On January 7, when Facebook suspended the US president’s account, followed on January 12 by Twitter suspending his account there, the response moved needles. “These actions,” wrote Prof. Ethan Zuckerman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for CNN.com, “reflect a major shift in how large social media platforms handle extreme speech.” “It’s a move that many saw coming,” wrote Social Media Today, “though likely not this fast.”
“This is the ultimate ‘better late than never’ move,” wrote Haymarket’s Campaign US blog, presumably publishing from the same planet. “All he [the President] had to do was commit actual treason.”
We appear to live in a more divided society than at any time before. Certainly social media tells us this at every opportunity. Indeed, even the arguments over just where the split in our society resides have become divisive. Judging from what we read on social media, social media itself is either entirely culpable or innocently blameless. Amid both assertions, there’s a valid argument that social media has exploited our society, uncovering its deepest vulnerability.
Was it the medium itself that instigated the exploit? Or does safe harbor also shield this medium, and the people who manage it, from guilt for what its users successfully perpetrated?
Social media is “a great liberating thing,” remarked former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2012, in the wake of the course of events in the Middle East known today to history as “Arab Spring.” Liberations are good things for you, unless such liberation is intended to be from your own government, or perhaps your own reality.
“Facebook is not what it once was,” wrote intern Oliver Rosand for Washington University Political Review last October, continuing humanity’s grand tradition of enshrining the obvious. “Back in its heyday it was the social network. It had an it-factor that made everyone want to join.” By the end of the same paragraph, Rosand had adeptly performed a backflip: “Unfortunately, the speed of Facebook’s growth overwhelmed our legal system, and they currently operate with near impunity in their world-altering decisions.”
Last December, Facebook alone constituted about 68 percent of all social media activity worldwide — 71 percent if you include owned-and-operated Instagram — according to Web activity analysts StatCounter. US states’ attorneys-general continue to argue this is a symptom of Facebook’s monopoly power. But if a large majority of a population willfully choose Facebook when alternatives, in one form or another, do exist, should that collective decision be tossed out by a high court for having been unfair to its unchosen competitors, wherever they happened to have been at the time? Put another way, is the loser always entitled to just compensation?
Either Facebook has world-changing, life-altering influence, or it doesn’t. It’s the catalyst for global revolution, or a shadow of its former self as a blog for razzing other folks’ yearbook photos. Perhaps fewer people want to join because most everyone already has — a condition called market saturation, which has its good and bad aspects. Or maybe, more likely, the forces clearly exhibited by Facebook and other social media (if there still is such a thing) come from strengths and centers of power we’re somehow overlooking.
Maybe it’s time we identified them.
This is the first edition of what I’m calling Status Report, an experiment at subjectively producing objectivity — making enough small judgments about a technology that they collectively yield a quantitative result that withstands scrutiny. (Want a deep dive into our methodology? See: “How we evaluate and rate technologies, and why.”)
Our quantitative examination of ten categories of influence for social media will enable us to conclude and substantiate the following:
Point 1: Social users gravitate toward power centers, but monopolies come with costs
There are two real businesses behind what we call “social media:” leveraging its ability to find eyeballs and target them for advertising, and reselling the data and metadata gleaned from its users for market analytics, or other similarly euphemistic purposes. Neither business is assured for the indefinite future, but if your business’ name is Facebook, then you’re still reaping a respectable profit. Since Facebook constitutes about two-thirds of this industry by transaction volume, the fact that Twitter’s performance may be more lackluster, isn’t much of a threat to the industry.
There’s an argument to be made that a social media platform is, by design, a drain on a company’s resources. Look at the extent to which Facebook has to invest in the communications system itself: with multiple, multi-megawatt, hyperscale data centers that can be seen from space. In a few short years, Facebook has become the world’s leading operator of trans-oceanic, fiber optic cable systems, with Google and Microsoft close behind. Even dropping a major project linking Los Angeles with Hong Kong won’t make too big a dent in that position.
