign of something that is poorly conceived on a fundamental level. Its only real purpose, I suppose, is to make Mark Zuckerberg money. It’s very effective at that. But where does it leave the rest of us who are not Mark Zuckerberg?
Regardless of whether it comes back up today or not, Facebook is inherently irredeemable. Part of me feels like we should have known that all along, and reforming it can only nibble around the edges without really changing anything. Making Facebook into a public utility might help the data privacy situation and reduce the disinformation problem, but the basic problem of Facebook’s lack of humanity would remain. It doesn’t matter whether you like or hate Mark Zuckerberg or whether you think the world would be better off without Facebook.
Almost undoubtedly it would be, but that’s hardly the point at this stage. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Until we start giving a damn about ourselves and the truth of our relationships with each other, asking Facebook and Zuckerberg to care more than we do seems like we’re missing something.
The photo of Mark Zuckerberg is by Priscilla Chan and is used under Creative Commons 2.5 license. The photo of Facebook’s headquarters sign is by Minette Lontsie and is used under Creative Commons 4.0 license. The header image is a composite by me, based on The Temptation of Eve by Pierre Jan van der Ouderaa. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
Sean Munger is an historian, teacher, consultant, author, and podcaster. Dr. Munger teaches history classes online at his website, https://www.seanmunger.com/ and https://seanmungerhistory.substack.com/