When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Worldwide Web he made it free and open source, so others could build upon it. In the early days it was quite open with individuals sharing knowledge through blogging and collectively building knowledge with wikis, the largest being Wikipedia. But as more people joined the web two things happened.
Commercial forces found ways to monetize their audiences. They built attractive ways for people to get online as easily as possible. They even hired psychologists and anthropologists to study human behaviour and then devised ways to manipulate it. They aggregated this data and used it to sell targeted advertising. All the giants on the internet use targeted advertising — Amazon, Google, and especially Facebook.
Meanwhile, many people found blogs to be too much work, and wikis to be confusing. They wanted convenience so that they could connect with their grandchildren. Facebook was the solution. It was convenient and allowed easy sharing and connections. But convenience, like a principle, has a cost.
When the pandemic had just started here in March, and before lock down, I was chatting with some local businesses about how we would address our community’s needs and help each other. The solution was already established in everyone’s minds — they created a Facebook page. Begrudgingly, 10 years after I had closed my Facebook account, I went back. First of all, I could not create a new account as Facebook insisted I re-open my old account which had never been deleted. I then went through the process of cleaning it up and looking at how the new version worked. After 5 frustrating hours, and finally confronted with sexual advertising in my feed, I shut it down again.
The fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) drives many of us to use these consumer social media platforms even if we understand their dark sides. The other day, my friend Steve Scott noted that without Facebook, he was disconnected from our local community.
“It bothers me more than usual that Facebook *is* the “new normal”. So much in terms of what’s going on, not just in how people keep in touch, but how people organize and coordinate group or charity activities and political/governmental streaming/discussion, etc., happens through Facebook. The circumstances now make it almost a necessity. The FOMO has been replaced with the ROMO: Reality of Missing Out.”
We are now dependent on a global corporation — that uses our data to manipulate us — as our main form of communication. It is as if we live in a company-owned town, and buy all of our goods from the company store, using a party telephone line that the bosses listen in on. This is directly the fault of government, organizational, and community leaders who have either been lazy, ignorant, or perhaps malicious in promoting this control platform to engage others.
It is time to build collective human oversight into all information technology systems. As computers take over our communications we cannot turn a blind eye to how those behind them make decisions. We have to keep a careful eye on what the machines are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are making their decisions — this is democracy 2.0. I expect more from those in positions of leadership. I have yet to see it.
Let’s get off Facebook, for the sake of our communities, and our democracies.