I’m Out On Meta

“Someone has to tell me why we keep allowing social media and our very lives as social creatures to be dictated by the most socially awkward person in history.” — Bill Maher

I have the same nagging question. The self-celebrating visionary Mark Zuckerberg continues to express that he knows something about building human ties that the rest of us can learn from his business mission. I see scant evidence that Zuck can guide us anywhere better than where we are at the moment or have been. There is near zero chance that he is going to stop talking because his determined point of view is driven by a conflicted agenda where he benefits most. I am done listening.

I recently learned a new acronym: IRL. You’re probably ahead of me, but it means In Real Life. That would be the opposite of what we bucket today under the category of virtual. Virtual would be something other than sharing the same physical space. Zoom is virtual. Social media is virtual. Running around in a 3D online game space is virtual. Meta is virtual.

If you already know this, forgive me for catching up late. Here’s something that might irritate you even more: I don’t like Meta. Agreed, I don’t like the company now known as Meta, but I really don’t like the idea of meta.

Said better, if I have a choice to interact with you in person—In Real Life—unless we’ve already established an unrepairable dislike for each other, I would prefer to interact with you in shared physical space over shared electronic space. I believe we get more done in person more quickly. I believe there are fewer errors in interpretation when we are together in person. I believe our relationship has a better chance to improve in person. I believe our manners are better in person.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for virtual, I just prefer IRL. Virtual has proven more accessible, often more practical, certainly more economic. The compromise is that virtual leans toward purely transactional exchange, algorithmic efficiency often at the expense of building emotional intelligence. There’s the rub—a lot can get lost when we eliminate nuance from contact.

Zuck probably doesn’t agree. I don’t think the renaming of Facebook to Meta is simply a PR stunt to get us to see past the failings of the platform called Facebook. I think he saw the early experiment called Second Life as an end, not a means. He lives better in the virtual. He belongs in the virtual. He wants us to join him in the virtual. He can be King of All Data in the virtual.

Count me out.

My sense is much of the unbearable divisiveness we are experiencing results from too many of us coming to the conclusion that virtual, or meta, is a substitute for IRL. I’ll accept virtual as an adjunct to IRL—an extension, enhancement, or convenience to supplement IRL. I also think we need to relearn IRL, and quickly, because human contact is a big part of what makes us human. Creating a machine interface between us does not always extract our best selves.

Regretfully, I am a hypocrite on this. I worked with an innovative team at Disney over a decade ago that created ToonTown Online, the first massively multiplayer universe for kids and families, complete with third-party vetted built-in safety. We never intended this virtual playground to be a substitute for recess or a replacement for after-school outdoor activity. It was meant as an alternative for when that playground wasn’t available, particularly for children dependent on parents for logistics.

I don’t think alternative or supplement is what Zuck has in mind. I think primary platform is what he has in mind, as addictive as Facebook, but even more isolating. We will have less agency in Meta. We will have less freedom. We will behave less well.

Zuck will have more authority. Zuck will have more control over directing our actions. Zuck will revel in even less oversight. Zuck will make more money.

Dystopian fiction usually takes us on a gradual journey into descent. In well-told stories, it doesn’t happen in an instant. We are drawn in slowly. Then we realize we have been had and are trapped. Kind of like Facebook.

I see a revolt on the horizon. It won’t look like January 6. It will be the alternative to getting “Zucked” in. Slowly we will grow tired of Facebook. Meta will fail, because IRL is better.

Several years ago during another public flare-up, I posed this question: Is Facebook the Next AOL? Then as now, I wondered if the voracious beast would devolve into oblivion. Why does that destiny today seem even more possible? Because Meta is fundamentally flawed. It advances a business agenda over a human objective. It presumes addiction is a higher-order force than graciously serving customer needs.

Zuck early on said the purpose of Facebook was to make the world more open and connected. He lied. How do I know that? Because he walked away from that proclamation the same way that Google walked away from don’t be evil. It was too hard to be consistent and authentic. Eliminating the binding pretension made it way easier to generate exponentially more cash.

The purpose of Facebook is to collect vast amounts of personal data and leverage it for advertising value. I’m actually okay with that. It’s a true and understandable business objective. We can resist it. We will resist it.

