a line up of people, all on their phones
A backlash has been growing against the power the social media giants has in our lives. Whatever the outcome, ask yourself: is my time spent online time well spent? PHOTO: Shane Rounce

The firestorm about fake news and the role of social media in determining the outcome of the 2016 election is continuing to make waves. Calls for regulating Facebook and other social media outlets, once relegated to political outliers, are now coming from a broad range of civic advocates, including former Facebook and Google employees and investors.

Such calls led Congress, in October 2017, to initiate an investigation of Facebook's, Google's and Twitter's role in influencing the results of the 2016 presidential election.  Having previously dismissed their influence in the election, the social media giants were more forthcoming on Capitol Hill. Facebook admitted that more than 126 million people saw inflammatory ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company. Twitter admitted to 131,000 inflammatory posts and Google’s YouTube owned up to hosting over 1,000 such videos during the election campaign.

The Backlash Against Social Media Giants

It is not surprising that civic activists are rising up against the social media giants. The 2016 election may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but for quite some time, many people have felt that Facebook, Google and Twitter wield too much power, and there is far too little oversight for society’s good.

What is surprising is the scathing and pointed criticism coming from within the ranks of Silicon Valley, from the very engineers who created the social network ‘Frankensteins’ in the first place.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Sandy Parakalis, a former operations manager at Facebook, spotlighted the dangers of trusting personal data to Facebook, concluding that “Facebook needs to be regulated more tightly, or broken up so that no single entity controls all of its data. The company won’t protect us by itself, and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.”

In an Op-Ed piece appearing in The Guardian, early Facebook and Google investor Roger McNamee stated that “Facebook and [Google parent] Alphabet have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits” by addicting people to use their platforms. McNamee maintains this addiction was accomplished through “consciously combined persuasive techniques developed by propagandists and the gambling industry with technology in ways that threaten public health and democracy.” 

He concluded that, “society regulates products that create addiction. We have laws to prevent discrimination and election manipulation. None of these regulations and laws has yet been applied to Facebook and Google. The time has come.”  In a follow up piece in the Washington Monthly, McNamee goes as far as detailing an eight-step program for breaking up the Facebook/Google duopoly.

Most vocal in the ‘stop Facebook and Google’ movement is former Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris. Appearing in Wired, The Atlantic and most famously on CBS News’ 60 Minutes, Harris has been working the media circuit, unveiling the techniques used by Facebook and Google to addict users to smartphone and desktop apps. Over 1.8 million viewers have seen Harris’ TED Talk, which focuses on taking back control of our attention, something Harris claims is being hijacked by the social media giants to show us ads. 

Harris concludes “there's nothing in your life or in our collective problems that does not require our ability to put our attention where we care about. At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. What will be time well spent for ours?”

Time well spent 

These three words characterize not only the battle for our attention, they have come to define the battleground for the future of social media, digital privacy and the government regulation of online services in 2018. On one side of the divide are the civic activists, and on the other are the social media moguls.

Time Well Spent According to Civic Activists

Aiming to help us take back control of our attention, Harris has launched a non-profit organization, “Time Well Spent” whose purpose is nothing less than saving humanity from addictive technology:

“In the future, we will look back at today as a turning point towards humane design: when we moved away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society.”

Ironically, a Time Well Spent group has even appeared on Facebook itself. The group discusses how apps like Facebook are tricking us into sacrificing valuable time while enriching app developers. Discussions in this group contain links to articles, like one entitled “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can't you put it down?

Make no mistake: this movement is not being driven by social media Luddites. It seems to be mostly comprised of concerned practitioners, who are alarmed by the unintended consequences of the technology they themselves helped create.

Time Well Spent According to Facebook

With the Time Well Spent movement picking up momentum, it’s no surprise that Facebook is sitting up and taking notice.

Earlier this month, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, wrote a post on the Facebook blog that starts with the sentence “One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.” [my emphasis]. The post goes on to quote Facebook-funded research, saying:

“Research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they're entertaining or informative — may not be as good.”

This last sentence is a wild understatement. "Bad" social network experiences are less than "not as good” — they have been shown to induce depression … and these bad experiences are at least partially responsible for the current backlash against Facebook.

In the post, Zuckerberg goes on to say that in the coming months, Facebook will be “focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions … you'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands and media.”

Zuckerberg admits that he expects that these changes to Facebook content will reduce the amount of time people spend on Facebook, but by enhancing peoples’ experiences, this will ultimately be good for business, as well as humanity. He concludes:

“By focusing on bringing people closer together — whether it's with family and friends, or around important moments in the world — we can help make sure that Facebook is time well spent.”

Time well spent …

Zuckerberg: An Enlightened Monopolist?

So, which is it? Can we take Zuckerberg at face value as humanist who cares about creating positive experiences, or is he simply an information monopolist struggling to maintain control of his empire before the government intervenes to break up it up?  

Before you answer, consider this is not the first time this situation has presented itself. Let’s wind the clock back 100 years.

In the early 1900s, Thomas Vail, then head of AT&T, was busy building the Bell telephone system. Vail dreamed of building a universal telephone system that would, "connect ever one in every place to everyone in every other place … a system that extends from every man’s door to every other man’s door."

In his excellent history of information empires, "The Master Switch," Professor Tim Wu brands Vail an "enlightened monopolist," a man who sought to control communications for the greater good, while recognizing his responsibility and accountability to the public. To achieve his goals, Vail ruthlessly crushed his competition.  But in contrast with contemporary industrialists like Ford and Edison, Vail was able to remain a popular and respected figure, largely because his goals of creating a single interconnecting communication system were admirable. As a result, the Bell monopoly was able to remain in place for over 60 years.

Fast forward to 2012. Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook, as enshrined in the company’s IPO filing, sounds reminiscent to Vail’s, “There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future. The scale of the technology and infrastructure that must be built is unprecedented, and we believe this is the most important problem we can focus on.”

Zuckerberg believed that Facebook could in fact create "a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time."

According to Zuckerberg, the essence of the Facebook vision is “we’ve always cared primarily about our social mission, the services we’re building and the people who use them.”

Zuckerberg’s vision sounds surprisingly similar to Vail’s. Of course, we all know what happened to the Bell System. After several decades of acrimonious litigation, the government finally broke up the Bell monopoly in 1984.

A Resolution We Can All Agree On

So from our vantage point in 2018, in light of what we know from the past, is Zuckerberg a latter-day Thomas Vail who truly believes in the value to society of his enlightened monopoly, or is he an astute businessman who is trying to head off a backlash that could lead to government regulation? Or is he both?

Considering the roots of Facebook as an app to connect college friends, I would like to believe that Zuckerberg means well. Even so, that will hardly be enough to tame the greed that drives Facebook, Google, Twitter and the myriad other addictive technology companies who continue to exploit our weaknesses for their own profits.

In the meantime, you can expect to hear a lot about “time well spent” in 2018, from both sides of the aisle — from civic activists as well as from app developers.

Regardless of how this shakes out, set your own new year’s resolution for 2018 — make sure your time online is “time well spent.’