“All we want is to be treated like human beings, not to be experimented on like guinea pigs or patronized like bunny rabbits.” – Veronica Sawyer, Heathers
Thirty years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg was just another 4-year-old in Gymborees, the now cult classic movie, “Heathers,” hit the theaters. In it, a clique of quintessential mean girls, each named Heather, outwardly present themselves as the embodiment of well-intentioned social graces, while behind the scenes they fine-tune their expertise in the dark arts of social manipulation.
Today Mark is one of the richest, most successful tech-entrepreneurs in the history of the world. And the company he created, Facebook, is a full-on Heather – treating the world as its very own Westerburg High.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen Facebook go from being the cute and innocent new kid on the block, to the wunderkind for savvy marketers looking to connect with the young and educated, to the most dominant company in the world when looking to target…anyone.
Now every brand out there wants Facebook as a friend or a fuck. They’re worshiped at Westerburg…. and they’re only a junior.
But their meteoric rise has come with some galactic-size problems. Journalists and industry insiders have been highly critical of The Social Network for some time now (see Kara Swisher, Jaron Lenier, Nikhil Sonnad).
Thoughts on the root cause of their troubles are many: a bad business model that’s predicated on manipulation, a naïve bro-culture drunk on their own Kool-Aid, the sheer unwieldy size of the global Facebook community (2B+ members). All these factors are undeniably key contributors to the hot mess the company has on its hands today. But I’ll offer up one more:
Facebook is not a brand. And for those responsible for building brands, this should cause concern.
Um, Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast? Interbrand listed Facebook as the 8th most valuable brand in the world (Lick it up, Disney. #14) And Zuck wrote a 6,000 word essay to introduce their wonderfully noble and ambitious purpose “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (which no doubt is memorialized in a super slick brand book, so there ya go).
Facebook does, indeed, have the pieces in place to give it the appearance of being a brand. But it only exhibits the shape of the thing – in reality, it’s pure imitation. This is because, at its very core, Facebook is an algorithm. And the painful irony is that while the algorithm we call Facebook is highly effective at behavior modification and human surveillance, it has no more sense of what it means to be human than a slot machine or a satellite dish.
So, what’s your damage?
For starters, Facebook has never been willing to define exactly what it is. Insiders have described it as a social network, a social platform, an online community, even a utility. Many outsiders claim Facebook is a media company, pointing to content distribution and its ad model as evidence of its truest nature. But it’s this pattern of an unwillingness to commit to any clear definition that is most telling. The only true commitment the company has shown is to growth itself, which is a perfectly fine direction for an algorithm. But it’s deadly for a brand. Without a clear sense of self and the guardrails to keep you centered, you’re not a brand – you’re an opportunist.
Facebook’s undefined “what” has led to questionable “hows.” In his new book, “10 Arguments Why You Should Delete Your Social Media Accounts Now”, Jaron Lanier, refers to products like Facebook as B.U.M.M.E.R. Machines – Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. Doesn’t have quite the pep of “bringing the world closer together,” does it? But it’s a much more accurate description of their model. Growth in users and time spent on Facebook is paramount. More people and more time spent means more data and more value to marketers and politicians seeking to connect with their target audience.
So how do they maximize engagement? By “exploiting vulnerability in human psychology” to make it more addictive, according to Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker. Features such as the “like” button give you the high and positive feedback loop that makes you want to come back for more.
But even more addictive than hits of positivity are hits of rage. As J.D., the teenage anarchist in “Heathers,” points out, “The extreme always seems to make an impression.” Facebook’s algorithm is designed to continually adapt user feeds in ways that maximize engagement. And as humans, we tend to feel a greater sense of urgency to express our disgust than our gratitude. Therefore, bad behavior is often rewarded more than good. Given that, it’s no wonder the platform has been weaponized by bad actors like Alex Jones of Infowars and hostile foreign powers like Russia’s GRU. Facebook was designed for them.
The net effect has been clear. Studies show time and again that Facebook makes us feel bad. It’s become a genuine threat to liberal democracies around the world. And it has even been used as tool to distribute disinformation and hate speech that fueled mass chaos and murder in Myanmar. But hey, that’s life at Westerburg, amirite?
To be fair, Facebook has of late acknowledged the mistakes it has made and has taken some steps to address them. Alex Jones is no longer on the platform. They have invested in identifying and removing fake accounts and limiting the misinformation. But this has only come as a result of investigative journalists exposing, time and again, the glaring lack of responsibility and accountability (not to mention self-awareness) that we would ordinarily expect of a trusted brand.
In order to be a brand you not only have to state what you’re for, you have to take a stand on the things that you’re against. You have to have the courage of your convictions – especially when it’s most difficult. Patagonia’s CEO, Rose Marcario, in a recent Recode Decode interview stated, “You can’t call Facebook a community, and then say I’m the leader of this company but I have no responsibility to what happens in the community. You know?”
But I guess you can, if you’re not really a brand.
Which brings us back to their shiny new purpose: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” It has the sound of a noble ambition but substance of a lab experiment. Giving people the power to build community is not the same as actually building community – it’s not the same as defining what community should be and taking responsibility for its impact.
Does Facebook care about the type of communities being built? If they are true or false? Benign or malignant? Peaceful or violent? Is giving the power to build white supremacist communities on par with giving the power to build knitting communities? Shouldn’t the quality of communities matter more than the sheer volume?
Similarly, progress made in bringing the world closer together doesn’t automatically need to be measured in volume and scale. It could, and rightly should, be measured in the quality of connections and the positive impact made as a result of those connections. By these standards, Facebook is a complete disaster.
And that’s because Facebook’s code is not derived from a universal human need for community, but rather from engineers tasked with trying to own every human connection in the world – a goal that is as hollow as it is destructive.
So now ask yourself: How tight should your brand be with this Heather? When another disaster hits – and it surely will – how long before the community at Westerburg not only looks to take down the Heathers, but their enablers as well?