The purpose of Meta is to head-fake us from the world we need to improve to an alternate reality we can never make better than the one we can experience IRL. Even John Carmack, the technical genius behind Oculus, knows the vast details behind building a metaverse are well beyond the hype of advocating for its imminent commercial deployment.

Here’s a thought, Mr. Meta: Fix some of the nasty problems you’ve already created moving fast and breaking things before you dump another pile of poorly considered conflict on us.

Lest you be readying to drop the Luddite card on me, please know that I remain wildly optimistic about the application of virtual reality and augmented reality to medical and other scientific research. I also bear no grudge toward the gaming community, which gave birth to my career, as long as it approaches immersive gaming in a healthy balance with healthy living.

My gripe is with Zuck and anyone else advocating isolating technologies. Escape is not a viable substitute for learning to develop coping mechanisms that lead to mastery of the highly demanding but uniquely rewarding anything-but-meta real world.

Let’s hear a cheer for evolving our delicate mastery of IRL.

Avoidance of human beings in person is not a strategy for learning how to navigate the human landscape, which is created in a natural state to be physical first, virtual as an adjunct and counterpoint. A little social media now and again probably won’t ruin our lives, everything in moderation. Digital sharing can have its place when it defies obsession. I suggested a better rebranding of Facebook might have been Happy Birthday Central. That would celebrate its finest function.

Focus on the basics as we revisit each other IRL: being polite, making eye contact, actually laughing when something is funny rather than typing LOL. Go outside for walks, and when it’s safe to be maskless, smile at passersby. Feel the sun and the rain on your biological skin and be thankful for the gift of our senses.

We truly are a unique blend of the physical, psychological, and dare I say, spiritual. Productive communities are established in tangible places before they become replicated models. There remains evidence to suggest we can be better together than separate. It takes work to keep producing this evidence, but my experience is that removing an LED screen between us offers a dimension of clarity that is otherwise less satisfying and cannot be replicated.

When we let Zuck know we are out on Meta and all-in on true human connections, the real agenda of living with advanced technology can continue. As I have written so many times, technology is advancing much more quickly than our ability to make sense of it. This is not a secret. It’s why we feel anxiety. It’s why we don’t like Mark Zuckerberg when his answers to the hardest questions are unsatisfactory. His vision will not be our vision.

Bill Maher summarized his point of view in his recent ‘New Rules’ segment on Real Time succinctly: “The more time you spend in the virtual world, the more you suck at engaging in the real world.”

Given too many of my own interactions in the pandemic recovering world, I find that awfully and unfortunately compelling.

We won’t get fooled again.

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Photo: Pixabay

My Take On 230

A good friend on social media asked for my opinion on why Donald Trump would be so adamantly opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. For years it is precisely Section 230 that has allowed him to expand his unedited voice and create his vast following. Now he’s banned on most of these platforms including Twitter and Facebook, which some would argue are at long last exerting a form of editorial oversight. Rather than hide behind their legal ability to allow him to rant, they have essentially silenced him.

Ironic, huh? Not exactly what he wanted in limiting this broad permission.

Has something good or bad happened? I think the answer is neither, but something evolutionary is unfolding, and depending on where that takes us, we can decide later like most history if it was good or bad.

Confusing stuff, no question. Let me try to unpack some of it as someone who has been working in this space almost since day one of the commercial internet.

While personally I would say my life has improved without the constant noise of Trump tweets, I’m afraid the world is not that simple. The resolution of this exercise may have frightening connotations in the abstract. Many are worried about free speech and arbitrary limits on the power of a single individual to curtail the public expression of another, which is something that matters dearly to all of us.

I’m not a legal professional by any stretch, but I don’t think a specific defense of ex-President Trump is what matters here. Trump no more understands Section 230 than he understands global trade and tariffs. He wants his speech free and speech against him controlled, like any dangerous autocrat. Let’s set him aside (doesn’t that feel great?) and think about the real risks and privileges waltzing into the arena of public discourse.

