Ask anyone who knows me. I’m generally supportive of the business community. After all, hundreds of businesses in my area support my efforts here at CT News Junkie and at my day job in the Berkshires. And businesses bear an enormous share of the tax burden that allows us to have the kinds of government services we want and deserve.
But I’m ashamed to admit that in the current climate surrounding social media companies, it’s all I can do to pull myself back from cheering their demise.
I guess it’s for the same reason I’m not a fan of the big financial companies either. Like the social media behemoths, they don’t really create anything. But when things go south, the ripples and ramifications can be wide-ranging and profound.
Last month, the granddaddy of them all, Facebook, took the largest single-day beating in stock-market history, losing 19 percent in stock price, or $119 billion of its value. No company in U.S. history has ever lost more than $100 billion in one day.
The next day, Twitter took a 20.5-percent dive. Ironically, the loss was the result of the company trying to clean up its act. The number of active users dropped by 3 million after the company removed fake accounts, those containing hate speech or others that were used by foreign actors to interfere in the U.S. elections.
For those who have investments in such companies or, like me, have retirement plans that likely include social media company stocks in their portfolios, I can empathise — especially if we’re witnessing the start of something big that could spell long-term losses.
But companies that rely on data-mining for the bulk of their revenue might be in serious trouble. End users are steadily losing faith in social media companies whose interests increasingly seem at odds with those they purport to serve.
Careless data breaches such as Facebook allowed to happen with Cambridge Analytica really awoke Americans to how their data could be misused for nefarious purposes. Some people I know who are concerned about data mining, fake news, and Facebook’s mysterious algorithms have migrated to Instagram. Sorry, folks! Facebook gobbled up Instagram about six years ago for $1 billion. Seems there’s no escaping Mark Zuckerberg’s tentacles.
And last week — seemingly in unison — several tech giants took the sort of action they are loath to commit. Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify all essentially banned far-right provocateur and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his hideous Infowars site from posting content on their platforms. All four tech giants (YouTube is part of Google) justified their actions by proclaiming that Jones was violating their terms of service. Apple, for example, says it prohibits “hate speech” in its podcasts.
That may be, but the cynic in me is convinced that these companies were more concerned about their reputations than about the promulgation of hate. The companies are under pressure from a variety of fronts — and rightly so.
Facebook, in particular, has insisted that it’s not a real content provider but merely a platform for people to share content. And such, Facebook has largely denied any responsibility for content that is either highly objectionable or deliberately false. Zuckerberg has even branded — quite laughably — as a “pretty crazy idea” that fake news on his platform could have influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Turns out, if you think the Russians know what they’re doing — and you believe the federal indictment of more than a dozen Russian spies (and the more than $100,000 in wedge-issue ads Russians bought using fake Facebook accounts) — it’s hardly crazy at all.
If you’re interested in the future of social media, it’s important to note that investors are typically more interested in long-term growth than in short-term gain. And the stock market, which is little more than a glorified gambling operation, is a better predictor of the future than any prognostication you might find on pages like these.
The social media companies rely on high numbers of users, or what are called “network effects.” As Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle has written, “Industries where network effects are strong tend toward monopoly, which is why pundits spend so much time fretting about Facebook’s market power. Less attention has been paid to the ways that companies dependent on network effects are unusually vulnerable to disruption.”
I’d love to leave it all behind — and I know hundreds of others who feel the same way. Facebook and Twitter can be toxic places — refuges for the lazy, the impulsive and the ill-informed. Often under the cloak of anonymity or obscurity, commenters attack unprovoked. The laziest — and there are millions of them — simply hurl invective or ask questions that are easily answered in the articles posted.
But those of us in the news business are stuck with social media — at least until something better comes along. At this point, there is no more efficient way to push content out to a throng of mostly interested readers, so I shouldn’t cheer for their demise. But I’m having to fend off the waves of schadenfreude.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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