In ancient times, virtual reality was a hypothetical discussion by philosophers and their students.
Plato has Socrates and a group of young men discuss what the just city should be like in the Republic and they quickly spell out what it would be like: simple, agrarian, egalitarian, self-sustaining, producing all the things it needs for everyone to lead a wholesome, healthy, peaceful life.
That is until one of the students asks about relish. In order to produce condiments more land is needed and the economy becomes more complex, leading the friends of Socrates out of their hypothetical Eden, to ever more complicated regimes, each found wanting, until the symposiasts end up with a somewhat totalitarian state in which the rulers are philosophers who want to live the life of the mind and don’t want to rule, and the ruling political class of “guardians” unlike any historical ruling class we’ve ever met (excepting people named Kushner or Trump) denies itself any wealth, private families, or even knowledge of the identity of their own children — who are given up for adoption at birth.
Today we have virtual polities again, which we call social networks. Now they aren’t so much the message – about how we should live or what justice is – but the medium by which we discuss this.
Like the hypothetical just city in the Republic our social networks keep evolving and getting more complicated. And just like Eden, there are snakes in the grass.
The snake everyone is concerned about now is “fake news.” Facebook in December announced a plan to combat “fake news” that will soon be implemented. Facebook’s 1.7 billion users will be allowed to flag stories or links they think are fake news, which will then be sent to a small list of centrist liberal “fact checkers” who will decide if the story is not factual, and label it so. If a user then wishes to share a story labelled as fake news they will receive a warning in a pop-up dialogue box asking them if they really want to share it.
People on the right are of course concerned that this will lead to rampant censorship of their opinions and news they think important, citing past reports that the Silicon Valley millennial cyber-guardians hired by Facebook to “curate” its trending stories were accused of this in the past, with a rather lame rebuttal from Facebook that this wasn’t true. The Federalist‘s Mollie Hemingway pointed out that the “fact checkers” who Facebook had contracted with so far (Facebook says they are not paying the fact checkers) have partisan leanings and a bad record of sticking to facts. Though I cannot find any pattern of left of center FaceBook users who were banned or had their postings deleted by Facebook (and one can find many right of center or libertarian victims), the World Socialist Web Site‘s George Gallinis doesn’t trust the Facebook fact checking regime either.
In December Facebook sent a PR person who is a libertarian (not a liberal) to speak to center right groups and assure them that “fact checking” was not an attempt to censor their publications or suppress their views. Indeed, she argued, by preventing the fake news produced by Macedonian teenagers or a California clickbait entrepreneur (who turned out to be a Democrat) from going viral and swarming the news feed, they would be freeing up more Facebook “real estate” for everyone else. In January Facebook announced an additional initiative, where Facebook staff will visit newsrooms and coordinate with mainstream journalists, local and national, including FOX News, to attempt to define which news is real and which is fake.
Which leads me to wonder if part of what motivates the fake news protocol is neither the need to suppress fake news, nor a desire to censor Trump (and Johnson etc.) supporters whose social media activities helped the candidate Silicon Valley supported lose her election (by keeping alive stories the legacy media had tried to quash). Instead, Mark Zuckerberg is trying to free the best tables at his $17 billion restaurant from the low value customers using his internet for hours while only buying one cup of coffee, and make them available for paying customers, left or right, who want to buy some pricey relish. Zuckerberg wants users to be clicking on links that paid to be boosted or advertised, not non-paying spammers who are clever with incendiary headlines.
As we know from Mr. Zuckerberg’s biography, The Social Network, he never planned to limit himself to a simple menu. Facebook evolved from being a social network to being a data broker and online store and advertising platform – because Zuckerberg (and his investors) wanted relish. Facebook collects data on its users so it can market itself to those who want to advertise to targeted groups of users (or pay to boost posts to them). Facebook even demands data most Boards of Elections don’t require: Facebook sometimes demands users email them a scan of a driver’s license or other government issued ID. Facebook claims it is verifying that people are who they say they are. But by demanding IDs its also making sure that the mineable data in your Facebook profile (birth date, gender, name, address) is correct.
Another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Mark Weinstein, has created another social network, MeWe, that is a return to the original simple city, just a social network, not a data broker or advertising platform. You can be connected to friends and you can join topical groups, but MeWe does not harvest your data. (Weinstein is also a privacy rights activist and Edward Snowden fan who blogs at Huffington Post.) MeWe has only 500,000 users today, but it was nominated in 2016 for a South by SouthWest award, the Austin tech venue that helped launch Twitter in 2007 (which now has 310 million users and $600 million in revenue). Weinstein predicts MeWe will have 30 million users by the end of 2017 (around the size of MySpace, which still exists, unlike Friendster, the other social network that once competed with Facebook, which went dark in 2015). When I asked about how he will pay for the servers and engineers needed to scale up to what would still only be 2% of Facebook’s size, Weinstein says MeWe will begin launching additional subscription upgrades, beyond the social network, for those who want to pay for them — encryption for chats, or an app like Slack. He’s serving the relish — non-GMO, additive free — on the side.