The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.
I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.
In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.
2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.
I read the fiction first.
The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.
Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.
Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.
The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.
The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:
We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.
The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?
Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.
Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.
Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.
By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.
Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.
Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.
Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.
I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.