Point 2: Dominant players dictate the pace of innovation
Typically, new technologies must evolve, and rather quickly, in order to remain relevant in the public mind. The exception is when a monopoly player both owns and controls its market, and can dictate its own level of relevance. When a technology doesn’t evolve, folks conclude there must be a monopoly guarding the barriers to competitive entry.
The design of the Internet gives its principal players a natural competitive advantage. Users want to go where the people are, and the system is geared to naturally direct them there. If Facebook wasn’t magnetically attracting people, something else would be. I made a similar statement years ago about Myspace: A plurality of niche platforms, I wrote at the time, is not what users really want, otherwise GeoCities would have been a media bonanza. By design, potential competitors find themselves naturally disadvantaged. The continued growth of major players, whether or not they’re monopolies, has already become enough of a deterrence against any business interest even considering launching a competitor.
In 2012, Facebook outright admitted it had no plan for transitioning its users from PCs — responsible at that time for 85 percent of its content — to mobile devices. It warned it could lose its market position if no such plan were to materialize. Nearly a decade later, few would contest that the migration plan was not only largely successful, but for the most part, underappreciated. It happened so decisively that few really noticed, including the few of us who get paid to notice these things.
A company with a commanding position in any market can change that market on its own terms, and at its own pace.
In a truly competitive market where multiple providers vie for the same customer, artificial intelligence could be the tool that gives any player a distinct, if not always explainable, competitive advantage. As it stands, each dominant player in its own niche has the luxury of dictating the pace of change, using the smoke-and-mirrors nature of AI to simultaneously suggest that change is happening quickly to the quality of content, and that we should all be patient because these things take time.
Point 3: As long as content remains the focus of debate, dominance isn’t threatened
Three open subjects of discussion surrounding the roles Facebook, Twitter, and to a lesser degree Google, are at play in facilitating public discussions and interest. One is the suspicion that these companies are tilting the bias of these discussions towards a political center or a general point of view. Another is the suspicion that they are incapable of doing so, and are thus enabling public debates to careen out of control.
The third, of course, is the perennial debate over whether any of these player’s dominant position constitutes an unfair monopoly. Since the era of Western Union, communications customers have always preferred one big, central hub over a dozen smaller ones. Yet that fact never seems to whittle down the breadth of politicians’ grandstanding.
“Twitter’s purpose,” testified Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey before the Senate Judiciary Committee last November, “is to serve the public conversation… We want to make sure conversations on Twitter are healthy and that people feel safe in expressing their points of view. We do our work with the recognition that free speech and safety are interconnected.”
After World War II, when the purpose and structure of what we now call “media” was first being reconsidered, a standard emerged for the impact newspapers had on society. Some were being seen for the first time as “common carriers for public discussion” — conceivably the first ever application of a standard reserved for telecommunications (“common carrier”) to a print medium. A newspaper may deserve special legal protection, it was argued, if it attained that level of relevance. That phrase would appear to fit Facebook, at least, if not the social media industry as a whole. That being the case, it would follow that Facebook, like newspapers of prior generations, would be in a unique position to influence the course of public discussion
Here’s the obvious problem, though: Nothing is in a position to control the public discussion, on whatever it is the public may be discussing at the time. It is, as they say, viral. While algorithms do spur such discussion by amplifying its extreme or controversial fringes, like smacking a wild horse in the rear, they only fire up such discussion along whatever course it might have taken naturally, given more time. Facebook, Twitter, or even Parler didn’t cause the US Capitol insurrection any more than telegraph wires caused World War I. Yet in their willful ignorance of the conspiracies they facilitated, social services did give them safe harbor.
The benefits of being a common carrier for public discussion are that the public will prefer you to the alternative of several, uncommon carriers. The downside is that, inevitably, you’ll be carrying a discussion that leaders and authorities would rather the public not be carrying on.
