In an op-ed in the New York Times last week, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes laid out an argument for dismantling the social media behemoth, splitting it up via antitrust legislation, and (he hopes) paving the way for what he describes as a new age of innovation and competition.
Hughes joins a growing chorus of former Silicon Valley unicorn riders who’ve recently had second thoughts about the utility or benefit of the surveillance-attention economy their products and platforms have helped create. He is also not the first to suggest that government might need to step in to clean up the mess they made — to enact laws that curb the powers of the tech monopolies that facilitate our day-to-day lives, extracting and exploiting our personal data and behaviors as they go. Nor is Hughes the first to suggest that once that happens, some newer, better versions of what we have now might then be created and have the chance to proliferate.
“The vibrant marketplace that once drove Facebook and other social media companies to compete to come up with better products has virtually disappeared,” Hughes wrote last week. “This means there’s less chance of start-ups developing healthier, less exploitative social media platforms. It also means less accountability on issues like privacy.”
It might be time to consider another interpretation of that answer: the other kind of “nowhere.” We could simply choose not to have social media at all anymore.
Maybe — or maybe not. As Nick Srnicek, author of the book Platform Capitalism and a lecturer in digital economy at King’s College London, wrotelast month, “[I]t’s competition — not size — that demands more data, more attention, more engagement and more profits at all costs… The government’s efforts to increase competition risk simply aggravating these problems.” Regulation might change the business environment, but it won’t necessarily change the business model.
Still, for Hughes, it appears competition is the key to better outcomes. He warmly cited Adam Smith’s basic theories throughout his piece, pointing out how few people abandoned their Facebook accounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. “In the end, people did not leave the company’s platforms en masse,” Hughes noted. “After all, where would they go?”
The unstated answer to the question is this: nowhere. As in, nowhere other than Facebook. But it might be time to consider another interpretation of that answer: the other kind of “nowhere.” We could simply choose not to have social media at all anymore.
It’s likely that some new kind of social media would indeed arise — perhaps even, as Hughes suggested, social platforms that are “less exploitative,” or, as Srnicek posited, publicly owned ones. But what if they didn’t? What do we really need social media for?
Despite the companies’ best efforts to convince us otherwise, we don’t need social media for all the things we’re told we need it for. We don’t need social media to make friends or build relationships. We don’t need it to become active or engaged in politics. We don’t need it to explore our cities or find new things to do. We don’t need it to hail a cab or catch a bus or fly on a plane. We don’t need it to hear new music or read new books. We don’t need it to do our shopping. We don’t need it to develop or discover subcultures or like-minded groups or to appreciate good design. We don’t need it to plan our lives. And we don’t need it to understand the world.
We also don’t need social media to do the things its founders often neglect to mention it does.
We don’t need it to help make corporate or government surveillance of our lives easier. We don’t need social media to make harassment and stalking easier. We don’t need it to spread conspiracy and violence. Nor do we need it to poison our democratic discourse or to infect our minds with dangerous anti-scientific nonsense.
We don’t even need social media to show us ads.
At the moment, the only people who actually need social media are the people who created it and continue to make money from it — and even they are using it less and less.
Instead of hoping that a breakup of a monopolistic platform like Facebook will usher in a new version of the same idea, we ought to use the opportunity to decide whether the idea itself is worth repeating.
Even Hughes admitted as much, offering an example of how using social media harms, rather than improves our lives. “Some days, lying on the floor next to my 1-year-old son, I catch myself scrolling through Instagram, waiting to see if the next image will be more beautiful than the last,” he wrote. “What am I doing? I know it’s not good for me, or for my son, and yet I do it anyway.”
Hughes immediately clarified that “the choice is mine,” before admitting that it actually “doesn’t feel like a choice” because of how Facebook “seeps into every corner of our lives to capture as much of our attention and data as possible.” But Hughes is even more deeply confused than that backtracking might suggest. He appears to believe that granted choice, we might select a better alternative to Facebook — one that, presumably, does not operate in the same manner. But having different product options is not the same as choosing not to create the market in the first place.
The truth is we don’t need social media. Instead of hoping that a regulatory breakup of a monopolistic platform like Facebook will usher in a new version of the same idea, we ought to use the opportunity to decide whether the idea itself is worth repeating. We will likely find that it is not — that the connections social media helps us make are often flimsy, that the perspective of the world we gain from using it is warped, and that the time we spend with it is better spent doing almost anything else.
We don’t need a world where there is an alternative — or even many — to the social media we currently have. We need a world without social media — period.