Mark Zuckerberg fucking loves Facebook. He thinks it’s great. Were someone to tell him it sucked — using phrases like “surveillance capitalism,” “passive radicalisation,” “kind of a boring place” — he would probably disagree with them, maybe even strongly. For that reason, and many others, it seems unlikely that Zuck would ever pull the plug on Facebook. Odds are, the guy wants to grow it. “Larger! Larger!” — that’s what Zuckerberg (probably) thinks, contemplating his platform’s trajectory. Still, it’s nice to dream of a better world, even if no such world is forthcoming — and so, for this week’s Giz Asks, we asked a number of experts what might happen if Zuckerberg were to suddenly deleted all of Facebook.
Co-founder of Elevation Partners, an early investor in Facebook, and the author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe
If Zuck were to get rid of both Facebook and Instagram, I would personally nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Now, that would be a little like rewarding an arsonist for putting out their own fire — but I’d be willing to make an exception.
For years, I’ve said that Zuck is the person with the ultimate power to fix what’s wrong with internet platforms. He could still be the hero in his own story by radically altering the business model of Facebook and Instagram — to put an end to the spreading of hate and disinformation and conspiracy theories. Obviously, just shutting Facebook down would achieve that decisively.
Zuck has achieved everything he could possibly have imagined. At this point, the consequences of Facebook’s continued success are catastrophic: disinformation on COVID, for instance, has really undermined the nation’s response to the virus. And as we’ve recently seen, there are at least three million people in Facebook groups or following Instagram pages associated with QAnon. Facebook’s own data says 64% of the time people join an extremist group on their site, it’s because Facebook recommended it. And that’s before we get to the face that Facebook’s platforms have become the primary organizational tool for white supremacists; and that’s before you get to the whole issue of climate change denial.
Considering all that, I think if Mark were to shut Facebook down, he’d rightfully be celebrated as a humanitarian. Granted, I wish he’d done it a few years ago, but as far as I’m concerned any time would be fine.
Would another platform spring up to take its place? Sure. To be clear, I think it would take two weeks max — maybe a month. If you cleared Facebook out of the way, it would be replaced by probably dozens of different products at first. The key question is, what would they look like? Would new people emerge who were willing to focus on the good that Facebook facilitates, and take steps to prevent the bad? Would we see people approaching social platforms the way that Duck Duck Go has approached search and browsers? Scale is indisputably a big part of the problem with Facebook; not having it would be a feature, not a bug.
My big policy ask in Washington these days is to insist on a duty of care in tech — to hold it responsible the same way we do the building trade, or pharmaceuticals, where you really have to guarantee the safety and freedom from bias of your products. To me, the end-goal is to encourage people to adopt business models where harm is not inevitable.
Assistant Professor, Developmental Behavioural Pediatrics, University of Michigan
If Mark Zuckerberg just suddenly deleted Facebook, I think a couple of really positive things could happen.
First, people would realise how fine they are without it. In some of my recent conversations with parents about social media, they’ve kind of written off Facebook as a place where they see a lot of ads, polarised messages, and vitriol. An experiment before the 2018 US midterm election showed that deactivating facebook for four weeks led to less political polarization, more time socialising with family and friends, and increased subjective well-being (Allcott, Hunt, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, and Matthew Gentzkow. 2020. “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” American Economic Review, 110 (3): 629-76.DOI: 10.1257/aer.20190658). Support groups, local organisations, and others that use Facebook for community organising could find different platforms (or even better, ex-Facebook programmers could create a new platform that doesn’t collect data or algorithmically accelerate misinformation). For example, I would love for there to be a platform where parents of children with autism, who I see in clinic, could support each other without their data being exploited to feed them advertisements about fake autism cures.
Advertisers easily would find other venues, as shown during the Stop Hate for Profit campaign.
Political discourse could move into phone and video conversations, or maybe some ex-Facebook programmers could create virtual town halls with a mix of undecided voters who want to have authentic, moderated conversations — rather than just skimming, sharing, and reacting to posts curated precisely for their cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities.
Even better would be if Mark Zuckerberg would also delete Facebook Graph — the vast database about our online behaviours that treats humans as “objects” — and set an example for the industry that brokering people’s psychological profiles and experiences is not an ethical way to make money. It would probably be a nice relief to the environment to not have so much energy expended to cool all those servers or run algorithms on our data.
Assistant Professor, Competition Law, Tilburg University
Facebook finds itself under increasing scrutiny from regulators all over the world for issues relating to privacy, security and competition. One might therefore think the disappearance of the social network would be a relief for all those worrying about the immense power Facebook holds. However, it is not self-evident that a sudden shutdown of the social network would benefit us as a society. The key question is what would take the place of Facebook, and in particular what would happen with Facebook’s most valuable asset, namely the trove of data it possesses.
If other tech giants like Google, Amazon or Apple that are under similar political and regulatory pressure filled the gap left by Facebook and managed to lay their hands on Facebook’s data, we might be worse off because similar services would be concentrated in even fewer hands. Without a regulatory intervention, such a scenario is likely as markets for online services have a tendency to be dominated by a few players due to characteristics like network effects, economies of scale and scope. Google tried to compete with Facebook’s social network but closed down its Google+ service in 2019. This illustrates the difficulty of staying sustainable in a market that is already dominated by a big player, even for a company like Google which has huge resources and very deep pockets.
