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Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s most powerful non-elected person, and it drives me crazy when he incorrectly portrays what is happening on Facebook.
In an interview aired on Tuesday, Zuckerberg was asked big and thorny questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to each other on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, biased posts get so much attention?
Zuckerberg and other Facebook leaders consistently say that Facebook is a mirror of society. An online collection that provides a personalized printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and bad for these people. (My colleague Mike Isaac has talked about this view before.)
It is true, but also comically incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do.
Facebook regularly rewrites its computer systems to meet the company’s goals; the company may make it more likely that you will see a friend’s baby photo than a news article about forest fires. This does not mean that forest fires are not real, but it does mean that Facebook creates a world where fires are not at the forefront.
Facebook’s ability to shape, not just reflect, people’s preferences and behaviors is also how the company makes money. The company may suggest to a video game developer that customizing social media ads – changing the pitch language or tailoring the ad differently for Midwestern students than for 40-year-olds on the West Coast – could help it sell more app downloads.
Facebook sells billions of dollars in ads every year because what people see there, and how Facebook chooses to prioritize that information, can affect what people think and buy.
Facebook knows that it has the power to shape what we believe and how we act. Therefore, it has limited incorrect information about coronavirus, and it does not allow people to bully each other online.
Further evidence: An internal team of researchers on Facebook concluded that the social network made people more polarized, The Wall Street Journal reported in May. American society is deeply divided, but Facebook also contributes to this.
So why does Zuckerberg go on to say that Facebook is a mirror of society? Maybe it’s a practical media talking point that is deliberately uncomplicated.
There are no easy solutions to make Facebook or much of the world less polarized and divided, but it is dishonest for Zuckerberg to say that his company is a spectator rather than a participant in what billions of people on the site think and behave.
Zuckerberg knows – as we all do – the power that Facebook has to restore reality.
To use technical creepiness for good use
A reader from El Dorado Hills, California, sent a follow-up question to last week’s newsletter about Utah’s flawed, yet promising, virus alert app. Why do some health authorities need to persuade us to download another app when our phones are already tracking our movements and can be redeployed to find out who we may have been exposed to coronavirus?
Yup, fair question. First, I want to say that it is not good for a million apps to already collect information about where we are going and what we are doing. But it is true that one mistake with many coronavirus tracking apps around the world is that people need to be persuaded to download another app, and trust what it does.
Google and Apple are working together on technology that will make it easier for states to alert people who may have been exposed to coronavirus by detecting phones that come close to each other. With this technology, states do not necessarily have to create separate health apps.
People still need to trust this virus alert technology and give it permission to track their whereabouts. Confidence in both technology companies and public health authorities has been very lacking in this pandemic.
Google’s and Apple’s technology is also still under development, and some elected officials and public health authorities in the United States and other countries decided that they needed to create their own apps to give people more information about coronavirus or to track possible exposures. It’s a good bet that some states and countries will incorporate Google’s and Apple’s virus alert system into their own early app versions.
Public health experts have said that this type of alert technology for virus exposure will be useful as long as we fight coronavirus. And most people who have followed the work of Google and Apple have said that companies (for the most part) do the right things to listen to health authorities and also protect people’s privacy.
This virus alert technology will be wrong, possibly scary and not a silver bullet, but we need it.
Before we leave …
Online school stinks. The same goes for personal school. Crashing websites, cyberattacks and a tangle of technology complicated the first days of returning to virtual school for many American school children, wrote my colleagues Dan Levin and Kate Taylor. Online learning problems were a symptom of a lack of guidance from state and federal education officials, an expert told them.
And in colleges that chose to reopen classes in person, my colleague Natasha Singer reported that administrators have sometimes not helped or effectively isolated students infected with or exposed to coronavirus.
Do not buy a new phone that expects it to be faster: The next generation of wireless technology promises to make our phones zippier and connect your cars and factory equipment to the Internet more easily. But right now, the claims about 5G wireless are a lot of hot air. A Washington Post columnist found that smartphones connected to 5G telephone networks surfed the Internet at about the same or even lower speeds than older networks.
Sorry. It makes no sense to make canned beans look beautiful. If you’ve been on Instagram, you’ve seen the aesthetics of hyper-organized and color-coded lunch boxes, cabinets and sock drawers. Read this New York Times Magazine article about the two people most responsible for this look, and how they reflect an online subculture that both fetishizes control over some aspects of life, like stylish trash cans, while rejoicing in being imperfect .
Hugs to this
Gus the hamster is going on a JOURNEY.
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