For reference, the historic 26 words that constitute Section 230 read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As simply stated as possible, that means the technology platforms are not liable for what they publish. They don’t want to be considered authors, publishers, or broadcasters. If the Wall Street Journal prints something that bothers you and you think is unfair or sloppy, you can sue it. Same with legacy brand survivors like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Us Weekly, or your local talk radio station. You can sue the person who said it or wrote it, too. If you think you have been libeled, you can sue everyone. You are way more likely to lose than win, but your case can be heard in court.

These kinds of traditional media companies have accepted the responsibility to abide by legal standards of accuracy and honesty of some sort, and they must stand by the messages they share. Mostly they print retractions when they find themselves wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from seeking damages. It’s an imperfect system dependent on evolving standards, and whether we like it or not we have learned to live with it.

If you don’t like what I say about you on Facebook or Twitter, you can sue me. You can’t sue Facebook or Twitter.

What’s the difference? Section 230.

Why is there a difference? That’s what’s about to be debated heavily.

Why was the exception created? That will also widely be debated in the months and years ahead, but having been there at the outset, my sense is that it was because federal lawmakers wanted the internet to grow. They wanted to increase free speech, so we all could bring our voices to the marketplace of ideas. They probably had an inkling some of us were wacky and would make up lunatic fringe falsehoods like QAnon, but they also knew if they held the platforms liable for everything published, very little would get published. The internet would have the same filters on it as traditional media, a funnel and a gatekeeper on opinions that limited expression with editorial oversight. They hoped for something more accessible.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago. Better angels were optimistically anticipated.

The problem here is the division is not clean when all of our voices are collected. If the technology platforms exert no control, we have the chaos we have experienced. If they exert traditional editorial control to manage or reduce liability, all internet dialogue becomes gated, and as a practical matter, the scale of the task makes it impossible to be done by humans. That would put the editorial control at the mercy of algorithms, which at this point in their evolution given the nuance of language will be even less successful than humans.

That brings us to the present conundrum. If a platform now and again edits a comment to conform to its terms and conditions, has it crossed over to becoming an editor liable for everything else on the platform? According to current law, as private companies, these platforms have a right to state terms and conditions and assert the right to enforce them.

The real question becomes whether multiple infringements of terms and conditions can justly lead to the banning of an individual, like Trump. This is the heart of the matter: Do we want an individual company or CEO deciding who gets to have a public voice and who doesn’t?

I think the banning of Trump is going to open a huge can of worms to the platform companies because they just made policy on the fly and that can’t be extrapolated fairly.

Free speech is an interesting corollary, but only because we largely understand it must have limits to work in practice. Today we know there are legal restraints on free speech because it has been tested and adjudicated. While we now understand that a Nazi group had the right to march in Skokie, we also know that is not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. We didn’t always know that. It took a lot of time and argument to unfold and reveal itself to multiple courts. It’s been messy, and yet free speech survives.

I think we’re there with Section 230. It’s the right big idea, but 25 years later with wildly consolidated corporate power and big new media money at play, it requires a great deal of interpretation, nuance, and finesse. It’s no more an absolute than free speech. Yes, we really can disallow direct, personally threatening hate speech without fully destroying the First Amendment. The reasoning is not straightforward except in hindsight, when we consider the more pernicious alternatives.

Regulation here is our friend, not our enemy. My sense is the dialogue we need to have is not about throwing out Section 230, but reasonably debating the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms without making them liable for every post crossing their servers. Here is where it gets even more tricky, because the law clearly allows a private business to ban an individual for violation of its stated terms and conditions, yet provides very little in the way of enforcing those standards evenly beyond obvious discrimination.

One person gets banned, another does not. How does one challenge or appeal the equal application of silencing rules? In the final analysis, what ensures us or at least gives us confidence that authority is anything but arbitrary? There is no such thing as goodwill or trust when the profit motive of the platform benefits enormously from throwing kerosene on the fire of controversy—fueling viral engagement equates to generating revenue—yet it can eliminate its critics at will under the guise of decency. That is a mega problem we aren’t even close to solving!

We don’t want to make the economic consequences of our discourse addressable only at a practical level by silence. Likewise, we don’t want any business individual with a profit motive to have the power of doling out silence for convenience. Hearst had that kind of power. Zuckerberg can’t.

