To Understand Facebook Today, Read Its Earliest Critics

These early and overlooked books revealed Facebook was plagued from the start — and are crucial to understanding it now

Hardly a week goes by without another Facebook scandal. Frustration with Facebook and criticism of it — even despair over it and outright hatred of it — seems constant, evergreen. It’s been this way since at least the 2016 election. There are now more journalists investigating the world’s largest social network than ever before, exposing issues like the nightmarish working conditions of its content moderators, the company’s struggle to limit the spread of dubious or dangerous content — like the New York Post’s questionable story about Hunter Biden’s laptop — Mark Zuckerberg’s dalliances with the Trump administration, and the congregation of hate groups on the platform.

The recent explosion of Facebook news might give the impression that things at the company only recently went sour. Zuckerberg himself has helped shape this media narrative. “You know, for the first 10 years of the company or so, we got more glowing press than I think any company deserves. And it wasn’t just Facebook; it was the whole tech industry,” he told his staff in a company meeting in the fall of 2019, the audio of which was leaked to The Verge. He made similar comments in a 2018 interview with Kara Swisher, asserting that everyone — not just the press — used to love the company: “For the last 10 or 15 years, we have gotten mostly glowing and adoring attention from people, and if people wanna focus on some real issues for a couple of years, I’m fine with it,” he said.

Even Facebook’s toughest critics often echo Zuckerberg’s claims. “In 2016, we didn’t know. We were innocent. We still believed social media connected us and that connections were good. That technology equalled progress,” begins a recent op-ed in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr, a founding member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board and an investigative journalist who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her investigation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Zuckerberg has every incentive to convince people that Facebook was once “glowingly” received. If the company had been a universally celebrated project several years ago, it would mean that simple reforms and regulations could rein it in — that with just the right policy, the social network could return to the benevolent path it once tread on.

But the truth is Facebook has always been a problem. There is no good Facebook that Facebook can return to being.

This mistaken belief that Facebook had few detractors years ago erases the groundbreaking work of its early critics — a circle that includes David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. The Social Network (2010), which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, won three Academy Awards and earned $224.9 million at the box office—it’s hardly an obscure example. The film was The Social Dilemma of its time: It picked the right target but with the wrong approach. The movie focused on Zuckerberg’s character — he’s depicted as a backstabbing genius — while the script barely touched on anything unique about Silicon Valley as an industry or the risks that the company posed to society. Nevertheless, the mere existence of The Social Network should dispel any notion that users and the general public were naive about Facebook’s growing power and influence.

Much better criticism from scholars, journalists, and even former employees was published long before the company had amassed two billion users. For anyone who wants a more complete picture of what the company is and has always been, I can think of no better place to begin than these four books that illuminate the problems inherent in Facebook’s culture and business model.

On scale

The Boy Kings by Katherine Losse (Free Press, 2012)

Facebook wasn’t ignorant of the harms it caused early on. We know this because Facebook’s 51st employee — a customer support rep who worked her way up to a role as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter — wrote a memoir about what the company was like in its earliest years. Even in 2005, the agenda was to scale. The company would do whatever it took to onboard more users, acquire more and more of their data, and operate everywhere around the world.

The Boy Kings reads like the memoirs of someone who has escaped a cult. At the start of the book, Losse is fascinated with the power she has to monitor the social lives of users on the platform. She makes friends at the company despite its toxic gender dynamics and racism. “Everyone upstairs is dumb,” one of the designers told her about the floor where customer service and administrative workers — most of the women and a far more diverse staff — were located. Later, as she grew disillusioned, Zuckerberg asked her to help him write a series of blog posts that would pin down his theory of “companies over countries.” When she asked him to elaborate what he meant by this, he explained that companies can be fully global, unbound by constitutions or electorates. Zuckerberg’s ultimate dream for Facebook was to move humanity into a “world in which we all become cells in a single organism, where we can communicate automatically and can all work together seamlessly.” All of this sounded to Losse like “totalitarianism.”

On status

Status Update by Alice Marwick (Yale Press, 2013)

We typically hear about Facebook as either a dorm-room experiment or a genocide-enabling corporate behemoth, but what happened in the intervening years? Marwick’s book covers the blink-of-an-eye period when tiny social media startups ballooned into multinational corporations.

The book begins at Facebook’s lavish holiday party in 2009. A number of other companies canceled their celebrations that winter, but Silicon Valley was thriving in part because of the Great Recession. While the rest of the country struggled, Marwick notes that Silicon Valley companies saw especially “intense competition over recruitment and a steady stream of get-rich-quick wannabes” flock to the Bay Area. Before that moment, social media was a tech “scene” and not yet its own industry. The Web 2.0 movement was full of idealists who had stuck it out after the dot-com crash. They valued “openness” — open software and transparency — and ignored hierarchies and issues of status that would soon come to define social media. (Although, if it was so “open,” why were its leaders mostly white guys?)

