Is social media good or bad for the world?

As a society, we're about a decade overdue for this discussion. We're finally having it, however belatedly, thanks to those who suddenly have opinions to share. 

In recent weeks, we've heard strong views on the harms of social media from the likes of Sean Parker, a Facebook billionaire and its first president; Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook's former vice president for user growth; Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor; and Jaron Lanier, a technologist who's widely credited as the father of virtual reality.   

Parker said he has become a "conscientious objector" who no longer uses social media, which he sees as "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he added.

Palihapitiya, now CEO of the venture firm Social + Capital, said the "short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops" that drive social media's popularity are "destroying how society works," and he added that he feels "tremendous guilt" at his role in that phenomenon. (After his remarks kicked off their own viral feedback loop, he qualified them, praising Facebook for its efforts to be better and pronouncing it a good actor on balance.)

McNamee said Facebook and Google instill "addictive behaviors" in their users and profit off "anger and fear." 

And Lanier, a longtime critic of the ways people relate to technology, said social media will accelerate conflict and hatred as long as it relies on monetizing users' attention. "Social media driven by the so-called advertising media is fundamentally incapable of doing anything positive for society as it stands," he said. 

The chorus has grown so impossible to ignore, Facebook itself was compelled to address it. In a corporate blog post published last week, in-house behavioral science researchers acknowledged the validity of research showing certain common forms of social media behavior, including clicking on links and "liking" photos, are associated with decreased emotional health. (The researchers' advice was to spend less time passively consuming content and more time exchanging messages with friends.) 

Silicon Valley's defenders have a standard script for this kind of debate. No technology is innately good or evil, they say; it's all in how it's used. The printing press gave us Moby Dick and Mein Kampf; cell phones can be used to call your mother or set off a roadside bomb. And so on.

That's entirely true, but there's something unique about social media: No technology in history has been so broadly distributed while being so thoroughly dominated by a single company. 

It's impossible to define the social media market precisely because no two companies offer competing versions of the same product in the way that, say, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo do. But if you take the companies that compete most directly with Facebook -- Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest -- their audiences combined are still only around half the size of Facebook's. Facebook is not only the biggest social media service by an order of magnitude; it also owns, in Instagram, the second biggest. Or the second, third, and fourth biggest if you count Messenger and WhatsApp. 

And in some ways the four operate as a single entity. When Facebook saw Snapchat's "Stories" feature growing in popularity, it introduced "Stories" clones not only into Facebook and Instagram but Messenger and WhatsApp as well. Putting an entire technology, effectively, into the hands of a single company means that technology is vulnerable to specific design flaws and biases in the way farmlands planted with a monoculture crop are more vulnerable to blights. 

It's not just that Facebook is the single dominant social media company. It's also that its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, maintains a degree of control over it that's unusual even in the tech industry, where the most successful startups often enact share structures that make founders virtually unfireable. The seemingly simple question "Is social media good?" thus turns out to be a set of nesting-doll questions. To answer it, you must ask: Is Facebook good? Then: Is Mark Zuckerberg good? 

And, lastly, when is Mark Zuckerberg good? No human is the same way all the time. People have moods and epiphanies, get obsessed or distracted, acquire wisdom or forget past lessons. To a significant degree, building a company is about taking matters that are subject to individual variation and codifying them into process for the sake of consistency. 

Facebook has plenty of process, of course, but anyone who has worked there can tell you Zuckerberg casts a singularly long shadow. Zuck's priorities are Facebook's priorities, for better and worse. 

You've seen that in action over the past 18 months. In the summer of 2016, Facebook was aware both that its platform was likely being used for a Russian espionage operation and that it had a massive problem with fraudulent, propagandistic news stories flooding its pages. Zuckerberg, who sees regulation as the chief threat to Facebook, showed little interest in either matter, and continued to be dismissive of the idea that his company had been used to wage information war for weeks after the presidential election. It was only after he grew to see foreign interference as an issue affecting Facebook's image with users--and among its potential regulators in Washington--that he gave it his full attention and directed Facebook's immense resources to fixing it

Is Facebook's about-face a reason to feel sanguine about its influence on the world? That's what Palihapitiya suggested when he dialed back his initial criticism. "Facebook has made tremendous strides in coming to terms with its unforeseen influence and, more so than any of its peers, the team there has taken real steps to course correct," he wrote.

But just because this particular story has a happy ending doesn't mean it's not also a cautionary tale. A single person should not be the failsafe for a technology so pervasive and powerful. 

Right now, Mark Zuckerberg sneezes and a third of the planet wakes up with a cold. You don't have to think social media is inherently bad to find that dangerous. 

Published on: Dec 19, 2017