Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Breaking up Facebook

“If Facebook’s power to swing elections is like the Ring, then the only solution is to destroy that power.” — Scott Rosenberg

Facebook’s power is not absolute. Unlike true monopolies that can ride their success for decades, Facebook is always looking out for the next app that will pull away millions of their fickle users, who pay for Facebook with nothing except their time and entanglement in the social graph. Facebook’s paranoia of competition makes them ruthless.

As Kevin Roose wrote in The New York Times after the leaked Facebook Files, Facebook is weaker than we knew. They are in trouble:

Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble. What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize.

Cory Doctorow wrote for the Guardian about how it becomes easier to leave Facebook with each friend who leaves:

And as users leave, network effects start to work in reverse: though every user that joins makes your service more valuable, every user that leaves makes the service less valuable.

Attacked on all sides, with slowly eroding trust and rising competition like TikTok, Facebook is no longer in a position of strength. In fact, Daily active users dropped globally in 2021 for the first time in Facebook’s history.

In late 2018, there was a huge report in The New York Times about Facebook:

But as Facebook grew, so did the hate speech, bullying and other toxic content on the platform. When researchers and activists in Myanmar, India, Germany and elsewhere warned that Facebook had become an instrument of government propaganda and ethnic cleansing, the company largely ignored them. Facebook had positioned itself as a platform, not a publisher. Taking responsibility for what users posted, or acting to censor it, was expensive and complicated.

The New York Times interviewed over 50 people for the story, and it shows. There are a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes stories, especially Facebook’s relationship with Washington, and more than I can quote here.

The same week, an article from The Washington Post covered early Instagram employees becoming disillusioned with the platform:

Three of the early Instagram employees, including Richardson, have deleted it — permanently or periodically, comparing it to a drug that produces a diminishing high. One of the people said he felt a little embarrassed to tell people that he worked there. Two of the other early employees said they used it far less than before.

This is why I don’t ever want to sell I can’t imagine having to sit on the sidelines and watch with disappointment what it might become if it drifted away from its mission.

I think pushback against Instagram is coming, as more people who have already left Facebook also remember that Instagram has the same leadership, and the platform is far enough off track that even the founders have left. It’s a good time to be posting photos to your own blog instead of Instagram.

In a post in 2018, Ben Thompson recognized that the threat to Facebook is when it becomes accepted fact that using the app isn’t good for you:

It follows that Facebook’s ultimate threat can never come from publishers or advertisers, but rather demand — that is, users. The real danger, though, is not from users also using competing social networks (although Facebook has always been paranoid about exactly that); that is not enough to break the virtuous cycle. Rather, the only thing that could undo Facebook’s power is users actively rejecting the app.

Having your own domain name for blog posts and photos isn’t just about personal independence from the control of massive social networks. Owning our content is key to the way out of the current social network mess.

Ben Thompson also had an excellent article about free speech, political ads, and Facebook. There’s a good debate to be had about the roll of curation and fact-checking ads, but on the problems of massive, ad-based social networks there can be no doubt:

In the long run, though, it is very problematic that such a powerful player in our democracy has no accountability. Liberty is not simply about laws, or culture, it is also about structure, and it is right to be concerned about the centralized nature of companies like Facebook.

Platforms that have as many problems as Facebook does can always be improved, but by design they can never be good enough because their size alone is one of the problems.

The good news: it’s up to us. We can choose to reject these platforms and move to a more distributed web of indie microblogs. We can choose to reject the attention power-grab of the algorithmic timeline. We can choose to build the web we deserve, but it’s not going to happen if you keep feeding photos into Instagram.

Power corrupts. For social networks, the corruption is not necessarily because of unethical human behavior but because the very concentration of power inherent in massive centralized social networks means platforms can be exploited. They also lean away from interoperability, reinforcing existing monopolies.

In late 2019 it was revealed that Twitter employees were using their access to the platform to steal private user data and hand it to Saudi Arabia. They targeted Twitter because of Twitter’s size. There are so many people are on Twitter, exploiting the platform will give them access to more private data than a smaller social network with fewer users.

United States attorney David Anderson said:

The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users.

Because of Twitter’s size and centralized nature, one hack (or internal spying) can compromise many accounts. In 2020, hackers took over 130 popular Twitter accounts, sending tweets as those users to ask followers to send Bitcoin. Before Twitter could shut it down, the hackers had walked away with $180 million in Bitcoin, untraceable.

A more distributed web would limit how many accounts could be hacked with a single exploit. Instead of the hackers being able to send tweets as Barrack Obama, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and many others all at once, if accounts were distributed across different web sites, maybe a hack would have only exploited a single account, limiting the damage.

We accept network effects in today’s social networks that give more power to the leading tech companies, ignoring earlier models on the internet that showed how competition can bring about change. Cory Doctorow blogged for the EFF about how despite Usenet’s initial top-down structure, it allowed for an entire alt. sub-hierarchy under which content flourished, independent of centralized control:

If adversarial interoperability still enjoyed its alt.-era legal respectability, then Facebook alternatives like Diaspora could use their users' logins and passwords to fetch the Facebook messages the service had queued up for them and allow those users to reply to them from Diaspora, without being spied on by Facebook. Mastodon users could read and post to Twitter without touching Twitter’s servers. Hundreds or thousands of services could spring up that allowed users different options to block harassment and bubble up interesting contributions from other users – both those on the incumbent social media services, and the users of these new upstarts.

