¡Hola! All this Facebook hoopla is bullshit
Everyone is freaking out about "tech companies," by which they mean consumer tech companies, many of which are not even actually companies that sell tech. Rather, these use tech to run their business, often dramatically changing how business is done in their industries.
They're just companies
From what I can tell, much of this discussion this week is actually about Facebook. They're thought of as a tech company, buy are they? I'm pretty sure you can't buy software for them. Or can you? If you're an advertiser, you buy the service of targeting digital ads. This isn't really like buying DVDs and installing them - ERP and Microsoft Office days of yore! - but you are paying for a SaaS model to put up ads.
Facebook isn't the only one people freak out about, there's also Twitter, Google, and Amazon. If you throw in the successful-but-shit-show companies like Uber, it's easy to get a weird view of what a "tech company" is. I'd rather we just label all of these as "companies," businesses. In this discussion of "what's wrong with tech," it's not like we talk about SAP, Oracle, Micro Focus, even Microsoft. We don't discuss Seagate, Samsung, and on and on.
Media, advertising, retail, and other boring industries
Looking at these so called "tech companies," then, most of them operate in clear markets: media, retail, car services, and many of them straight up advertising. If there's some argument to be had about the business merits of the company, it should discuss the actual customers involved. For Facebook, it's the the advertisers and, in the case of Amazon, the buyers like you and me.
Much of the discussion, really, is about Facebook and Twitter (with maybe Google as a goofy, aloof aunt in the background that people have mostly forgotten to loath after all these years). We're worried about addiction, how public opinion is shaped, and overall the effect of these two companies on our culture.
Come on! Take more personal responsibility!” -Ben Thompson, Exponent #137.
The main thing I find annoying is the idea that the users of these platforms are being manipulated beyond their control. It’s like we’re trying to make Facebook out to be the next tobacco company. Even if Facebook is trying to manipulate users into spending more time on the site…is that bad? Should we be upset that book authors and movie makers try to make their content more engaging and entertaining so that you both enjoy and go back to those types of content? Is Patrick Rothfuss an evil actor because I eagerly want him to publish his third book in The Kingkiller Chronicle?
People can choose to login to Facebook to log their lives, they can choose to stick their heads into the shit-storm that's Twitter. I guess it's a creaky old dude argument, but having lived through all of the modern Internet I've observed all the attempts to grab people's attention. We debated the "walled garden" to death back in the mid-2000s. We were supposed to have an open web, with open data and interoperability.
It didn't work. Normals didn't care. The Economist alludes to this in it's write-up of all this hoopla this week:
Google already voluntarily offers a “takeout service” which lets users export a copy of their data. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect this May, will extend the principle of data portability to other platforms. Observers compare it to how mobile-phone users can switch networks without losing their phone number. This should not worry you too much. Most customers won’t care; very few people are up for the hassle of actually using Google’s takeout service. And your dominance means there is very little funding for new search engines and social networks, and thus few alternative services to which consumers can port their data.
You could download all that data, but what would you do with it? You can also download all your flickr pictures (as I always want to do!) but it's impossible to download just under 20 years of photos...and then upload it again.
The modern anxiety about distraction betrays a good deal about us. Insofar as we associate attention with power and control, it reflects our fears of losing both in an increasingly unpredictable cultural and natural climate. We also find ourselves living in an economy where we pay for cultural goods with our attention, so it makes sense that we worry about running out of a precious currency.Tolerating distraction
What does it mean to own your data in this context?
First, the actual customers: I’m sure advertisers would love to get their data out of there and make it more portable. But do we care about the data ownership rights of advertisers? "Exxon is being screwed over by Facebook because it can't download it's complete data set and upload it to a rival advertising platform," said no concerned Internet worry-wart ever.
Second, the users, you and me. There’s something to be said for copyright: I’d like to own all the things I publish rather than (unknowingly) giving up or even sharing copyright with Facebook. But, when it comes to all my behaviors, “gestures,” and the log of what I’ve done in Facebook - and Facebook’s analysis of what that means about me and how to advertise to me better - I mean, I’m curious to see that, but I’m not sure I “own” it. If someone sits in Times Square and takes detailed notes about what everyone there is doing, does each pedestrian own that data? Sure, it’s creepy as hell, but that’s a different discussion: being creepy.
There is something to be said against duping people into giving up more information than they'd like to...if they knew what they were giving up. When told, people do tend to get creeped out by how deeply companies know and understand them. All that bra-stalking that goes on is a sardonic example, and the old story of a dad finding out about his daughter's pregnancy through a Target mailer is good too.
If anything, it'd make sense to regulate how clear companies like Facebook explain how the data is used. We've learned that credit card and mortgage companies need to be forced to spell out exactly the risks you'll be taking on and how much you'll be paying.
There's a competitive angle to look at too. Understanding the regulatory boarders of Amazon is pretty straight forward: they're a retailer, regulate them like that. But when it comes to ideas that, for example, Facebook is running Snap out of business...who cares? Is Snap such a public good that we need to care if it exists or not? If so, should Verizon start regulation-rattling on-behalf of flickr?
We should define what we want
The discussion in all of this that I value is talking through what we actually want. Do we want their to be one, central place that people go on the web (Facebook)? All the normals I know live in Facebook, it is the Internet for them (along with email). They seem to really like it, and it works a lot better than those days when I tried to explain the 10 different web sites they should use to live on the Internet.
Personally, I find Facebook's model of interacting with the Internet shitty. I don't really use it, I still read RSS feeds and dip into Twitter here and there. But, again, the normals never took that view of how the Internet should be used.
We fear change
There's no answer there, but it all points to why debate about Facebook is both frustrating (because it focuses on irrelevant things) and boring. I'm all for debating Facebook as an adverting company and making sure they're not jerks in that industry, figuring out if Amazon is a net-good (if you recall the Walmart debates of the late 90s, I think you can easily predict the outcome of that figuring: people value cheap shit over anything else), and if Apple should give parents more control over their children's iOS usage (yes! Apple's controls are shit compared to what others do).
But, discussing things like people being ill-informed and other cultural effects of Facebook are the same old arguments, over again, that we've had since Socrates said writing was going to kill civilization.
To be sure, much of the content shoved down these tubes is terrible and needs to be improved, but that's a different discussion. The technology doesn't matter: you can have crap content talking face-to-face, on clay tablets, in illuminated manuscripts, printed pages, magazines, in live plays, sent on a telegraph or through semaphores flags, broadcast on the radio, put into moving pictures, shot into living rooms on TVs, and put into your palm through the Internet. We should be discussing how to improve the writers and the readers, not if these technologies have some giant responsibility to de-dumb-shit the content.
Jesus. I sound like a regular, nut-job, libertarian. Anyhow, check out the links below!
(If you crave more - plus Brandon's take on all this - there's a longer discussion of this in this week's Software Defined Talk Members Only White Paper Exegesis Podcast. As the name implies, normally it's for paying members only, but this week it's free!)
Your pal, Coté