I guess I need to talk about Facebook...

Also cartography and bikes

I’m baited into talking about Facebook

So, umm, Facebook is having a rough week. It isn’t just the self-inflicted fantastic breakdown of their DNS or the whistleblower, but also, being dragged back to congress to get yelled at by senior citizens that don’t understand social media. On top of that, Zuck lost 6 billion dollars in one day. We are truly in a golden age of bad Facebook news.

It seems that regulation of social media is right around the corner. Across the political spectrum, for extremely divergent reasons, there is a consensus that Facebook is the worst thing to happen to America since Communism. No matter what happens, the roulette wheel always comes back with “make Facebook pay”. The question is: for what? The consensus in the GOP is that it somehow censors conservatives, even though the number one or number two link post every day is from a right-leaning outlet. The consensus on the left is that Facebook is a monopoly, although people took to every other website to complain about Facebook being down. As for the newfound “Ohhh, won't somebody please think of the children!” moral panic, I would point out that for 30 to 40 years, pro-self destruction content has been accessible to people who wished to view it1 and children have been sneaking online.2 I don’t find either of those two bi-partisan prongs to be good arguments about Facebook.

Facebook is a terrible product

One of the reasons I do not personally care for Facebook all that much is that it is a downright awful product. Unlike Google which has the sense to make each function an individual product, Facebook has decided to bolt the functions of every other website onto Facebook core. Here is a list of functions that Facebook either does or has tried doing and who does them better:

  • Market place: Craigslist, Etsy, and eBay

  • Microblogging: Twitter and Tumblr

  • Chat: Signal, iMessage, Slack, IRC, SMS, and WhatsApp

  • Events: Meetup, Eventbrite, and Doodle

  • Photo sharing and stories: Instagram and Snapchat

  • Video sharing: TikTok and YouTube

  • Discussion forum: Reddit

  • Calendar: Google Calendar and Outlook

  • Email: Gmail and Outlook

  • News aggregation: Drudge Report, HuffPost, Pinboard, and Twitter

  • Dating: Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge

  • Professional networking: LinkedIn

After you remove all these functions from Facebook you are left with an OAuth service and a contact book of people I have met since 2008. Neither of which are great.

I mostly have my Facebook still for Facebook Messenger, to provide OAuth tokens for other websites, and as a way of sharing some photos with extended family. I know I just said that other messaging platforms are better, but some people I know just prefer unencrypted Facebook Messenger. I guess old habits die hard since it is what we replaced AIM/MSN Messenger with.

Facebook is no worse than anywhere else on the internet

One of the things that I think is missed in these discussions is the fact that user-for-user Facebook is no worse of an actor than any other website. The worst actor is probably 8chan and the best actor is some effective altruism-related reverse-tithing website.3 On the sliding scale, Facebook sits in the middle.

The problem with Facebook is its incompetency and its size. Facebook is the seventh most visited website in the world. With lots of people, a bad product, and a fairly laissez-faire attitude to moderation that allows people to say what they think without a filter, Facebook is a mirror of humanity.4 In other words, not great. In general, any problem with Facebook that activists have is a problem with seeing people without a mask. This is made worse by the problem that Facebook is the internet in people in many places but particularly in some low and middle-income countries. This causes everything that might happen elsewhere on the internet to then happen on Facebook.

The problem is that lots of people have this “information superhighway” vision of how the internet should be used in their minds: only for good. This is completely out of step with reality. No amount of federal regulation will make this happen. We have to take the good with the bad if we want to use giant platforms, or the greater internet itself. If people can’t do that, then they should probably delete their accounts and become a hermit.5

A modest proposal

My personal opinion is that the outrage over Facebook has to do with the fact that elected officials, and their donors, who never really used the internet are now shelling out semi-trucks of cash to social media companies to get elected or move opinion on issues. They would like to go back to a simpler time where they could get elected off of positive coverage in the local paper, which was owned by a close friend of the candidate. That is why I think that Facebook should use its first amendment rights to freedom of association to ban the accounts of all current, former, and prospective federal and state elected officials. If they would like to go back to ignoring the internet then Facebook should help them by showing them the door. Better yet, Facebook should ban all news outlets and political speech.

While this would speed up punitive regulation, it might make a single post-eternal September election bearable on the site. It would also provide me with large amounts of joy watching people in real-time realize that they have no rights on private websites.

Bad cartography is bad

MattY posted this atrocious map from the CDC yesterday. I really can’t make heads or tails of it.

I think that the data is the death rate per 100k people if everyone in the country was the same age. Assuming that, lighter colors show a worse outcome. Meaning the maroon color is good. This though is the exact opposite of what I expect from a map. Normally higher values and/or worse values are darker. For example, take this map from the 2019-2020 Rwanda DHS.

It uses a similar color scheme, but lower (and therefore better) numbers are a lighter color, and also not red. Misreading the influenza map is understandable because it breaks all of the rules of cartography that we use every day without thinking to help interpret maps.

I want to ride my bicycle

I am the proud owner of a Danish city bike. In the words of my neighbor “you came to Denmark, so you had to get a bike”. After 5 years and 1,250 kilometers on a mountain bike in DC, I am excited to have something lighter and more stylish for my city riding in Copenhagen. I did 8 kilometers today and it felt so freeing to be back in the saddle.

1

A.S.H dates to at least the 1990s and there was probably a BBS that filled the same niche earlier.

2

The plot of 1983’s War Games follows a teenager who sneaks online a ton. There are plenty of people from that era who started down the path of doing illegal things who started with the realization that they needed to make free phone calls if they wanted to be online as much as they wanted.

3

There is most likely a worse website than 8chan but it is the first site that comes to mind who has harmed the world with no upside. 4chan, for all of its bad, made some good memes.

4

While it is true that Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism, it is impossible to have enough moderators to respond to problems at Facebook’s scale. A fairly laissez-faire attitude where they remove the spam and beyond the pale material is probably the best that we could get.

5

This might be a bit of overkill; there are plenty of small social media sites, forums, and chat rooms that have real moderation and control who can sign up that are lovely spaces.