Small policy tweaks won’t fix Facebook

On the front end, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are trivial as technological achievements. The interesting part of Facebook largely remains invisible to its users. But crude as the social-media interfaces may be, they intersect in very powerful ways with cultural currents that are experienced at the moment as extraordinarily urgent, though the long-term durability of that urgency is far from certain. (Zuckerberg et al. surely have learned from the examples of their commercial antecedents that it is possible for a product to be simultaneously addictive and boring, as all addictions ultimately are, and that the market position of such products must be perilous.) The ironies are titanic: By offering to connect everyone to everyone, social media has created a new kind of loneliness; by offering a democratized platform for speech it reveals how little of interest most of the demos has to say. The genius of Facebook and Twitter is in exploiting natural and nearly universal human anxieties about social status by quantifying that status and publicizing it, thereby fusing it with the online identities of social-media users. It is for this reason that deplatforming campaigns (including the much-discussed one against me) are almost always described in terms of status: The objection to the New York Times hiring a Bret Stephens or a Bari Weiss is that those voices are elevated by association with a prestigious institution, and, because status is a zero-sum game, those who see themselves as rivals (enemies, really) of those voices must thereby feel diminished.

Facebook, properly understood, is a kind of basketball court or baseball diamond, a field of play in the game of status-seeking. People do not go to Facebook or Twitter to learn about the world or to engage in productive and intelligent conversation with people who see the it differently. In fact, as I show at some length in The Smallest Minority, my book on the poisoning of public discourse by social media, the very structure of the status competition precludes the emergence of fruitful discourse on social media because the respect necessary to respectful exchange is itself status-conferring and hence of negative value in the game at hand. That is why sneering, intellectual dishonesty, lies, insults, ad hominem, etc. are the ruling modes of communication on social media. They are status-lowering, and status-lowering strategies work pretty well in a status game. (Ask President Donald J. Trump about that, if it is not obvious enough to you.)