Facebook Would Like a Monopoly on Your Entire Life

What do we stand to lose when we gain big convenient platforms?
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What do we stand to lose when we gain big convenient platforms?
(Illustration: Susie Cagle) 

(Illustration: Susie Cagle) 

My partner and I quietly decided to get married last May. We told friends and family, started to refer to each other uncomfortably and sporadically as “fiancé,” but didn’t make any concrete plans. Nearly a year later, while scrolling through his phone, he casually asked, “Why aren’t we engaged on Facebook?”

“Do you need us to be engaged on Facebook?” I responded. He shrugged.

The next day, we became engaged on Facebook, nearly a year after we actually became engaged. Hundreds of our friends and family liked the post, congratulated us, and expressed surprise—friends and family who we’d already told we were getting married. But we hadn’t told them on Facebook, so it hadn’t really happened.

"Do you need us to be engaged on Facebook?"

This is the Facebook we have come to know, to love, and to loathe: We know it informs us, owns us, and manipulates us. The late David Carr compared the Internet giant to a strange dog in the park running toward you: “More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.” When it was revealed that media companies from the New York Times to BuzzFeed would be posting original news stories and other content straight to the social network, with no external links back to their own sites, the Internet collectively groaned. But no, we weren’t that surprised—after all, the site already sends some news organizations nearly half of their overall daily readership. It loves us so much it might eat us.

It’s hardly shocking that Facebook would aspire to be our one-stop Web-shop for everything from announcing your engagement to reading the news, but what Facebook really wants is so much more than that.

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(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

Once upon a time, the Internet was supposed to make us free. It was supposed to revolutionize global communications, giving everyone a low-cost platform for speech. It was supposed to make us less reliant on concentrated corporate power. It was supposed to be the social network.

That is, at least, the company’s apparent goal: not just to mediate our Internet experience, but to control it from start to finish.

The Internet did a lot of those things, and it still does. But it hardly undermined corporate power the way some might have hoped. Instead of a billion new little platforms, we are using just a few big ones. Instead of owning and controlling our own speech, we’ve exchanged it for the reach and convenience of the bigger soap box. We aren’t really building and maintaining our own websites anymore. We often don’t even visit any websites. The homepage is dead.

But platforms are very much alive, in some ways eclipsing the actual Web on which they’re built. Already, millions of people who use Facebook don’t even think of it as the Internet—it’s just, well, Facebook. It is everything.

That is, at least, the company’s apparent goal: not just to mediate our Internet experience, but to control it from start to finish. In the age of the full stack start-up, Facebook is not just seeking to become a true publisher of media, but a provider of infrastructure as well.

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(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org, a non-profit collaboration between the social network and mobile phone companies made with the intention of providing affordable Internet access to everyone on the planet. This effort would appear to be at least altruistic in part, but Internet.org’s true intentions are plain: It would greatly expand Facebook’s global user base and its bottom line. Internet.org would make Facebook’s service truly end-to-end. The Facebook supply chain—our news, media, relationships, and the way we access them—would be seamless.

A company that openly exerts a great deal of control over speech, weighting value based not on user’s choices but on paid promotion and its own system of priority keywords, is not one on which we should rely for free speech services.

It might be more efficient for news organizations to publish directly to the social network, or for me to announce my engagement there. Concentrated power makes some things easy and convenient, at the expense of others. While Facebook will bump those posts to the top of your news feed, others will be buried. Study after study links sustained Facebook use with depression and low self-esteem—sharing this big platform might give us a bigger reach, but that doesn’t make us any happier.

Even that reach is compromised, either by the people you think you’re talking to, or the platform itself. A company that openly exerts a great deal of control over speech, weighting value based not on user’s choices but on paid promotion and its own system of priority keywords, is not one on which we should rely for free speech services. But of course, we have. We do. Facebook in its current form is already a major communication infrastructure around the world—that’s why it’s always getting banned and why its users care so much about controlling their identities on the site. Competitive platforms haven’t taken even the tiniest bite out of Facebook’s massive user base. The network effect is just too big.

And so we will read, and we will post, and we will like. We will enjoy the seamless network, the convenient general store of Internet goods, like we’ve enjoyed so many corporate media monopolies before. Because maybe Facebook’s full stack isn’t that new at all. Maybe it’s only the latest expression of the concentrated supply chain, from media to news dissemination to Internet delivery. Maybe Facebook is really just the new Comcast.

The Crooked Valley is an illustrated series exploring the systems of privilege and inequality that perpetuate tech's culture of bad ideas.

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