Commentary

How Facebook Shifted From Service To Extortion

Dear Facebook, “filter bubbles” and “fake news” are poorly defined problems, so they can only lead to stupid solutions. I have written about my problems with your service from the commodity’s perspective. But your biggest problems we all share:

  • You prioritize paid content – that’s service. But you also hide unpaid content. And that’s extortion.
  • You have consciously turned yourself into the editor-in-chief of The Front Page of The Internet but reject the responsibility. It is not about money anymore.

(Read the first part of the letter here.)

Dear Facebook,

The first part of this letter was posted on the blog’s Facebook page 4 hours ago. In those 4 hours you deigned to show it to a grand total of 4 people.

The previous post was shown to a seed audience of 168 out of 1844 followers – in 3 days. That’s a little under 10%. The fact that we consider it normal tells all we need to know about your business model. (It’s richly ironic that the previous post is about soft forms of economic censorship.)

In the first letter I complained how I end up in the 90% for most pages I follow. No matter how long I keep scrolling and how much of my life and attention I sacrifice to you, I never seem to reach the end of sponsored content. Not because there is so much – but because you keep repeating it to me. For days on end. It is obviously not good for me.

But it’s even worse for those who create content for a living.

Prioritizing paid content is one thing – Hiding unpaid content is a different matter entirely.

After all the scrolling, why can’t I see the unpaid stuff? Why can I not see unboosted posts from Berlin fringe theater groups once I scrolled through the sponsored content? Don’t I deserve something for myself after I paid you with so much time from my life? Why am I seeing the same posts over and over instead?

Of course your advertisers are your priority. Cats can’t pay to boost their photos – so I don’t see cat photos anymore. You are my pimp allowing your customers to penetrate my eyeballs – but you don’t give anything back to me. I don’t mean money, Facebook, but you could really give me something I want once in a while. Like a few cats.

cat-humor-cats-vs-toilet-paper-gif-1

Give me back my cats, Facebook, and I’ll keep scrolling…

Not seeing stuff chronologically makes me sad (and it makes me go to Tumblr) but I understand. But hiding content from those who don’t pay? That’s a completely different game, Facebook. That’s extortion.

Once you start hiding content unless they pay, it is no longer service but extortion.

 

The editor-in-chief of The Front Page of The Internet

I understand why you don’t let content just flow chronologically: you want editorial power over The Front Page of The Internet. You want that unfathomable power because it pays well. Prioritizing content allows you to earn money for providing a service – which is fine. But once you start hiding unpaid content, you step on the thin ice of extortion.

And you want to be the editor of the Front Page Of The Internet – while denying the responsibility that comes with it? Can I please get a job like that?

That’s another thing that makes me vomit. You depend on those journalists to deliver content. (Even more so because I refuse to upload latte art.) Actually, the entire society depends on journalists to investigate the powerful. And yet, you treat them like shit. You expect them to do it without getting paid. I understand that you want to make money with your efforts, Facebook. Now it’s your turn to understand that journalists want to make a living while they do the legwork for us.

But you take the income from those journalists on both ends: First, you attracted their advertisers – which is fine. (Although your algorithm is really bad at second guessing me.) But for now, advertisers believe they get better “targeting” than just advertising in papers. I strongly believe they are wrong, but you convinced them. Good for you.

But apart from sucking off their advertising revenues, you also demand that publishers pay to get on your platform. And that’s extortion. In other words, you don’t just mistreat me, your commodity. You even mistreat your paying customers. Yes, they are upset that you hide their content from me. But so am I because I want to read it. And I am not happy that they need to pay you to deliver me the information I want to see – and they want me to see.

How are you better than the academic publishers that make every party (scholar, university, libraries, readers) pay a fortune for content they didn’t create? You stand between mutually willing (and self-financing) parties and charge them to connect. The only difference is that you haven’t put the content behind a paywall – yet.

It has political implications

You are in the first world, so let me tell you something about the rest of the world. How do you think this society will keep functioning if journalists have to work for free and investigating the powerful becomes the pastime for the well-off? We should thank our good luck that some of us want to become journalists and want to play watchdog. It is risky in most countries. Sometimes, they get killed. Like last week in Slovakia. Often they get harassed – even by their own governments. Like over here. But some are still disagreeable enough to keep investigating the powerful and to keep them (a bit more) honest. They are now stuck between you and a hard place. Their security threatened by the powerful, they livelihood threatened by their government – and now even you, Facebook.

I don’t ask you to provide your platform for free. Suck in all the advertising money for your poorly targeted ads, if you must. But why do you expect journalists to make a living out of thin air, in spite of the risks, and also make them pay to distribute their work?

Yes, you can make the whole world pay. Yes, you can kill journalism off – both locally and nationally. But is that really how you want to go down in history?

Facebook, you are a public utility company

You have consciously turned yourself into a public utility. You didn’t just make yourself unavoidable and thus a platform monopoly – you even act like an authority. You even took the liberty to ID each and every user like a herd of sheep – as if you were a policeman. You were facing the wrongly defined problem of “fake profiles” and did what every inane government does: did something prudent-looking, but essentially just a substitute solution. You did something for the sake of doing something – but didn’t bother to define the problem properly. So you asked for our passport copies. How can I protect you as a private enterprise after that?

The truth is, I don’t. I don’t care about its legal status, but once a company starts relying on state support, tailored laws and generally tries to participate in the extortion game (rather than providing a service), they are out of the realm of a free market. They are not voluntary anymore. I can’t choose not joining (and thus to let myself be sold) without suffering societal consequences – and newspapers cannot afford to not pay to broadcast their content.

You should either let go of your editorial power and let news flow chronologically – or don’t get surprised by regulators turning up at your door.

But regulation is not what I want, Facebook, it is never what I want. Not even for you. Because regulations are dumb and pointless. Remember how dumb and pointless it was to police all of us for government-issued IDs? (FYI, “fake profiles” is not a problem. What they are used for is.) Or how stupid it is to practice wide-scale, manual censorship? It costs a lot, does a lot of damage – but doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Not even close.

Actually, regulations will create even worse problems because regulators define problems even more poorly.

By becoming the gatekeeper of information and extorting money in exchange for publishing highly relevant content – news – that is crucial to the workings of a free society, you have gained too much power. Yet, you refuse to admit it. It is not just about money anymore. And you are not just a company.

Let me summarize this:

  1. Whom can you charge? You decided never to charge the users – because they are your commodity. So you are left with advertisers and content providers to charge.
  2. Who could provide content? Personal content is diminishing. People no longer want to share the Facebook way – or only very stupid or politically motivated people do – so the quality of the user-generated content is beneath contempt. So what you are left is content creators. But those who don’t pay – don’t get shown.

Why don’t you just get it over with and ban all unpaid content? So that everyone would see you for what you are: a billboard of adverts with the political equivalent of penises drawn on it. And some tired latte art.

anigif_original-27382-1441761102-4

This post was sponsored by not scrolling down Facebook for a whole day.

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Featured image: Luis Quiles Artworks

NB: Every company gets old and turns to extortion – if they can. This is why my support for free markets does not mean support for anything that is legally a private company. The world is more complicated than that.

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2 thoughts on “How Facebook Shifted From Service To Extortion

  1. Pingback: If I were a politician I would pay Facebook to… | Meanwhile in Budapest

  2. Pingback: The Day I Stopped Scrolling Down | Meanwhile in Budapest

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