The more frantic we become about the wickedness and power of the platforms, the more we confirm that power. The more action we demand of police and legislators, the more we confirm their exceptional status, their transcendence.
The standard position now —in the mainstream anyway?—?is that the social media platforms ‘wield too much power’, that they operate vital infrastructure recklessly, endangering democracy, threatening free speech, exposing our kids to harm, silencing the righteous and platforming the wicked and that they’re impossible to do without.
The premise is that the platforms are so very very important, that they’ve come to fill a vital, irreplacable public role. That they’re ‘the new public square’?—?our agora —but also that they’ve evolved into a hideous, out-of-control threat to liberty, happiness and democracy.
(there are places where the platforms are actually important: in those places where Internet access is provided by Facebook, for instance, where Zuckerberg has suffocated the net, inverted it).
As a result, the argument goes, we must act?—?hold the platforms to account, require them to operate their sprawling businesses differently. It’s urgent. Influential people write leader articles about the platforms’ power and venality, we discuss them in our legislatures, grill them in committee rooms, watch their CEOs sweat.
We demand the impossible?—?and it makes us look stupid
So the heat is on for the platforms. They must delete posts we object to and remove users who upset and bully others (oh, and they must simultaneously protect freedom of expression, leaving up inflammatory posts because of ‘the right to offend’). Everywhere, demands are made and sanctions proposed—vast fines, forced break-ups, exclusion from markets, mandated payments to publishers.
Legislators and columnists require the platforms to perform implausibly complex tasks?—?reading billions of posts to find content that offends, for instance, or policing membership lists to weed out the hateful or the banned. Some of these measures would be, if enacted, brutally intrusive, requiring a scary level of cross-matching and de-anonymisation, but somehow we’re able to overlook the obvious damage our most extreme instincts would produce.
More recently, we make ridiculous demands of a magical AI that doesn’t exist yet. We’ve convinced ourselves that software whose primary function is targeting adverts should also easily be able to preemptively locate child abuse, automatically dob in terrorists and take down offensive videos before they’ve offended anyone.
Of course the grim truth is that all this public bluster about the massive, overbearing power of social media is actually in the interests of the platforms. It suits them that we believe all this nonsense. We must continue to believe that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are both vital and evil.
Our dark fantasies make them stronger
The absurdity of the demands we make is paradoxically necessary to the platforms’ survival. They’ll ritually push back against our naive demands but they know that while horrified influencers and worried legislators are busy hand-wringing about their untramelled power, their continued economic dominance is protected.
If Zuckerberg were to let on that it’s literally impossible for Facebook to read and filter everything posted?—?take down offensive or illegal content before it goes live, identify malfeasance as it happens?—?the mystique might begin to fade. These enormous web sites may be giant, exploitive ethical voids but they have no magical powers. They are cleverly-engineered advertising platforms, built for scale, but they are not inevitable, not essential, not even necessary.
We rage that the social media giants are not just ugly, hyper-efficient, profit machines but much worse?—?they’re futuristic, mind-reading robber barons, destroying our democracies, eviscerating our noble, centuries-old print media, stealing our children’s lives and happiness.
Shoshana Zuboff, in her 2019 hit, goes further, asserting that Zuckerberg et al have invented not only hyper-efficient ad targeting tools but a new kind of capitalism?—?a virulent and predatory one that’s somehow more damaging, more alienating than the old one.
Our epic displacement activities
Legislatures everywhere are confused and paralysed by the apparent omnipotence of the platfoms. Their response is not to find practical ways to diminish their influence (and maybe tax their profits) but to panic and invent whole new categories of offense. In Britain an Online Harms Act is beginning its legislative journey now. It’s a complex and well-meaning misplacement of energy?—?a blend of the undeliverable and the undesirable?—?that makes actually tackling the platforms harder, by further mystifying their operations, by redefining them as slippery, dystopian, essentially impossible to deal with.
But here’s the thing: they’re not impossible, they’re not essential to our lives and they’re certainly not omnipotent. To say they are is to misrecognise them. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their satellites are ugly, exploitive, alienating places and they’ve hoovered up a ridiculous, intimidatory share of our attention, our advertising budgets and our waking lives but they’re definitely not important.
