View from Washington: Facebook's future outlined by Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg's essay on Facebook's future has some uncomfortable parallels with a 1960s Peter Cook satire

One of the lesser known works in the great comedian Peter Cook’s career was a prescient political satire, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Filmed in 1969, its anti-hero (Cook himself) is a stats-obsessed spin doctor with a less aggressive tongue than Malcolm Tucker but just as much – arguably more – cynicism.

So right now, I’m going to spoil the ending. Having wheedled his way into becoming PM, Rimmer announces an experiment in New Democracy: every major political issue, every single one, will be put to a referendum. It looks like he’s really giving the people their full say, but, of course, they eventually get bored with the minutiae of foreign policy and regional development.

So, in what Rimmer promises could be the final ever referendum, he asks the public to give him authoritarian presidential power. And an exhausted 82 per cent say yes.

I kept thinking of Cook’s film as I worked my way through the 5,000+ words of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook think piece, ‘Building Global Community’.

At its heart is something that sounds as frightful – and double-edged – as Cook’s New Democracy.

The bothersome sections are those where Zuckerberg expounds upon Facebook as a global community, as a doer of social good and – within those two contexts – a body that wants to open itself out to greater consultation with you, the user.

First off, it made my teeth itch that Zuckerberg ended up touting Facebook as a shadow United Nations, even a potential replacement or direct adjunct to it. But, however many users it connects, good ‘emergency’ features like Safety Check or crowdfunded aid/charity appeals it rolls out, Facebook is and will remain a commercial enterprise based upon monetising our engagement.

Maybe I’m wrong, and this is Zuckerberg’s first step towards translating his company into some sort of not-for-profit, global utility. I just don’t see and nor, I think, do most of you.

What then worries me further is part of Zuckerberg’s vision of engagement and how Facebook must now rise to meet its global responsibilities. Consider this section:

“The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves,” he writes. “Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don't need to dig around to find them. For those who don't make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.” (my italics)

The problem with this is obvious. Facebook is the world’s most powerful profiling engine already. Now it wants more information. But, you know, in a good way.

Some of you may already have been involved with the kind of demonstration where, without analysing your profile, but rather those of a handful of your friends, a researcher was able to give you a startlingly accurate description of the movies, books and music you like, where you live (though not down to the actual address) and even your politics.

And that is a very simple exercise. The algorithms Facebook and other social networks run internally go much further.

Given that, the further problem with Zuckerberg’s new proposal is that, in essence, it will pose questions that are even more personal than those his company asks of us today. The issues that will surround such canvassing will not solely be confined to taste and customs, but will inevitably stray into other controversial areas. For example, these surveys will to some extent also be used to combat the issues around fake news and filter bubbles.

Unfortunately, while the goal sounds good, some of the means proposed for achieving it do not. That information can also be monetised. Can you imagine that not being the case?

So is Zuckerberg pulling a Michael Rimmer? I don’t think so. Elsewhere in his essay, it is clear that he also is still some way from completely thinking through some of the tensions that have arisen around Facebook, particularly in the light of last year’s US elections. The piece often reads like a first draft, the kind an author grinds out knowing that he or she still needs to refine an argument.

But if the parallel is there, it is one to worry about – particularly since, reading between the lines, the essay is arguably more revealing than its author may have intended.

There is also an unconscious irony in that, as Zuckerberg describes and mulls over the company he has built, it is clear that its influence has now exceeded his expectations. This darned thing has gotten so big that…. well, I come back to the earlier point of Facebook’s potentially morphing into something that has to be seen as a more traditional kind of utility.

Both in the scope of what he describes and of what he is seeking, Zuckerberg may have himself accidentally made a strong case for some kind of formal regulatory review.

Either way, I’m sorry but you don’t yet have my vote.

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