Facebook and the end of the world

FB under fire.

LOBSTER SHIFT
EPISODE 2: March 20, 2018.

When the world goes up in flames, the handful of people left in the burning ruins of civilization will shrug, look at their feet, and—from inside a deep black hole of unending ennui—mumble pathetically how ironic and silly it is that the thing that ultimately took us all down was Facebook.

Fucking Facebook.

How sad, how tragic, to stumble towards the end of history with the feeling that the maniac with his finger on the button is there because we all signed up for Mark Zuckerberg’s social network, and he in turn did everything he could to make us into targets. How depressing to know that looking at those adorable baby photos and trying to avoid family members and taking dumb personality quizzes were all just a way of selling out our futures.

Fucking Facebook.

As I’m writing this, Facebook is putting up strange defences—often led by senior figures who have little clout outside the industry (the kind who seem to be on their way out) while Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are basically AWOL. It’s a strange moment to witness.

Hypocrisies are racking up faster than anyone can keep up with, and denial and whataboutism are strewn everywhere. There’s Facebook claiming it has huge influence in order to win advertisers, while simultaneously saying it’s not really a big deal when it’s put under regulatory scrutiny. There’s Cambridge Analytica doing something similar by saying they’ve done nothing untoward while promising on camera that they can push fake news at a micro level and get Ukrainian sex workers to blackmail political opponents. Oh, and there’s the red herring they’re trying out that an unauthorized use of data obtained through deceptive practices is not a “breach”… so stop looking so hard! It’s a feature, not a bug!

That *is* true. Facebook built this machine on purpose. And yet, really, if the ascendancy of Trump and Brexit shows us anything, it’s that hypocrisy in the public sphere means less and less each day in the face of power and division.

This is not an unexpected turn of events. There are dozens of prominent campaigners who have been warning about Facebook’s fundamental structures and imperatives for a long time. The warping of the web, first into nodes and then into closed platforms, has created a set of incentives that have combined with an ideology of disinterest. The danger signs have been there, wriggling around uncomfortably in plain sight, the whole time.

I remember writing a piece that went bonkers back in 2010, based on remarks Zuckerberg made. On a public stage, he said privacy was “no longer a social norm”—that we were sharing things we’d never shared before, and that our concept of privacy was essentially dead. Facebook pushed back on my story, of course. Zuck didn’t mean it like that! He was just observing a shift in people’s behavior where they are more and more willing to put information about themselves on the internet!

Except it’s one thing to observe a shift—but quite another to be a willing enabler and profiteer from these movements. This was not so long after the Beacon debacle, and, like many missteps Facebook has made over the years, Beacon came back soon afterwards in the form of another product, Facebook Connect. The transgression, for them, wasn’t the underlying idea, but the failure to understand how it would be received. And at the core of it, the underlying idea is what these Masters of The Universe believe—your information, public and private, is a commodity which you can be encouraged to trade in… and if it’s to your ultimate detriment, or to society’s, then that’s your problem.

This whole debacle is absolutely about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica; but it’s also about much more than Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The same attitude prevails across so many companies (god knows what we’ll discover when Palantir operatives start turning against the company) all of whom are slowly invading, changing our baseline expectations, providing us with conveniences that require us to trade in things we don’t even know we have. And there aren’t many of us—users, technologists, the media—who get away with clean hands from this whole mess. We’re all culpable, to some extent, either for being willing to trade in our own personal data for trinkets, or by choosing to retool our publishing platforms and do the same to our user’s information. We have all made this possible. The difference is that it’s almost impossible for most of us to fix.

So I’d love to see some change, and some introspection. A culture of first, do no harm. A recognition that there are huge dangers if you just do what’s possible, or build a macho “fail fast” culture that promotes endangerment. It’s about building teams that know they’ll make mistakes but also recognize the difference between great businesses opportunities and gigantic, universe-sized fuck ups. Because we’ve all made mistakes in our lives, nobody’s saying otherwise. But we have to see that there are different kinds of mistakes. Some we can’t take back: Some that hurt other people; some that we should regret and move on from. But there are mistakes that hurt everybody, and that were done with foreknowledge. Those are acts of violence, and those we should be angry about.

§

Here’s a short reading list of Facebook stories that can help contextualize this, beyond the triple punch of Observer, New York Times, and Channel 4 pieces that came out in the last few days. Over the last few years we’ve had so many great pieces, including Zeynep Tufekci in the NYT // John Lanchester in LRB // Danah Boyd on her blog // Max Read in New York Magazine // Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic.

Until next time.

"We show up every day. It counts."

With David Sassoon of InsideClimate News.

LOBSTER SHIFT
EPISODE 1: March 6, 2018.

RECOMMENDED: I was glued to this hour-long On The Media looking into how news orgs report on white supremacists and the reckoning we’re seeing now. Handwringers of the world, unite! // MEANWHILE the Calabrian mafia is accused of murdering Slovakian journalist Jan Kuciak. Here’s a 2012 bit from Der Spiegel on who they are just in case you didn’t know // Last week my NOGGIN was nudged by this interview with Tow’s Jonathan Albright on what data can tell us about fake news and information flows // And I’m STILL trying to work out what to think of this piece on sources, hackers, and disinformation by former WSJer Jay Solomon. Answers on a postcard, please.

