Move carefully and leave things better than you found them
On Meta, algorithms, and what Facebook ought to be doing to clean up
Facebook long operated according to the motto "Move fast and break things". When Facebook was 10 years younger and still on the scrappy side of things, that motto conveyed a certain attitude about not being afraid to try complicated technical challenges -- a programmer-friendly ethos, rather than a corporate philosophy. But Facebook isn't so small anymore, and the emerging consensus is that it has been very, very naughty.
■ Thus the announcement that Facebook is rebranding its corporate umbrella is not a surprise. "Meta" will be the parent, and the individual products (including Facebook) will keep their names. The name may be a new coat of paint on the existing order, but what Meta/Facebook really needs is an affirmative philosophy: Rules to follow above all else. "Leave things better than you found them" is available for the taking.
■ Imagine the things an affirmative Facebook could offer: Based on what it already knows (algorithmically), what if it served up individualized recommendations for ways to do good? A "Facebook Goodwill" project could give people pre-screened suggestions for charitable organizations, volunteer opportunities, or simple good deeds that would be suitable to the individual's interests.
■ What if Facebook took its vast database of information on users' interests and produced "Meta Enlightenment"? Daily, bite-sized lessons -- again, thoughtfully curated rather than generated by some mysterious backend artificial intelligence -- in subjects that would not only make the user a little smarter, but perhaps also a little happier. People already look for micro-learning opportunities (think Duolingo and its 5-minute language lessons), but Facebook could again use its powerful News Feed platform to put that learning right in front of users.
■ Or, imagine perhaps a Facebook Philosophy entry, not hidden somewhere elusive, but right there in the News Feed, serving up curated thoughts designed to help people think about their place in the world. Facebook's potentate said in 2018 that he was going to concentrate on "making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent". Might not that start with exposing people not to echo chambers but to ideas that might lead to "well-spent" time?
■ Any one of these ideas may sound heavy-handed -- until one realizes that Facebook is already making these choices, with the content it serves up algorithmically. One might even say "unthinkingly". Making the choices behind Facebook Goodwill, Meta Enlightenment, or Facebook Philosophy would expose the company to scrutiny and criticism, as people would (rightly) ask whether virtuous choices were being made.
■ But in deciding not to consciously leave things better than they find them, but merely to serve up ever-increasing "engagement", Meta/Facebook is already making those choices, but shoving the responsibility over to computers, rather than to people. To deflect a choice is still to make a choice. Better to have transparency and accountability for those choices than to let them happen on autopilot. Because that hands-off approach is how you break things.