Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

The Thinker by Rodin

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink your love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

Review: The Social Network

The Thinker by Rodin

Is the story of the social networking website Facebook really so interesting that it needed to be turned into a movie? Facebook, after all, is phenomenally successful, has half a billion members and is ranked just behind Google as the world’s most accessed web site. Why would we not want to learn more about it, since so many of us spend so much of our electronic lives on its site?

So perhaps The Social Network was inevitable, but the movie that you get tells a story that struck me as less than compelling. Most of the characters in this movie are more than a bit annoying. Perhaps that comes with territory. After all, Harvard University and Silicon Valley are full of socially inept nerds. Apparently at Harvard University it is much more important to get into the Phoenix S-K Final Club than it is to date a bombshell.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. No doubt, Zuckerberg is irascible in real life, but it is hard to imagine him being quite as impertinent and annoying as he is portrayed in this movie. In fact, if looking for a reason to skip The Social Network, do it so you don’t have to spend two hours of your life inhabiting the world of this annoying, self-centered nerd. Zuckerberg is way more annoying than dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) in the movie Ghost Town. Pincus at least had comic relief in the form of Greg Kinnear. The closest thing we get to comic relief in The Social Network is Joseph Mazzello, who plays Dustin Moskovitz, the effusive entrepreneur behind the late music-sharing site Napster. Otherwise, the movie is framed solidly in a lawyer’s office, where Zuckerberg is forced into a lengthy deposition as part of a civil suit. This frame results in frequent flashbacks.

If one has to say what this movie is about, then it is not really so much about the rise of Facebook as it is a look inside the insular brain of Mark Zuckerberg which, quite frankly, is a very unattractive place. Zuckerberg is portrayed as one of these brilliant, socially inept but nonetheless gifted individuals able to discern patterns meaningless to the rest of us. He is a quintessential hacker and geek, constantly in jeans and T-shirts who excels at tuning out reality around him. All he really knows is that like most Harvard students, he needs to prove himself, so he must do something really, really big. The clue to Facebook’s success, he quickly discerns, will be exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Originally, it is designed as a site for Harvard students only, with all the prestige that implies. It is only after Facebook has networked most of the nation’s academic elite that it slowly expands its boundaries out to normal plebes like you and I.

Along the way, there are other less annoying individuals to encounter. These include the haughty flaxen haired Winklevoss twins, who feel cheated when Zuckerberg backs out of his commitment to help build a Facebook-like site for Harvard that they had planned first. They eventually feel compelled to sue him for alleged breach of contract and for stealing their ideas. The Winklevoss twins, somehow portrayed by just one actor Armie Hammer, encapsulate everything we loathe and love about Harvard students: ambitious, handsome, athletic and fanatical about their participation on the Harvard rowing club.

Andrew Garfield, playing Zuckerberg’s roommate and business partner Eduardo Saverin, is as close as we get to an interesting character in this movie. While he has the requisite business skills, he is not agile enough to move in the Silicon Valley world that opens up to them after they meet Moskovitz. He soon finds himself estranged when a closer relationship develops between Zuckerman and Moskovitz. Moskovitz seems determined to recapture his faded Napster glory using Zuckerman as his vehicle. Fortunately for Moskovitz, Zuckerman’s insular nature makes him reasonably easy to impress and manipulate, and his Silicon Valley skills ensures Facebook gets a proper Silicon Valley start up experience.

In some ways, this movie is an ode to the hacker lifestyle, and for an information technology guy like me this world is comfortable territory. The problem is that it just does not translate well into celluloid. While managing to be a reasonably faithful portrayal of the origins of Facebook, it is excessively nerdish and chock full of annoying characters. In honing close to reality, it loses much of its animus. This is mostly a movie of nerds and lawyers talking to each other, with extensive flashbacks. With all the lawyers, it could use some Perry Mason moments, but it has none. It really tells us nothing new or interesting. If you are hoping to have a better understanding of the social networking phenomenon, the movie will likely leave you empty handed. Instead, you may find yourself grateful for the movie’s end, so you can remove the bad taste of Mark Zuckerberg and the other annoying characters in this movie from your mouth.

As a realistic portrayal of the origins of Facebook, the movie probably hews fairly close to the truth. The truth though happens to be a whole lot less interesting that the phenomenal success of Facebook would suggest. While technically well done and reasonably well acted, there is not much there there, which means you can probably find better use of two hours and ten dollars.

Nice try, guys, but because this story is really not very interesting, you did not ascend much out of mediocrity. 2.8 on my four-point scale.