The Genie is out of the Social Media Bottle

It wasn’t long ago that people were wondering if social media was okay. It seems like brands had just started coming to terms with misleading video metrics on FB when the whole YouTube scandal hit. Then Twitter fell headlong into the fake bot rabbit hole.

Funny how those problems pale in comparison with the consumer and political backlash in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

The question has quickly turned from “is social media okay?” to “can social media survive?”

As Kevin Roose writes in the New York Times, there’s something seriously broken in social media now, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that things need to change.

“You’ve probably experienced it yourself,” Roose writes. “Maybe it’s the way you feel while scrolling through your Twitter feed – anxious, twitchy, a little world-weary – or your unease when you see a child watching YouTube videos, knowing she’s just a few algorithmic nudges away from a rabbit hole filled with lunatic conspiracies and gore.

“Or maybe it was this month’s Facebook privacy scandal, which reminded you that you’ve entrusted the most intimate parts of your digital life to a profit-maximizing surveillance machine,” he continues.

The polls show that the big three – Facebook, Google and Twitter – are all dropping in popularity in the U.S.,  Roose notes, while outside our borders “social media is fueling real-world violence and empowering autocrats, often with much less oversight.”

Does that mean the entire social platform experience was a mistake? Not necessarily; a lot of good does come out of improved ability to connect at a grassroots level. The big issue, Roose believes, is that Facebook can’t stand behind their promises to protect your data and your privacy.

“Facebook can’t stop monetizing our personal data for the same reason that Starbucks can’t stop selling coffee – it’s the heart of the enterprise,” Roose continues.

The Atlantic’s Ethan Zuckerman takes this idea a few steps further, noting that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s acknowledgment of the data breach rings hollow.

“For me,” Zuckerman writes, “Zuckerberg’s statement fell short in a very specific way: He’s treating the Cambridge Analytica breach as a bad-actor problem when it’s actually a known bug.”

In other words, the ability for this kind of breach to occur again and again and again is hard baked into the platform, in the very DNA that the business model runs on. The data breach wasn’t a hack; in fact it was done quite simply by using Facebook’s own tools.

According to media scholar Jonathan Albright as quoted by Zuckerman, “The ability to obtain unusually rich info about users’ friends—is due to the design and functionality of Facebook’s Graph API. Importantly, the vast majority of problems that have arisen as a result of this integration were meant to be ‘features, not bugs.’”

Sure, the way that data was sold and then used to influence political discourse through highly emotional neuromarketing techniques may be ethically questionable … but it wasn’t criminal and it certainly shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.

“Like Facebook, Google develops profiles of its users, with information from people’s private searches and tools like Gmail and office applications, to help advertisers target messages to them,” Zuckerman continues. “As you read this article on The Atlantic, roughly three dozen ad trackers are watching you, adding your interest in this story to profiles they maintain on your online behavior.”

It comes back to the “original sin” of the Internet, where we trade our data and our labor in exchange for free content. We all work for Facebook and reap precious little of the rewards.

“Users of the internet have been forced into a bargain they had no hand in negotiating: You get the services you want, and platforms get the data they need,” Zuckerman explains.

Now Facebook says they want to do more to protect our data. Roose gives us some possible scenarios that might save social media – more power to the people, a more collective social management federation, and auto-expiring data profiles – but I don’t see the shareholders being terribly keen on anything that disrupts the duopoly.

Can social media be saved? Or has it reached the tipping point where its users have lost faith and decided the cost isn’t worth the risk? If they can figure out how to return to a time that is, as Roose muses “fresh and fascinating, and not quite so scary,” maybe it can survive. In its present state, however, it doesn’t look likely.