I’ve really come to dislike the so-called “tech reporters” employed by supposedly serious news outlets who, for starters, don’t know much of anything about tech in any useful sense. Their beat seems to range between lionizing the latest progressive influencers various online platforms to warning us that social media, especially Facebook and YouTube, will be the death of all of us. Freedom is a mess it turns out and some people want those in charge to clamp down on the freedom and create more order.
The trend toward apocalyptic exaggeration about social media may have reached its zenith yesterday in a piece published by the Atlantic. It’s titled “Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine” and despite the fact that Facebook is not a doomsday machine in any meaningful way, the author insists on the idea that, seriously guys, we’re all going to die because of Facebook.
I’ve been thinking for years about what it would take to make the social web magical in all the right ways—less extreme, less toxic, more true—and I realized only recently that I’ve been thinking far too narrowly about the problem. I’ve long wanted Mark Zuckerberg to admit that Facebook is a media company, to take responsibility for the informational environment he created in the same way that the editor of a magazine would. (I pressed him on this once and he laughed.) In recent years, as Facebook’s mistakes have compounded and its reputation has tanked, it has become clear that negligence is only part of the problem. No one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can control the product he made. I’ve come to realize that Facebook is not a media company. It’s a Doomsday Machine…
Limitations to the Doomsday Machine comparison are obvious: Facebook cannot in an instant reduce a city to ruins the way a nuclear bomb can. And whereas the Doomsday Machine was conceived of as a world-ending device so as to forestall the end of the world; Facebook started because a semi-inebriated Harvard undergrad was bored one night. But the stakes are still life-and-death. Megascale is nearly the existential threat that megadeath is. No single machine should be able to control the fate of the world’s population—and that’s what both the Doomsday Machine and Facebook are built to do.