The Great Firewall of Facebook

April 16, 2019

Media when concentrated in a few individuals or the state has always been subject to censorship/influence whether by direct action or inaction. Western Union, China, and Napoleon are a few prominent examples. Now we have Facebook. The press lauded Facebook and Twitter when it influenced the Arab Spring, but is chafing at social media’s power now that it’s come to influence our politics in the States.

Facebook and any social network has de-facto censorship through their use tweaking of newsfeed algorithms. Facebook is just the largest and easiest target. Of course unlike China, Facebook’s aim is not to achieve certain any certain political goal. The aim as a public company is to create long-term shareholder and user value. Therefore, any tailoring of the newsfeed algorithm will be made towards those ends. It is a bit scary that Zuck controls the majority of Facebook’s voting stock, control of the board, and further downstream of the algorithms that control our news feeds, and sheer scale of Facebook’s users. And when shareholder value seemingly comes into conflict with our user value in the most valuable walled garden in the world has a frightening influence when a country is just a medium sized audience in terms of their scale. Facebook has always been a walled garden, killing off any products (Facebook Platform, access to media, etc) that captured too much value from the all important newsfeed. Much like Facebook, the internet in China is also a walled garden. With the Chinese internet, we know the aims of censorships are to achieve political goals.

As it’s started influence our domestic politics, there have been proposals in the tech community, within Facebook, and in the broader community to tweak the Facebook algorithm in various ways. These have been proposed solutions that I don't feel like are permanent fixes:

  1. Users proactively change feed, because people don’t shift from their default option.
  2. Tweaking the algorithm. We’ve seen with SEO and Google, this is just an arms race.
  3. We can use traditional anti-trust regulation.
  4. Iron rules of information economies, everything tends towards monopoly because of network effects and zero marginal cost of distribution
  5. Smaller groups of people might become more of an echo chamber
  6. We could turn Facebook (and Twitter) into public utilities/non-profit
  7. This returns to issue of who controls it. If it the government, this would always be at risk of turning into a propaganda machine.
  8. If it another rich billionaire, it runs the same issues as traditional media organizations (as well as Facebook).

The core problem with Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, is that they need to aggregate their data and users. That’s why they’ve closed off their APIs to developers. They know their graph is what makes them special. Twitter used to be open with their data, but closed it after they saw different clients like Tweetbot/Tweetdeck and like the like potential a threat to their data moat. They can’t relieve the tyranny of the algorithm

Yes, IMAP and access to emails is one example where multiple parties have access to data, and where companies can still make money.

However, the blockchain and app coins might provide a better solution to ending censorship by algorithm and still incentivizing people to create open products.. Just as we have in email, we can use multiple clients to look at our email, and as well as incentivize creators of these protocols

Open Protocols vs Closed Protocols

We can tie together a token that directly read/write access to data. The token should rise in value just as Bitcoin has risen in value as more transactions, more data is added to the ledger. When we tie the business model of the token directly to data, we don't have the same problem of not allowing Facebook to share their data.

Just as we can view our email with multiple clients, we'd be able to view our friendship graph, the stories and links they post with multiple front ends. On the front-end, it doesn’t matter which UI/UX experience the user sees, or which algorithm the user sees*. Different entities can A/B algorithms for sorting newsfeeds. We can have ones that allow users to see fake news, ones that allow users to be exposed to more long-form content, or even ones that promote argument. Cryptocurrency based social networks can end the de facto censorship that Facebook holds over what news a user sees. And some people have already built prototypes of these social networks: Squeek.io and Eth-Tweet. To me, this seems like a potential solution that aligns everyone’s incentives. It’s a way for technology to solve problems created by technology.

Facebook represents a centralized model of social networks. They’ll still remain very important. While a great utility, it also runs counter to the spirit of the open web. Perhaps blockchain social networks can return us to the open-source past of the web, while still allowing creators to satisfy their self interest.

* Gating access to the underlying data doesn’t have to mean that the average user will have to pay access to use the service as different token distribution mechanisms can be used so that top users (which will be advertisers or celebrities) will subsidize access for the average user.