Facebook has become an active threat, its massive profits and user growth driven by the inexorable forces of centralization. With U.S. regulators gutted by decades of bipartisan consensus, Facebook grew unchecked monopoly power through its ad targeting. The company has just barely begun to flex its lobbying muscle in the D.C. influence industry from its lucrative profit stream. Ahead of the 2020 election, it’s metastasized into an existential problem bigger than regulators in rich democracies have had the courage to tackle. Millions of hours have been spent to triage the problem of info silos, hate speech, extremism, misinformation, and disinformation on the unmanageable Facebook. It’s prompted hundreds of emergency conferences of journalists, advocacy groups, lawyers, policy makers, and especially think tanks.
For developers of the open Internet over the past 20 years, the experience of seeing the network effect fueling the astronomical profits of one democracy-destroying corporation has been beyond humbling. From the vantage point of the somewhat-more-tech-optimist days of 2005, of what Anil Dash has rightly called the “lost infrastructure” of open media standards for self-publishing, Facebook is the nightmare scenario of concentrated power.
For people who have followed the past 15 years of developments of open-source tech, public knowledge, and free-as-in-speech culture, Facebook’s dominance is a bit as if the Yahoo! Fantasy Basketball platform rose up to become an active agent of disinformation. Once, its nifty user interface seemed like it would be one of many, raising all boats in the U.S. Constitutional republic, growing peer-to-peer connections and communication efficiencies. There is definitely video of me in July 2008 describing our previous non-profit site OpenCongress as a Facebook for the people who represent you in Congress, a user-friendly interface for staying in touch with important developments online in an efficiently passive way.
The metaphor was pretty widely intelligible in the years after 2006’s news feed, because at the time there was active parallel development of open ID and RSS readers. These open standards might have kept media and publishing less siloed and subject to Facebook’s algorithm. (For my part, I held out on joining Facebook for its early years, and now I mostly use the service to share news links towards the breakup and antitrust restructuring of the company.) Facebook could have been one (still huge) website among a few leaders in sharing and commenting on political news links.
There were indeed post-2010 U.S. competitors to Facebook, including the genuinely-tragic open-source Diaspora project, 50-friends-max Path, privacy-first & ad-free Ello, pre-Slack-like Peach app. There have been open-source forums like Vanilla and Discourse, and liquid feedback platforms like Democracy and Loomio that worked to enable outcomes other than seeing vacation photos. Commercial platforms like Countable and Change made it possible to take some limited political actions, while the non-profit Action Network toolkit offers more robust organizing capacity, and faithful WordPress, that old workhorse of the open web, can still put words on the internet. New crypto-currency backed social networks seek to offer financial rewards for users’ activities and opt-in personal data as part of the user experience.
But no Facebook competitor—other than, of course, Instagram and WhatsApp, acquired, to say nothing of hapless Twitter—has approached critical mass to threaten the monopoly enough that it agrees to make its personal data more portable in order to stop hemorrhaging users. (To be clear, the only way to protect democracy is to break up the company.) Generally, Facebook’s would-be rivals noted the basic features of an online social network are fairly replicable: friending, upvoting, comments, posts, discovery.
One possible piece of the puzzle as to why Ello (or Google Wave?) didn’t reach a fraction of Facebook’s U.S. user share is that they didn’t offer enough of a different value proposition. If you care about safe street design in your city, or clean groundwater in your community, or accountable policing in your neighborhood, you can certainly talk about those issues now on Facebook, but you’re unlikely to receive an official response or change policy from Facebook.
However, if elected official data was provided free via an open API and bulk data downloads, any app or website would be able to structure communications with a government office or agency. Conversations about improving your community might move off Facebook and onto a more-focused local app, where better results could be obtained and continually discussed. The digital “open government” movement never matured to the point of offering circa-2011 Democracy Map’s open data to new startups: who represents you down to the local level, what are community groups saying about them, which industries and companies support them with contributions and lobbying, who is running against them in the next primary or general election.