But the fact is that Facebook is not built on an open platform. There is no Usenet-like model that can encourage alternatives while still being compatible with the Facebook app. The opposite has happened as Facebook has moved to shut down many of the use cases for their API.

Many people go back to regulation, looking for answers, looking for a way to drain the moats that big tech has built around their platforms. With the growing outcry over how social networks like Facebook approach privacy, there have been calls for the government to come in and save us from the worst impulses of the profit-driven social networks. All we need to do is make new laws and let regulation solve the problem we’re in.

And there is some logic to this. Challenges in the courts have put pressure on big companies but have largely been unsuccessfully challenging the power of companies like Facebook with its social networks or Apple with its control over iOS app distribution. As shown in the Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’s ruling in Epic vs. Apple, while some changes can be forced by the courts for anticompetitive reasons, the antitrust laws were written too long ago to be relevant to today’s digital platforms.

Instead, the power is chipped away in bits until it accelerates, as Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson noted after testifying for the US House Antitrust Subcommittee:

But as the saying goes, change comes slowly then all at once. I believe we’ve just started that “all at once” phase with antitrust now. The past year has seen a tidal wave of investigations, hearings, reports, and testimony finally washing away the innocence of big tech. The monopoly question is no longer one of “are they/are they not”, but about what should we do with the fact that they definitely are.

Mark Zuckerberg himself had tried to get in front of this, seemingly asking for Facebook to be regulated. Om Malik was skeptical:

Facebook’s most egregious recent move is asking for regulation of the Internet. It is easy for them to ask for regulation, now that they have formed a cozy duopoly with Google that allows them to control citizen data and advertising dollars.

While regulation has its place, it’s not enough. We can’t control what the government does, and most of us don’t have the patience to wait. So let’s focus on what we can do.

And too often I think we’ll be disappointed waiting. Nilay Patel wrote for The Verge about the $1 billion fine against Facebook by the FTC:

That’s actually the real problem here: fines and punishments are only effective when they provide negative consequences for bad behavior. But Facebook has done nothing but behave badly from inception, and it has only ever been slapped on the wrist by authority figures and rewarded by the market.

The fine was widely condemned as not adequate. But no fine can solve the problem of massive social networks like Facebook. The solution must be more fundamental: a shift in the way we publish on the web, a return to independent blogs and smaller networks.

If everyone who criticized the $5 billion fine against Facebook as inadequate — while still posted to Instagram everyday — instead posted to their own site, we could make progress. Taking back our posts and photos is the best way to reduce Facebook’s power.

Remember Jeffrey Zeldman’s article about venture capital. To succeed as a venture-backed company, founders must have continued growth. They must forego early profits to grow as quickly as possible, only monetizing when they can leverage their scale. By design, they must be large companies. By design, the goal is millions of dollars in revenue, or even startup unicorns valued at $1 billion or more.

Following Jeffrey’s zarticle, Ben Werdmuller had a great post about how we shouldn’t care so much about startup unicorns, using as an example of another type of business:

Zeldman looks to as a potential answer. It’s a great company that could point to what a more general solution could look like, but not specifically because it works with the indieweb. Instead, it’s worth examining how it’s financially structured. Rather than a unicorn, it’s a zebra.

It would be great to have more small- and medium-sized companies that can move the web forward. Unlike monopolies, which are too powerful for the market to regulate, competition among small companies can benefit users. Small companies can innovate while still being grounded in somewhat boring business models. We need multiple social networks that interoperate via the web instead of just a couple of huge platforms.

The replacement for Facebook can’t be another social media company. As founder Matt Baer wrote about in 2019, maybe the next thing can’t be called social media at all:

We all know Facebook is terrible. This is common knowledge in 2019. But if we’re ever going to replace it, we can’t frame new solutions in terms of social media. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and on and on are social media. They won that title. Any new entrant to the space that calls themselves that loses by default. So let’s not use that title.

So-called Web3, for all its problem trying to reinvent distributed web identity, is at least good marketing because it contains the word “web”. It immediately feels bigger and more important than any single new social media site, even if its solution to the problem of centralization is no better (and possibly much worse) than good solutions like DNS that have existed for decades that we still haven’t taken enough advantage of.

There’s a difference between companies that are paid for directly by users and companies based on massive ad-based networks. Ben Thompson outlined this in an article about regulation, arguing that the super-aggregators like Facebook require government intervention, where other companies that are better aligned with users' interests can be “regulated” by the market:

I think, though, that platform providers that primarily monetize through advertising should be in their own category: as I noted above, because these platform providers separate monetization from content supply and consumption, there is no price or payment mechanism to incentivize them to be concerned with problematic content; in fact, the incentives of an advertising business drive them to focus on engagement, i.e. giving users what they want, no matter how noxious. is a small part of the puzzle — and it’s a puzzle piece of a different shape that doesn’t fit cleanly into Ben’s diagram around free services — but I think it’s an important part to focus on.

Some may call for Facebook to be broken up because it has too much power. But we can’t count on antitrust law to do it. Users must do it. We must do it by moving our attention away from companies we don’t believe in.

Next: The way out →