§

DAVID SASSOON, THE TIRELESS FOUNDER of InsideClimate News first came across my radar at a science journalism event a couple of years ago, where a handful of folks had been gathered to hobnob with each other and generally feel good about ourselves. This was during the early days of Matter, but back then David was already something of an unusual specimen—a dynamo who helped found a non-profit newsroom focused on a wicked problem that, frankly, hardly anyone really knew how to report. The climate is not an easy topic.

ICN had formed in 2007 as an independent bloggy operation and well, just kept plugging away and getting better. The site won a Pulitzer in 2013, and has been a careful, thoughtful, and continuous presence in its corner of the world the whole way through.

I feel like non-profit newsrooms are popping up everywhere at the moment, so as my mind started obsessing over the ins and outs of this world, I thought it was worth catching up with David to see how the site was going—and what advice he’d give to people thinking of following his footsteps. He was kind enough to return my call, so I asked him to catch me up.

“We’ve got 15 staff now, we’re doing well,” he said. “We want more. We’ve grown from a staff of two over 10 years; that’s not fast. But we’re continually improving. And we show up every day. It counts.”

When you think of all the newsrooms that have come and gone in that time, taking the more organic approach seems smart, even if it has maybe been a hard and long road. And it’s made them… well, not invulnerable—that’s a terrible word to use—but, perhaps, resilient. And I don’t just mean financially. Going up against the corporate world means they’ve had to stick it out in more ways than one. The site’s got plenty of well-funded enemies, like Exxon, which has waged war against ICN.

“Oh, they’ll be out to get you before you even start publishing,” he says of his (many) mustache-twirling nemeses. “They use all the techniques to de-legitimize what you do—we know them, we see them.”

The companies who oppose ICN’s reporting, well, they’ve been after the site from day one and they have never stopped. “They say ‘they’re not real journalists,’ and they still do to this day,” he says.

In the world of propaganda and smears and hit pieces, though, David suggests sticking to your guns. Make sure you do everything right, don’t cut corners, keep to the journalism. I would use the phrase copper-bottomed; perhaps there’s a more environmentally-conscious equivalent I should pick instead.

“The last thing you want to do is do anything that resembles solid proof” of the industrially-sponsored conspiracy theories, he says.

“No editorials, be careful with tweets. We’re scrupulous about sticking to hard news. You’ll undermine yourself if you cross that line into advocacy.”

I hesitated for a moment at this. I grew up in a very different tradition in the partisan British press and don’t feel so icky about stating a position. But it wasn’t just that. Although ICN is very clear to say it’s non-partisan, I also think David’s “balance” is not the same as the view from nowhere. The guy’s running a fucking independent news site dedicated to climate change; there’s clearly an opinion at the heart of it all.

So, after more than a decade building this operation, what’s the thing he’d do differently? What morsel of advice would he pass along to others trying to create something similar?

“The most difficult mistake was not asking for enough money,” he says. “That means nNot understanding how much stuff costs, and being willing to work cheaply. You start in a hole, and you make do, you wear seven hats and all that. Maybe you ask for $50,000 when you should be asking for $90,000—it seems like a huge difference to you, but to a funder it’s really not. For you its years of work to fill that hole. I don’t have any business training, I didn’t go to business school—so perhaps this is obvious to other people. But I’ve learned a lot in 10 years, and I’ve gotten better. Now I know if you make your case, people will come to you.”

Thanks, David.

I’m planning on compiling some kind of public report on the state of non-profit newsrooms, because it’s interesting to me and to the work I’m doing as an editorial consultant. Hit me up if you’re interested and/or would like to contribute thoughts.

§

AND FINALLY: One breath after announcing it would be expanding, the ATLANTIC is on the move to build out its technology reporting team in San Francisco. Look like some good gigs. // The Marshall Project is looking for a news editor // Jack Jones Literary Arts has opened applications for its October retreat for women writers of color // And Pineapple Media (Missing Richard Simmons, Still Processing) has a paid fellowship open for people wanting to transition into audio (“paid” meaning not-nothing) // If you have any other good opportunities, send them over and I’ll try to share next time.

And with that… Goodnight from the Lobster Shift.

There's always tomorrow.

And there's only one way to get there.

Working the night shift anywhere can be hard. It’s dark, most of the world is asleep, and you’re stuck watching nothing happen slowly. It can feel like the end of everything, half-awake, always in danger of making some dumb mistake nobody will no about until it’s too late.

In the world of news, that overnight haul has plenty of nicknames: The dogwatch; the graveyard; others mentioned in a momentary eruption of anger and resentment. One of the less spleen-rupturingly rude is the lobster shift.

If you work in media, it sometimes feels like we’re all working this right now, sitting at the cusp of some kind of twilight. Maybe we’ve seen the best of it all. Maybe we’re all grinding away without realizing we’re being buttered up and boiled alive at the same time. Maybe we’re done for.

But then again… perhaps not. The true beauty of the night shift is that you know there’s always a new day, and you—yes you, you lucky bastard—get to watch the sun come up.

I don’t know what I’m going to do here exactly, but I do know I’ve been collecting conversations with interesting people in journalism, news, and media. We talk about the things I obsess over, and think about: Ideas, futures, stories. Different ways of approaching old problems and interesting ways we might tackle new ones. And I want to start sharing them.

So, here we are. Welcome to the Lobster Shift.

Loading more posts…