And acting like they are important?—?in some way inevitable?—?is paralysing us, leaving us stranded on their arid plateux, over-invested and over-committed. We’re so impressed by the scale and inscrutability of these fast-moving, hypermodern systems, their vast, deliberately-obfuscated structures and codebases. We’re so absorbed by the sleight-of-hand that made us all entirely dependent before we noticed they were just bullshitters (pyramid schemes, junk mail shysters) that we’ve become incapable of recognising our own agency, our own perfectly intact ability to dump these nobodies and move on.
The social platforms aren’t impossible to deal with but they are unreformable. Waiting for them to fall inline, conform to social and commercial norms, agitating for compliance and limits and sanctions just produces the most uncomfortable contortions, but instead of acknowleding this and figuring out how to toss them into a volcano we twist our legal codes into knots, trying somehow to fit the most exploitive businesses since the East India Company into our economies, our cultures, our polities.
Unwinding our dependence on the platforms will not be easy. I’m not an apologist for the Silicon Valley plutocracy. Reducing their share of our attention, limiting the corosive, hollowing-out effect they have on our businesses, institutions, democratic systems and public discourse will not be trivial. Their epic access to cash and the institutional cover they’re able to tap into gives them access to essentially unlimited resources.
Giving up the platforms
We’ve convinced ourselves that dealing with the platforms requires an epic, multi-decade war, an existential struggle, fought through every national legislature, every polity, every school and media company. But we’ve got it wrong. We need to rediscover our agency, our confidence in ourselves and the courage to get on with flushing them out of our lives.
There’s an analogy with drug addiction. We know a lot about how to limit the malign effects of drugs on our lives and communities but instead of acting, rationally and humanely, to limit harm, we’ve spent decades fighting a pointless and cruel ‘war on drugs’ that consumes resources and lives to no effect but meets the cynical needs of politicians and elites. Boom.
Likewise, we know perfectly well how to dump the social networks (Jaron Lanier explained all this years ago, of course). We know what they’re doing to us and to our communities and institutions. Quitting will be hard but it is possible and it will produce a kind of self-reinforcing collective joy. Doing so will empower us, free our minds and make a whole new generation of real online communities possible.
In his book The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour develops the drug additiction idea. It’s not a hopeful book but he does believe we can break our social media addictions, that quitting our platform habit is both desirable and feasible— to get there he says we need an ‘escapology’, ‘a theory of how to get out before it’s too late’. And Seymour’s escapology isn’t just for you and me, it’s for our communities, companies, institutions and nations.
How to do this
And what’s clear is that our escaplogy won’t involve agitating for compliance with social and commercial norms, twisting our legal codes into knots, requiring ever more complex responses from the platforms. It’ll involve giving them up.
For businesses and organisations this means investing in their own platforms?—?neglected for a decade now?—?and winding down their sad dependence on social media. For people and communities it’ll involve getting organised and working out how to communicate and collaborate without the platforms. And don’t forget, all the tools for doing this still exist, all are still in use, some are still thriving.
Publishers (the mugs who provide the content that animates these sterile landscapes): write a new strategy that reduces your dependence on social media and moves you back onto a platform you control, over time. In the meantime, retrain your social media teams, tighten up your publishing tools to support the media types that work for you on social (don’t forget to make it all work vertically!).
Governments, NGOs, instititutions: do it now, don’t wait around. You have less of an incentive to stay on the platforms, you’re not so wired into their economics. Close and mothball your accounts, invest in your own web sites (some of which are already excellent). Use all the energy you’ve been pouring into social media to rebuild and spread your web skills, reintegrate your content assets and your social strategy. Trust me, if you’ve been investing in social for years it’ll seem weird to begin with, but once you’re recovered your momentum it’ll feel amazing to be putting all your effort into your own stuff.
Brands: tricky. You’ve moved your entire digital presence onto the platforms, you’ve tied your Facebook strategy into your launch regime and your ad budget, your brandter is fundamental to your identity. And, tbh, if this works out, if the rest of us can slowly reduce our dependence on the platforms and rebuild our autonomous presence on the internet, you might find yourself out there, just you and all the other brands, chatting to each other.
Individuals: okay, I know, there are endless tools and narratives about how to give up or dial down your social media?—?from radical abstention to carefully-measured social media diets (often actually administered by the tech firms). I won’t try to add anything here but, if you do nothing else, find the log-in for your old blog and make a couple of trial posts.
Escaping the platform economy is possible, but to diminish its hold on us we must first recognise that we really really want to.