BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It's too early to estimate the impact of the Cambridge Analytica scandal on Facebook or on the rest of the tech platforms now mining and selling every nano-second of our lives but one can’t help but fee; that whether through legislation, regulation or customer revolt something’s got to give.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It may seem as if it were ever thus but it wasn’t. In fact, back in October of 2012, I spoke to author, educator and all-around new media visionary Clay Shirky about whether Facebook's rising star would ever fall. And he said --
[10/26/12 OTM CLIP]:
CLAY SHIRKY: It’s hard to guess how long Facebook will be around. I mean, everything ends at some point. But I don't think that there's any foreseeable future in which Facebook goes away or even becomes significantly smaller or less important than it currently is. Make a list of their advantages: Enormous user base, incredible economies of scale, world-class infrastructure. Advertisers are tripping over themselves to get involved. No one wants to call themselves a competitor. Now make a list of the disadvantages, right? A handful of privacy nuts are cranky.
Can you think of a second thing to add to that list? I can’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, five and a half years later, we figured
you could think of a few more, right? [LAUGHS]
CLAY SHIRKY: [LAUGHS] No, absolutely, the list has gotten longer.
You know, the challenge that Facebook faces is because they’re operating in a scale with no one has ever even really thought about before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was an unprecedented scale when we talked in 2012.
CLAY SHIRKY: But it was at least a scale that was similar in size to nation states. Now there are not even countries as large as Facebook, 2 billion monthly unique users. If you took China and you added the entire population of America and then you added the entire population of America again, that is Facebook.
It’s now operating at such a scale that ordinary people can't think through the ramifications of what could go wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aside from just scale, how did they get themselves in this position? I think they've played fast and loose with the data with absolutely no consequences.
CLAY SHIRKY: The playing-fast-and-loose question really comes down to legality versus ethics. Every click-through license you've never read for every piece of software you want to use has basically committed your first born.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
CLAY SHIRKY: I mean, no one reads [LAUGHS] those documents. And this is where, I think, Facebook is in trouble now, is, is cold comfort to people who regard what Cambridge Analytica is doing as being possibly legal but definitely wrong. I still think Facebook is not going away. They will have to be regulated. They’ll have to change some of their business practices. But, as many people have been pointing out, “just leave Facebook” is not an option for many people. The idea that, oh, you can just quit and be part of your small community, you know, a friend of mine is saying, look, I have a rare disease and Facebook has been absolutely invaluable as a support group, as an information group. And the problem Facebook continues to solve is not the problem of helping people talk in groups. The problem Facebook solves is finding people to talk to, in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
CLAY SHIRKY: And that service remains intact. There is a degree of American narcissism here. If the FTC were to come to some consent decree with Facebook that said, you must delete the profiles of all US users, their total population would go down by just a shade over 10 percent. Ninety percent of that company operates outside of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then let's talk about outside the United States. We know that Europe has imposed certain controls on Facebook's use of data --
CLAY SHIRKY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- that we have declined to do.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, of course, they're going to have to be subject to at least the European regulations, and those will have an impact on many American users or won’t it?
CLAY SHIRKY: Germany is now in the position vis-à-vis data what California does for auto regulations. When California sets minimum standards, carmakers just say, look, if we’re going to have to do it for California we might as well have to do it for the whole United States. Germany is now in the position of being willing to enforce data regulations that spread over a large enough area because of the EU expansion, that it will effectively rein in Facebook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For all of us?
CLAY SHIRKY: For all of us. You know, the, the miracle of Facebook is it’s the six degrees of separation model now globally. At some point, if I start saying, oh, these regulations only touch the friends of your friends’ friends, that, that's a bunch of people in Europe already. And so, having to tighten that up will mean that the whole network becomes less fluid for advertisers and more protective of what the users expect out of that service.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You always seem to me to be the ultimate tech optimist.
You know, you believed that the internet had the potential to be a liberating and democratizing force that would transform governments, the way some people feel about capitalism. Do you still feel optimistic?
CLAY SHIRKY: I am much more narrowly optimistic, as I think anyone looking at this environment would be. Many of the things that I and many other people were optimistic about in the last decade, and people were saying, no, that’ll never happen, have not only happened, they’ve been folded into the background. We now all take Wikipedia for granted and you can’t even get a fight going over Wikipedia anymore.
What I did not know and I think, you know, few of us knew, is this ability to concentrate hatred and being able to magnify it at this scale I had underestimated. But I will say, again, that the United States is only a small part of this now and when you see, for instance, what's going on in Zimbabwe or what's going on in South Korea, both of which are having moments of emerging out from under control by autocratic regimes, one democratically elected but autocratically minded, one genuinely autocratic, you absolutely see the ability to coordinate resistance to those regimes as being part of that story.
