Facebook as a woe is an unending story. We saw that recently. On October 4, a blip in network maintenance pulled down the platform’s many services, triggering a global outage, and outrage, expectedly, given the reach and power of the Mark Zuckerberg creation. Interestingly for students of the history of technology, the most insightful comment on the recent random shutdown came from Santosh Janardhan, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering. “Every failure like this is an opportunity...” wrote Janardhan, “...to learn and get better.”
To be frank, this is the ugly truth about Facebook. It’s designed to find opportunity in calamity. For its makers, including Zuckerberg, it doesn’t fail for bad; it only fails for good. But what happens to the victims of these mishaps? Who will compensate for the losses incurred during the recent outage? Is there a system in place for that? Is Facebook worried about it? Why is it paying no heed to public demand for creative and purposeful auditing and sulk when asked to reveal its methods? Has it become ‘too big to fail’?
Some of the answers are in An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination , written by journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. The book forms the foundation for the upcoming television drama series, Doomsday Machine. It springs no surprise today when one terms Facebook a doomsday machine. Post Cambridge Analytica and the many more data and privacy scandals that followed, there is a general consensus on the potential (and apparent) dangers a mammoth, overarching digital ecosystem such as that of Facebook can have. Several studies and even books have come out detailing how Facebook has been influencing, mostly wrongly, the way we work, debate, love and communicate.
But nothing much has been done to check the impending digital apocalypse. Granted, there are pieces of legislation emerging in some corners, namely the data privacy regulations in Europe and the content-sharing rules in Australia and elsewhere, but the fact remains that Facebook continues to wield immense clout on almost every walk of life, dodging policy scrutiny and public audit.
The devil in the DNA
For many, Facebook is the classic Frankenstein. But Frenkel and Kang believe that’s not the case. They find that the madness in Facebook has a meticulous method. They say both Zuckerberg and his COO Sheryl Sandberg knew all along what the Facebook business model was capable of and they relentlessly pursued the mission, by hook or by crook. And forming the backbone of the whole thing was ‘advertisement’. Long-time associates of Facebook and analysts who’ve been tracking the platform since its inception have warned many a time that the social media behemoth is nothing more than an ad-seller with a difference. For FB, communication is a commodity and attention is the reward for consumers. The rest of the rhetoric on connecting the world is pure gobbledygook.
An Ugly Truth will help you (re)confirm all these concerns. In a way, the book is just stating the obvious about Facebook, but this is a more vocal confirmation than the earlier tomes, thanks to the scores of interviews Frenkel and Kang did with the kith and kin of the platform giant. But if you’re looking for ‘opinion’, Frenkel and Kang may disappoint you a bit; in their quest to present the stories in style, the authors have focused more on the events than on the essence of the events.
Frenkel and Kang’s prose is neat and to-the-point. The chapters are well-structured and well-edited. The book is full of anecdotes, colourful, dramatic scenes, and sequences that reveal what’s wrong with FB and its clan. You may call it the Netflix effect on non-fiction. These days most such works are infested with such ‘visual fetishness’ that they stop short of being incisive while being interesting reads. That said, this is clearly an insightful addition to the litany of works on what’s wrong with Facebook and why it matters and is highly recommended for policymakers as well as students of social media and technology across the globe.
The way ahead
To conclude, what’s the way ahead for FB? Or, more importantly, what’s the way ahead for the billions of people who are hooked to Facebook and its subsidiary products such as WhatsApp and Instagram? Should they let the algorithms manipulate their personal data and mint money out of it? If at all they want to raise an objection, is the policy equipped to back them? Is Facebook introducing checks and balances to its processes so that its services cause no damage to the common good?
An Ugly Truth concludes with a strong dose of realism. “One thing is certain...” write the authors. “Even if the company undergoes a radical transformation in the coming years, that change is unlikely to come from within.”
Looks like policymakers across the globe have their task cut and dried. This also means that the calls for breaking Big Tech must get louder. Else, the next Lehman moment will come from Menlo Park and if the October outage is any indication, we won’t be able to bale ourselves out of the doom that’s coming our way, sponsored by Zuckerberg and Co.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Dominion ; Sheera Frenkel & Cecilia Kang, Little Brown/ Hachette, ₹799.
The reviewer is Founder & Editor of India Art Review.