Currently, Facebook has no incentive to fund an outside nonprofit to release open data about who’s running for office in your area and what people are saying about them, because they gain time-on-app from the confusion and frustrated searches of a degraded and partisan democracy. No charitable foundation or millionaire philanthropist has funded its development in the data commons. When Facebook developed some recent Town Hall democracy features, it used closed, for-profit commercial data sets, not supporting nonprofits with a mission to liberate open data for the public benefit. Its election alerts are partial and sporadic, and do not have an active community in outside democracy groups or media partners, who rightfully distrust the company for its past stonewalling of independent transparency efforts.
Diaspora, by being libre to being remixed, might have offered this kind of open platform and an incentive for a charitable funder to finally create open data for U.S. representative democracy. But as it was, one of its co-founders said in 2014, it still felt like a “ghost town” compared to Facebook. Unwinding the centralization of the Facebook walled garden will take lots more experiments, and moving the value created out of the Facebook database and into the real world will require creating more “hooks” into outside processes. One promising area, then, would be open standards for messaging elected officials and pledging to vote for politicians challenging them in the next primary or general election—more civic features for informed representative democracy. Another is independently-owned, membership-driven publishing platforms that protect free speech rights and support ethical journalism, the kind we’re seeking to develop on Sludge and our sibling site Popula.
These paths are not expensive infrastructure to develop and maintain—an open-data non-profit could release the missing U.S. city-level data at comparatively-affordable initial investment levels, with tens of millions more town & village residents able to offer their data in the open standard. Sludge and Popula’s publishing platforms are lean digital newsrooms, with a path to member- and subscriber-driven sustainability in about one year, with additional operating support.
The brutal logic of centralization that’s powered Facebook assumes its available features will always be best in class. It’s proven incredibly hard for newcomers to disrupt Facebook’s ad model and feature set. But innovative features on other websites can still open the playing field and start attracting enough users to prompt some concessions from Facebook on data portability. If a new app plays a key role in a successful campaign to legalize marijuana in a state, or ban coal plants, Facebook might have to open up its democracy features to an open standard for messaging elected officials. This approach, developing new civic features on new apps, doesn’t require waiting for federal regulators at the FTC and FCC to advance the long antitrust process of restructuring the company in January 2021 (though they hopefully will, and rapidly).
The point is that supporters of a Facebook competitor in 2020 and 2021 don’t need to “pick winners”—no one can likely predict what new games, rewards, designs, p2p organizing features, and community will develop if apps and websites can interact with government decision makers and policy makers in continual, structured ways. Instead of spending tens of millions retroactively to debate how to mitigate harms of the centralized Facebook behemoth, an angel investment in shared civic infrastructure is a beneficial option for democracy funders, who can build new businesses from the foundation of the open-data commons. Developing open API’s for civic features on any website could be done by an initial team for an initial investment of half a million dollars annually—and then who knows what rivals to Facebook might be created. Developing a journalist-owned independent media platform could start in the same ballpark. There would be new value created from these resources in the civic commons, and angel investors could reasonably arrange to see their initial funding returned in years to come… though it would require patience and modest expectations, towards the health of democracy in the next decade.
The similarities to catastrophic climate degradation are inescapable. If a President Gore in 2000 had begun reducing carbon emissions gradually and developing renewable energy infrastructure, the costs and timeline of the climate crisis would be immensely more manageable. But now the U.S. must lead the world in halving emissions by 2030 to avoid unthawing methane in the tundra and causing currently-unstoppable and climate-devastating feedback loops of warming and ecosystem damage. Renewable energy was not nearly enough of a priority for governments or angel investors compared to the immediate returns of legacy fossil fuels, so now the costs are more significant (though they are still realistic, especially to increase our odds of global survival and prevent some billions of deaths).
All the retroactive debates about Facebook seem strong evidence that the inevitable costs of inaction are rising, and that public trust in democracy is low and trending in the wrong direction (even if the 2018 midterm election turnout was relatively high). As with investing in renewable energy startups for decarbonization, diversified modest investments in a number of new approaches to what can be done in social networks over the next two years might illuminate the civic features that ultimately crack open Facebook’s monopoly.