So there's a degree to which I can be, I think, both very pessimistic about my country, without thinking the story that's going on in the United States is the same as the story that’s going on everywhere in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. So what do you think? Do you think that Congress and/or the FTC will try to take some action? Do you think that this is a Facebook world and it’ll always be a Facebook world and Mark Zuckerberg will say he’s real sorry and just continue doing what he’s always done?
CLAY SHIRKY: This moment feels different but there is no will in a Republican-led Congress to force Facebook to create a more skeptical environment. I think Congress would tolerate an environment in which fewer things went viral and when they went viral they spread less quickly and less far. That, I think, is going to be the net result of this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you do that?
CLAY SHIRKY: You tone down the parts of the algorithm that look for the hottest, newest, most emotionally-driving stuff. The speed with which the Ice Bucket Challenge --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
CLAY SHIRKY: -- spread through Facebook was a result of a whole bunch of engineering choices about, oh, people seem to like these videos, we’re going to prioritize them. You can dial it up or down, and I think Facebook may end up dialing it down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that will cost Facebook time spent online and thus money.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right, The interesting question, and this is the one that Zuckerberg himself has opened up, is: Is time spent online the right metric to be optimizing for any longer? Because, in fact, Facebook is so far out in front that they may be able to worry more about whether or not they are slowly wearing out their existing users because they can't double their user base. They, they literally can’t. With China locking Facebook out and much of the people that they could pick up next essentially waiting for the economic tide to get them smart phones, Facebook is at roughly the scale it will be operating at for the next several years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where does it go? How does it change?
CLAY SHIRKY: So it could potentially change in the direction of user loyalty, rather than simply squeezing every minute out of every day. It means taking a hit to revenue. And it’s not clear that a public company would ever do that, even if it's obviously the right thing, unless a government made it clear that the alternative was going to be much worse.
And that’s where, I think, regulation comes in. Regulation is the stick that potentially lets Facebook say, if we just slow things down and we stop treating all conversation as being, you know, potentially substitutable, so when you meet somebody at a party who keeps going on and on about the Federal Reserve, either letting that person into your kitchen to yell at you and three friends or giving them a megaphone to reach a million people, that feels really weird, which is essentially what Facebook now does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do they prevent that?
CLAY SHIRKY: What they have to do is to make what’s called the first neighborhood, which is really, literally just you and your friends, not the next ring out. Be more the defensive coordinate than it currently is. Right now they regard the first neighborhood, again, you and all your friends, as being here’s a list of doorways to Brooke. So if anything comes to any of these doorways, we can also get to Brooke. If, instead, you start thinking of the first neighborhood the way it works in the offline world, here’s a list of bodyguards for Brooke, that they will only forward to her things they think she’s actually interested in, you end up with much less content moving through the network, you end up with much less clickbait-y content moving through the network. But you may end up in a world in which you and your friends have tighter relations on Facebook and the kind of friends of a friends, everybody’s seen this stuff falls into the middle distance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s a good thing, ‘cause it sounds like super cocooning to me.
CLAY SHIRKY: You know, there are places where you should go out in public and be exposed to points of view and have to defend your own and whatever else, but those people should not be able to follow you into your home, constantly demanding that people engage in a conversation they don't want to have --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
CLAY SHIRKY: -- so they become exhausted and remove themselves from the public sphere. So we need filter bubbles because we need someplace to talk with people who agree with us, partly to rest, partly some ideas are better worked out among people who see eye to eye. And we need a public sphere where we can smash our ideas against each other and see which bits fly off.
Right now, you see people who have political malfeasance in mind constantly trying to take large-scale patterns of argumentation and inject it into the small scale.
You see this on Reddit, the giant collection of discussion boards, when politically-minded groups go on raids where they simply attack people on other boards, flooding them with people who disagree with them, in order to disrupt the ability for those people to talk amongst themselves -- unsurprisingly, boards having to deal with feminism, boards having to deal with racism, etc. People trying to discuss these issues in need of social response will often get flooded by the alt-right, not trying to argue with them but simply trying to prevent them from even having a conversation.
So we need small-scale cocoons and we need large-scale public spheres, and right now they may now be in a position where they face enough regulatory threat that they would start doing things that would voluntarily give up some of the addictive qualities of Facebook in favor of some of the qualities that my friend Joan was talking about, of I have a disease and it’s interesting for me to meet other people who suffer from this rare condition. You know, that’s the baby that you don’t want to throw out with the bathwater. The people with rare diseases don’t need virality. You don’t need things to move at lightning speed across hundreds of millions of people to find other people who are similar to you that you might want to talk to.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you, Clay.
CLAY SHIRKY: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re still an optimist?
CLAY SHIRKY: [LAUGHS] You know, I -- just call me a tempered optimist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Clay Shirky is the vice provost of Educational Technology at NYU.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jon Hanrahan, Philip Yiannopoulos and Isaac Napell. And our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week was Sam Bair and Greg Rippin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Like me on Facebook. No, don’t do that. [LAUGHS]