Sphere of influence
At this stage, we identify the factors that lead us to draw the conclusions above. Our complete methodology for assessing technological influence is available here.
In short, each category of influence is given its own compass direction, so that every “positive” points a different way. A positive score pulls our metaphorical pendulum forward on the chart; a negative score pushes it backward. At the end, we find where the pendulum bob ends up, and measure its distance from dead-center. That final score tells us, amid all the forces imposed upon it and the different objectives it must achieve, how influential and relevant that technology is for the given time, and perhaps in what way.
Being a dominant player in social media does pay dividends. The business, for those few who have succeeded at it, remains profitable. [+7]
However, if you’re a social media provider that’s lower down on the totem pole, there’s evidence that you’re not privy to the same benefits that investors enjoy. Any big enterprise cannot remain successful, or even big, for very long without collapsing under its own weight — even in a low-competition market. Maintaining a dominant position has required capital investments in infrastructure and services that match, or even eclipse, what telecommunications providers spend to stay relevant. [-6, net: +1]
The era of the stand-alone, general-audience social media startup has passed. [+8] The only way to go about setting up shop, some have suggested, is to target vertical markets or niche audiences. And as we have already seen, even small networks rely on major providers such as Twitter and Facebook, to obtain visibility and advertise their presence.
Those bold enough to have given this notion a shot, such as Parler, did make enough of a dent to become topics of public dialogue. [-3] But the very leverage they used to get off the ground — occupying societal niches — became the justification for extinguishing them. Societies deplore non-conformance. [Net: +5]
Entrenching the business as a critical component of the world’s communications supply chain, is not a feat that can be duplicated by others. It enables the business to be sustained even as its customers’ perceived value diminishes (see: “Bell System“). [+8]
On the other hand, social media’s drain on resources is substituted with one or more bigger drains. The obligations of commanding the world’s hyperscale data center facilities and its optical data delivery systems, are both huge. Still, the burden on the medium itself to provide value, is somewhat relaxed. [-6, net: +2]
While Facebook, Google, and Twitter each command the space they have respectively carved for themselves, each space is “flavored” just differently enough to justify the others’ presence. As a result, they mutually assure and reinforce each other’s position. [+3]
Yet beyond what can be acquired through mergers and acquisitions, and making a few minor cosmetic appearances, the compulsion to change and evolve the service level is low. Indeed, evidence may exist of the major players engaging in a kind of virtual collusion, specifically to stifle innovation. [-8] While others have tried to be “the next YouTube,” that desire only lasts for so long. In ten years’ time, the systems we have now will probably inhabit the same place in the economy, as well as in consumers’ minds. [Net: -5]
All this having been said, the business of social media and the business conducted over its platforms, has never been healthier. The pandemic has only strengthened demand for online, personal connectivity. A strong market does exist on social media platforms, bolstered by strong demand. The fact that we’re discussion social media as an addictive substance (albeit with my own help) underscores this fact. [+8]
Yet rather than attracting equal players, the social media market is bound to existing platforms and pre-established rules and methods. There are alternatives to Facebook, which often come up in any discussion of the service becoming “too old” or, more scientifically speaking, skewing towards a senior demographic. But even as popular and even beloved as they are among their exclusive caches of users (case in point, Tumblr), they cannot find the same footing. The major players in this space don’t need to be loved, to be appreciated. [-5, net: +3]
The perception of socially-generated content as valuable and desirable — among many, more so than professionally produced entertainment — has only grown stronger. For its users, social media has become a means with which they may establish their own identity — for better or worse, reinforcing their own self-image.
