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Why Meta Isn’t Going Anywhere

Everyone’s least favorite company Meta is in the news again, this time due to a wrongful death lawsuit placing the blame for the tragic suicide of a child on the seductive design and victimization risks of social media platforms. This heart-breaking event has given rise to a renewed chorus of policy makers and observers calling for regulation to restrain the exploitative and creep-enabling business practices of social media giants. Enter into this debate the always thoughtful Cory Doctorow, whose recent op-ed in The Guardian anticipates the imminent decline and fall of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. It’s an excellent essay that offers multiple forms of evidence of doom, primarily a list of compelling reasons for the company’s own staff to head toward the exits. I wish I believed his analysis (I want to believe) as I wish for the declining fortunes of most major tech companies. Somewhat in step with Doctorow, I am hostile to “the advertising model” – the extractive practice of profiting from the labor of unpaid users who create most social media platforms’ content, a relationship made all the more exploitative and society-corroding by the associated practice of segmenting users into echo-chamber segments for advertisers. However, unlike Doctorow, I suspect that Meta is more like Boris Johnson than Samson (pride, the fall, yadda yadda); Like our current PM, Meta may be fated to be ever-embattled yet shockingly resilient. The company is so incredibly wealthy and enormous that it may have decades of reinventions and rebrandings left before dissolving or at least falling from power. Key is the essential dependence of so many people across the world on their flagship platform Facebook even as many of us loathe that dependence and search desperately for kinder alternatives. Sadly though, there are few viable options. As Doctorow concedes, it’s all about the switching costs. In this case, there is no existing or emerging alternative that ticks as many boxes as Facebook, including the crucial two: a critical mass of users and its range of ‘essential’ features. TikTok may be huge and popular but its appeal is limited primarily as entertainment – only one of the boxes and far from the most important. A key and sadly telling aspect is the reliance of artists, activists, charities, and businesses large and small on Facebook. The far less efficient ways that these groups used to reach their target audiences in the beforetimes have largely faded from memory and have been thoroughly replaced by Facebook and only Facebook. The communications strategy of every new brand or cause begins with the platform and then peppers out to other channels. Those of us who loudly argue to “quit Facebook” always have to turn to face not only their own switching costs in terms personal network loss (my risks are small but not insignificant) but those of entire sectors, including those we cherish – or at least want to exist even if that existence is thoroughly propped up by a company who arguably represents much of what so many are working against. I have often said – on Facebook – that until the forces of liberation migrate away from Facebook they risk being snuffed out at their moment of achievement by a single keystroke. The rejection of predominant forms of oppression — what the vast majority of activist causes exist to promote — would pose an existential threat to Meta’s bottom line and the wealth and power of its leadership if it were even close to being realized. What CEO in his right mind would allow emancipatory movements to flourish on their own private domain unless they were certain (and perhaps complicit in ensuring) that the cause will not soon be attained? The revolution will not be ‘liked.’ And yet, we remain dependent on the infrastructures of these corrupt and corrupting systems to recruit allies in the creative and activist struggles that envision a better collective future. Meta isn’t going anywhere unless and until a truly viable and liberating alternative exists. For now, we’re stuck with them.

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