The more optimistic scenario would be to take the disappearance of Facebook as an opportunity to redesign the landscape of online services by facilitating the entry of smaller players. Considering the crucial role of data in the success of today’s online businesses, it would be key to ensure that Facebook’s users retain access to their Facebook data and can transfer it to other businesses, including smaller start-ups. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation provides for such a right to data portability that enables individuals to have their personal data moved to an alternative provider. A shutdown of Facebook may lead many users to be interested in invoking this right, which has so far had limited practical impact. However, data portability alone might not be enough to ensure more diversity and choice for social network users. In addition, interoperability may be desirable to ensure that individuals can connect with each other online irrespective of the social network they use, just like we can make a phone call to everyone who has a phone number regardless of our telecom provider. This would do away with the current ‘walled garden’ environment created by Facebook and instead give rise to a more open and interconnected landscape. So provided the right conditions are put in place by regulators, a shutdown of Facebook would be an opportunity to create a more competitive and diverse market for social networks.
Distinguished Professor, Behavioural Addiction, Nottingham Trent University
There are a number of things to consider when asking this question. If Facebook was suddenly deleted, then (i) there are many other social media platforms that individuals would no doubt gravitate towards instead (i.e., there would be a displacement effect), and (ii) if other social media platforms didn’t provide the same type of function as Facebook and did not fulfil the needs and gratifications that Facebook currently does, then another social media platform would evolve or be created from scratch by someone else to fill the vacuum. If all social media platforms were suddenly deleted then (after the initial feelings of loss and shock) we would simply adapt to the new reality of the situation. In the past months we’ve all had to get used to living without things that we took for granted and the vast majority simply re-adjust their lives accordingly. If there’s one thing that human beings do is we adapt to new situations we find ourselves in. Obviously a small minority fail to cope with such adjustments and may suffer mental health problems as a result, but such problems can be triggered by any number of different situations and it all comes down to a person’s individual resilience in such situations.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Psychology, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany whose research focuses on the relationship between (social) media use, personality, and mental health
If Mark Zuckerberg just suddenly deleted Facebook, many people worldwide would feel very lonely. They would suffer from not knowing how to manage daily interactions, how to communicate with friends and how to get news. Some people would experience strong physical and mental withdrawal symptoms — like craving experienced by clinical patients who are addicted to alcohol and are on a “cold withdrawal.” And of course, there would be a significant economic loss for many companies that cooperate with Facebook. Considering our research findings, instead of a sudden deletion of Facebook that can cause a lot of harm in different areas — because of the impact Facebook has on its members and the society — it is important that each user starts to consciously reduce the time spent on the online platform. In a recent study, we show that less Facebook use can improve well-being and contribute to a healthier lifestyle — that is more physical activity and less smoking behaviour. It is important that people — specifically the younger ones — realise that there is an exciting offline world outside the Facebook world.
Professor and Youse Chair, Information Design, Bentley University
Senior Consultant, Research & Learning Technologies, Bentley University
We would like to answer this on three levels: (1) delete just Facebook; (2) delete all social media; (3) generate new forms of social media: what would the design principle be?
(1) Delete just Facebook
If Facebook were deleted, for some people, everything would change in the short term. For Facebook is many people’s medium of identity, communication, community, etc. However, in the longer term nothing would change. People would soon migrate to other platforms, and new alternatives would spring up to fill the vacuum. Facebook created a new ‘need’ and deleting it would just open a market opportunity.
(2) Delete all social media
The generalized version of the first question is: what would happen if all social media were deleted? To answer this, one needs to look at what social media does. The media theorist Marshal McLuhan observed that “the medium is the message,” the weak form of which is “the medium shapes the message.” However, McLuhan wrote in a time of broadcast media.
What would the corresponding axiom be for the age of social media? We propose that it is this: “We become the medium through which we interact: The medium is us.” Why is this? Because the medium dictates: (1) what we think and feel about, (2) the lexicon of our thoughts and feelings, and (3) the nature of the community in which our collective thoughts and feelings develop.
So, what is the nature of social media and what have we become? In general, social media flattens the message to a point where the headline is the homily, the tweet is the tale, the label is the load. Multidimensionality becomes unidimensional; unidimensionality become binaries, depth collapses to surface, nuance becomes naivety, signal is lost in noise. This has brought forth an emotional, tribal, superficial, polarised society, of uncritical thinking and uncritical feeling.
(3) Generate new social media
If we are the medium, then when designing new platforms, we need to ask ourselves the question: ‘What do we want to become?’ We need to think about the characteristics that we want new mediums to elicit and cultivate. A first step might be found in Ashby’s cybernetic law of Requisite Variety, defined as “the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states” or more pithily “only variety can absorb variety.” If this law is not met, you have an unstable system. This is the current state of social media, which is contributing to the disintegration of society. Thus, we need to develop mediums that allow us the requisite variety to address the problems — individual, social, political, and environmental — that we are faced with. More simply, we need mediums that foster the development of individual and collective wisdom.
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