Social hierarchies in the “tech scene” influenced products like Facebook, which in turn shaped the users. Marwick shows how the hazy power differentials in the Web 2.0 era propagated as toxic belief in meritocracy and unclear boundaries between work and leisure. She speaks with various strivers from would-be entrepreneurs to “micro-celebrity” influencers who are inconsistently rewarded for their activity online and frustrated by systems built with the assumption that “those who do not rise to the top are less capable than those who do.” Zuckerberg, in contrast, had already attained a level of privacy unimaginable to almost anyone else of his generation. As the billionaire founder of a social media platform, he’s been spared the humiliation of building a career on social media.

On governance

Consent of the Networked by Rebecca MacKinnon (Basic Books, 2012)

Zuckerberg and his staff repeatedly claimed the Facebook platform was safe because there was no anonymity, and therefore everyone came to use it as their authentic selves. MacKinnon counters these ideas in her 2012 book. She considers both the value of the internet as a “digital commons” — the free, globally interoperable standards of the World Wide Web and TCP/IP — and the risks of the unelected powers of companies like Facebook.

Facebook staff “play the roles of lawmakers, judge, jury, and police all at the same time,” MacKinnon writes, “They operate a kind of private sovereignty in cyberspace.” David Willner, then a Facebook employee who developed policies for its “hate and harassment” team, talked with her about ways the platform worked to protect users from cyber-bullying and spam. Ultimately, Facebook felt it had the problem solved from its login. “Most people won’t engage in antisocial behavior if it’s associated with their real-life identity,” Willner told the author.

The company failed to recognize the messy reality of online harassment, abuse, and propaganda and, in doing so, missed a critical opportunity to develop consistent and uniform standards for the removal of content on the platform. It is still unclear why certain users are banned and posts are removed. These inconsistent and poorly communicated guidelines have exaggerated political divisions. This year, for example, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 90% of Republicans believe that tech platforms intentionally censor political viewpoints.

MacKinnon uses Holocaust-denier content as an example of material that is inexplicably allowed on the platform. Facebook waffled over this for years, citing its values of “free speech” despite requests from Holocaust survivors in 2011 to take action on it. The company finally banned Holocaust deniers just last week. Willner, meanwhile, has joined the chorus of former Facebook employees who have spoken out about the danger their former workplace poses to the world.

On ownership

Technicolor, edited by Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, Alicia Headlam Hines (NYU Press, 2001)

The previous titles on this list all came out in the wake of the Great Recession in 2012 and 2013, around the time of Facebook’s IPO and its Instagram acquisition. Technicolor, published more than 10 years earlier, might seem like an odd choice to put with these titles — predating not just Facebook but also social media as we understand it today — but it was written as pushback to the techno-optimism of an earlier moment: the dot-com bubble. The book counters the alleged democratizing potential of the internet in a way that sounds contemporary and offers enduring perspectives on what is required to build technology that is global and suitable to diverse populations.

It begins with a text co-written by the editors of the anthology that stresses how access to technology isn’t the same as equality. “Solutions to the digital divide often fail to address problems that we can’t solve by simply placing a computer in every home or classroom.” Facebook denied this complexity when it implemented programs like Free Basics, an initiative that provided free internet service to developing markets like Zambia, Pakistan, and Myanmar (subjecting these countries not just to Facebook’s rules but the out-of-control misinformation and hate speech on the platform.) One of the key ideas articulated in the book is that of ownership — how can technology be beneficial when certain grounds have no say in its implementation? Contributors point out the risks of having an internet suited predominantly for English speaking users and how mythologizing the internet as a “borderless world” disguises biases and hierarchies inherent to participation online. Reading the book in 2020 feels like watching the first act of a horror movie: Facebook is the monster around the corner set to make all of these problems even worse.

This is by no means a complete list. If I were to build out a full syllabus for understanding Facebook, I might include texts from the Model View Culture archive like Anna Lauren Hoffmann’s “Reckoning with a Decade of Breaking Things” from 2014; investigation on content moderators like the documentaries The Cleaners (2018) and The Moderators (2017); and work on engagement metrics including multimedia projects like Ben Grosser’s Facebook Demetricator (2012). An essay written in 2014 by Lil Miss Hot Mess on Facebook’s ill-considered “real names” policy and reporting by Aura Bogado on how the policy was used to harass Native Americans are also key to understanding how the company has failed its most vulnerable users. All of this work should put to rest Zuckerberg’s assertion that the company has merely lost its way since 2016.

Facebook thrives on erasing the past and presenting every scandal as a problem that is new. That’s why it is crucial to recognize how accumulative poor decision-making brought about the chaos of the social network today. If we ever hope to hold Facebook accountable, we must remember early criticism and build on it.

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