For the past few weeks I’ve noticed a larger influx of porn spambots in my inbox. In light of recent reports about Facebook’s fiddling with “potential reach” numbers, an odd design change became apparent.
Facebook does filter these messages quite successfully, as such. They are presented as message requests. The user must accept them or decline them. But the quick spam-filtering tools are gone. Ostensibly the changes are made “due to covid”, with the company having their hands full filtering disinformation. But when the message requests contain text that should be very easily proccessed by machine, it seems unlikely that lack of manpower is the problem. And porn spam is much the same. These spambots do translate their messages into my native Icelandic, but they will use the same text over and over again, so a quick spam report button would simplify and help.
But the spam report button has been moved back into the deepest menu recesses, so you can’t be bothered after a while. You just delete it to remove the notification, and move on.
The implication should be clear. The design has changed to make it harder for users to help weed out fake and hacked accounts.
And a deeper, less obvious, but ever present implication looms. Yet again the users experience is secondary to the corporate bottom line. The Facebook interface is part of what should be described as people’s homes. They have positioned themselves so it’s more important to visit Facebook than to look into your mailbox. But the design leaves this part of the user’s “home” dirty and depressing, for the sad reason that they need to maintain metrics.
Anyone who’s been in advertising longer than Facebook has knows that context of ad placement affects innate sense of value. Broadsheet newspaper ads were more expensive per reader than tabloid newspaper ads, simply because of the surroundings. Prestige versus sleeze. Everything Facebook is loathe to remove, be it false information, hateful activity or spam creates a bad vibe. But the false info and hateful activity feeds into the same feeling of controversy and excitement that the tabloids run on. So it keeps the users on the site for longer, but at a cost to their general sense of well-being. Metrics go up, more ads are presented, but they are more likely to be ignored or seen in a negative light, given the mood of the viewer. Cetain sales will move quicker, as escapism may trigger purchases. But the ambiance becomes less of that of a mall, and more of a casino.
And the obfuscation of spam removal tools simply doesn’t involve the user experience at all. It’s fully ignored, to the benefit of padding the “potential reach” metric.
That’s yet another short-sighted con, as one who as bought an ad which did not perform up to the promised “potential reach” soon learns that something is wrong with the product, since it doesn’t deliver what it promises.
The problem with a walled garden like Facebook is that this type of behavior can only exist because they don’t have competition. Problems with walled gardens persist, and the obvious problem they create is constantly ignored. Be it Facebook, the iOS App Store or any other of the gardens, the problem isn’t so much the walls, but that the companies have made sure that there’s nothing outside of the walls. With Facebook, there are no non-Facebook products that maintain a link to friends and family. The only alternative is user collected contacts, like email or group chats. That takes an effort to get everyone in your group to use the same service, or with email, there is a lot of maintainance work to hold on to contacts.
So Facebook has created a situation where they have a lot of room to degrade their product to create more money. You can’t connect into their network using competing products. Imagine if the phone system were like that.
What protects Facebook in this situation is an idea. The idea that since their monopoly isn’t maintained by prohibitively expensive physical assets like the copper-wire networks of old AT&T/Bell, they are in a competitive field.
But the fact that there are no serious social network startups anymore speaks volumes. The fight is lost. Facebook’s monopoly is solid, and could only be broken by governmental intervention.
But the spirit of trust-busting has left the US. The air of personal freedom has been fully subsumed by the idea of sacred property being the only freedom worth fighting for. So since Facebook owns you, or at least your metaphorical mailbox, they and their freedom must be protected by the government.
But Facebook perhaps doesn’t need to be broken up. It has been working on “interoperability” between its own assets, according to this Washington Post article. The article implies that it would be too hard to break the company up. While such ideas are obviously PR from the company, what this implies is quite interesting. Their walls are not too hard to take down, they are working on it themselves. Facebook’s value is in its list connection with advertisers. They have shown users that they are worth less than the advertisers. So the network, which was built by the users anyway, should be given to the users. Facebook should be made to interoperate with competitiors. If the user data belongs to the user, Facebook should not have the right to obfuscate or hold back the data. If they are simply made to take down the walls, the desert around them might start flourishing.
This is not going to be easy, since modern-day Silicon Valley is built on the spirit of anticompetitiveness, as Peter Thiel proudly evangelises.
So you need sustained will from users, individuals. A new chapter in consumer rights advocacy, helping people understand that the giants that have fought battles around facebook, chiefly political parties in the US, don’t represent your interests.
You need to ask yourself, wouldn’t you like to choose where you store your photo album, but still keep it connected to that contact list you built yourself?
Or do you want to hold on to the spambots and the flailing of a single company trying to do everything?
The reason why Gmail keeps its product supremacy in a completely unwalled surrounding is simply that the lack of walls makes it better. And still, you can chose which parts of it you use and which you don’t, you can use all sorts of plugins, mail clients, whatever you’d like.
Monopolies suck and Peter Thiel has too much to protect to see the realities of his ideals.
What Facebook has built is truly great in many ways, but it needs intervention to move on to the next stage. They need to give us our data back, in a useful way. When that data is a network, when the users laid the copper wire themselves, the answer must be a return to the guiding principle of the internet, decentralisation and interconnectivity.
Then someone else can build that spam filter I want.
This is a cross-post with Sveinbjörn Pálsson, aka also me, since I seem to have two of these accounts. Hi me!