The Trump legacy may be the bookends that form around Section 230, which clearly are necessary because the platforms are neither fish nor fowl. This is new ground. Internet platforms are not voices per se, but the application of needed editorial standards around facts and lies does not make them voiceless. As I write often, technology advances much faster than our ability to understand its ethical consequences.

Sadly, this morass is likely to be argued largely on economic grounds, because the remedies surrounding liability are compensated in our system through cash settlement of lawsuits. The key problem with lawsuits is they favor the well-funded, and while legal, that will never approximate the ideal of fairness. I think there is a lot more at stake than whether a company might be brought to bankruptcy paying fines and settlements, which might cause it to be overly cautious, or bold and flagrant if it has deep pockets to defend itself. Financial penalties can’t be the point, be they absorbable or game-ending. There is a public-interest necessity in our ability to express ourselves. Our government has to protect that and let the business of the internet expand.

Yes, we can.

As for Trump’s point of view, he has demonstrated repeatedly that he only cares about what serves his agenda, not nuance or principle. He has succeeded in blasting open this door, but his own point of view remains self-serving. He is purposefully ignorant, a blunt object in a fragile ecosystem that requires reflection.

We are once again facing the question of whether we do truly relish the marketplace of ideas, or if this only matters when it is safe, convenient, and nominally polite. We don’t need to open the door to criminal insurrections that put our democratic nation at risk; the off switch just worked well in that regard and I’d comfortably welcome it again, if for nothing more than a badly needed time-out.

We have addressed this before, however imperfectly, and I have great faith that given the breadth of legal minds in our nation we will begin to solve it again. Trying to make it an either/or decision is a fool’s errand. We need to retain the big idea of Section 230 and add some guard rails. Once they are tested, we can adjust them. This is likely to be a combination of legislation and judicial resolution. It will be slow and complicated and evolving. It’s worth the ambiguity to sort it out carefully.

Let the real debate begin.

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Photo: Pixabay

Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay

Sam and Rosie: An Odd Couple

I can’t defend Samantha Bee because the harsh, offensive language she used this week was wrong. I have been a fan of her show since it launched, but I actually think it has gotten progressively worse as she has allowed her indignation to overcome her humor. My sense for some time is that she is not currently at her best.

Indignation is the call to fight. Humor is the sword that slays dragons.

A strong producer could steer her back on track. I don’t see a lot of evidence she has one, and I think her talent is taking a hit as a result. If she looks to some of her peers and mentors, she’ll see where she may be losing ground on that illusive concept of “crossing the line.” I’d like to see her rebound because she does have a unique, important voice in our nation’s dialogue.

When Roseanne Barr launched her latest damning tweet, I believe she was in an entirely different universe of free expression.

Here are a few points on the false equivalency:

1) There is no equivalency between a random racist tweet and a few unnecessary hateful words deployed in the context of making a point about the morality of separating parents from children. Lenny Bruce pretty much died for this point. Context is inseparable from language.

2) Complain all you want about who should get fired or cancelled, but the two performers have different employers. It’s the employer’s decision to exercise a response to the free speech exercise of an employee or contractor. Had it been the same employer, there might be an opening to hypocrisy, but even then, don’t mistake what happened. These were considered business decisions.

3) If you want to know the true horror of our nation, do a few internet searches and see what some of Roseanne’s supporters are saying about the underlying truth in her remarks. The defensive outcry over an alleged double-standard does little more than fuel the fire of racism as some kind of macabre social norm too many people can easily dismiss as overblown. Racism is institutionalized hatred bolstered on ignorance. Celebrities choosing to fan that flame know what they are doing. To the contrary, you might find a few people defending Samantha’s rotten choice of words, but for reasons of emphasis, not denigration of gender. Again, context matters, particularly as a rallying cry. There are degrees of invective. The hierarchy stems from purpose.

Far be it from me to defend Samantha, but I believe her intention was motivated by a positive force of social criticism. She threw away that timely opportunity with a few poorly chosen words. Roseanne was just being herself, using her humor to irresponsibly reinforce a longstanding platform of inciting the biases of her base.

The two incidents are not the same. Far from it.

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Image: GQ