More importantly from a business perspective, the appearance of a democratic collective of yea- and nay-sayers has become the most uniquely valuable contribution social media has made to society — again, for better or worse. [+8] It is a value that consumers may utilize as currency, that they may rate the value of another product or service based on how they perceive others view it, and how they relate those others to themselves. What remains an issue is the seeming absence of any real rules or formulas as to how this social capital is evaluated. This leads to consumer’s skepticism about whether the underlying algorithms — or the people who manage them — are somehow skewed. This skepticism is only rising, and may yet come back to bite the industry. [-6, net: +2]
Only recently have countries begun to include social media as contributors to their gross domestic product estimates. It’s in the wake of the pandemic that we realize virtual communication has a measurable impact on growth [+6], although that impact is dampened somewhat by the fact that social media providers are not presently perceived as important to the delivery of these beneficial services as, say, Zoom. [-4, net: +2]
The entrenchment of social media in the mechanisms of our society, and its being embedded into the fabric of our lives and workplaces, are now complete and irreversible. Switch off Instagram and WhatsApp, and a great many millions of people would find themselves wandering aimlessly, if they found themselves at all without a satellite-tracking app to locate them. [+9] Social networking has become as important to our existence as the telephone.
That it is a misunderstood presence in people’s lives is disheartening. When folks stopped calling the operator and started manually dialing the telephone themselves, it was a change in their habits, but they picked it up soon enough. By contrast, whenever a major social provider makes a cosmetic change to its service, resistence to its adoption becomes a social media topic in itself. Despite their successful infrastructural shifts and their embrace of mobile devices, what sustains social providers’ presences in our lives is their resistence to anything that even resembles change. When a system fails to adapt with its society, like Congress, it becomes a drag on those who depend upon it for their livelihoods. [-6, net +3]
We are much more aware of the people around us than we ever were. Whether this has compelled folks to make foreigners into neighbors has depended in large measure upon their ability to substantiate their entire relationships with one another upon agreements and disagreements, likes and dislikes. We have begun to acknowledge each other’s existence, and pay attention to the needs of other peoples. [+6]. But we are not yet at the point where folks we know online are as connected with us as folks we know “in real life.”
This medium became a danger to the world when it became capable of inciting riots and galvanizing destructive forces — and that actually happened long before America’s January 6 insurrection. It is a danger to the extent that people can misuse it, and that certain people can exploit the means of that misuse to damage us as a society. Right now, that danger is at its zenith. [-10, net: -4]
When social media business models were first conceived, it was said that their genius lay in their reliance upon user-generated content as their primary fuel — the result conceivably becoming a perpetual motion machine whose entertainment value would eclipse television, or even casual sex. The capacity for the system to harbor original content remains strong. [+7] Yet today’s safe harbor laws actually manage to reinforce social providers’ intrinsic blindness towards not only what content is being generated, but who (or what) is producing it.
It’s a kind of Catch-22: If providers took more responsibility for moderating their content, they would be held liable for whatever malicious content slipped their grasp. This reinforces providers’ legal positions — especially Facebook’s and, with respect to YouTube, Google’s — that the less they know about their content, the more adherent they are to democratic values of tolerance and anti-censorship. The downside of this stance is that it disables users’ ability to independently improve the system by which this content is delivered — for example, to snuff out false headlines. [-8, net: -1]
Final score: +0.89
A score of +0.89 indicates to us that the conflicts and turmoil plaguing social media just days after the insurrection are bracing the technology to the point of near-standstill. Yes, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the topics of popular discussion. But to the extent the technology they represent is capable of effectuating change that could enable people to steer it in a new direction, or inspire the creation of new systems that could move social media’s users into a new realm of functionality and service, the best they may be able to do is crawl forward.
On Twitter recently, someone argued that society is now divided into two segments: those who were born during the existence of social media, and those who weren’t. From that perspective, social media was something that just happened, outside of anyone’s control or direction. Prior to the advent of science, the best we could do to explain why we’re here at all in the universe, was to say someone flicked a switch.
Social media — not just its content, but the infrastructure that supports and broadcasts it — is the product of significant human effort. Its correction and reinvention, which may be necessary for it to withstand the next decade unscathed, will take tremendously more effort than the flick of a switch. At the rate it’s building momentum, it may not get there.