This essay originally was published on October 7, 2023, with the email subject line "CT No.97: Netflix good? Facebook bad? C'mon let's get nuanced."
Regarding this week's whistleblower promotional campaign and congressional testimony: Look, Facebook is indefensible, particularly given their reactions toward political bad actors and mis/disinformation on their platform. Optimizing for anger is straight-up unethical!
I've been bearish on Facebook in this newsletter for a while, particularly since I noticed that both Facebook and Insta usage declined during Q4, during the holidays, in a pandemic, even when ad spending was up. Facebook in particular has been abandoned by most of my friends who made it a quality experience in the first place. Facebook hasn't been up front about its metrics or user data with investors and the general public, but neither are most mass media companies, so... I just see it all as part of the same capitalist mass content cycle.
The Facebook/Insta/WhatsApp outage this week was regrettable, but if it disrupted your business any more than giving your social planners a chance to take a long walk or get some reading done, you probably need a major shift in strategy. Whether you own your own platform or use another's, technical outages happen (says the woman whose website was down from DNS errors nearly all last weekend).
Instagram, teenage girls, and how we all feel after using media products
However, what seems to be getting more attention is Facebook's research on how Instagram affects teenage girls, specifically regarding body image. I read more than one friend assert something like, "It's hurting our girls" this week and I'm stuck between crying and laughing from frustration.
Instagram's focus on audience-engagement-first optimization props up idealized body images because throughout most of the 2010s, Instagram and other visual social networks replicated the patriarchal beauty standards from mass media of the 20th century. I came of age in the Kate Moss/heroin chic era, and it's long been the case that being two clicks away from anorexia content is to grow up in western culture.
I've written before about turning to the internet to escape 90s magazine monoculture; Anne Helen Petersen's essay about millennial beauty culture captures this era far more aptly. I wonder whether whistleblower Frances Haugen, who is around my age, remembers how bad it really was. Let's just say that we're all lucky if we found our way out of the 90s/aughts fairly unscathed by the untenable beauty standards of mass magazine culture. But back to this week:
Facebook found that 1/3 of teenage girls felt worse after using their app and, according to Haugen, did nothing. But Facebook was conducting in-house media effects research on how its content affected teenage users in the first place, an evaluation process that is light years away from how News Corp, Conde Nast, and the other mass media companies reinforcing patriarchal beauty standards that created the foundation for Instagram replication. Vogue may include models larger than a size 2 on its covers in 2021, but it wasn't until social media demonstrated the market's appetite for size-inclusive models that Anna Wintour even moved the needle on her editorial strategy. Even now, the Vogue homepage is populated by the skinniest of models, not one over a size 6.
Legacy media companies do not bother to study how their content affects users; they just keep on producing whatever sells subscriptions and ads, underpay their content producers, and hoard profits at the top. Academic researchers study media effects, publishing their findings in academic journals, but mass media companies rarely read or react to those studies, couching behind the idea that if people buy their content, it must be good.
The future of in-house behavioral research
Tech companies like Facebook devote resources to behavioral and effects research. Of course it's ultimately motivated by hoarding profits, but at least they're evaluating their own technology and content. Most legacy mass media companies are still insisting that they do nothing wrong when they pay paparazzi and employ serial sexual harassers, while shining the magnifying glass on tech companies that perform some semblance of listening and reacting to human behavioral data.
Media panic over how girls use new technological or cultural trends is not new. My former MA adviser and friend Shayla Thiel Stern wrote a book about this entire phenomenon, focusing on how people who panicked over Facebook ten years ago because girls were sharing photos where they looked more sexualized.
What's more frustrating in the case of Facebook is that these findings were originally published by the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by News Corp, one of the absolute worst offenders in global body-shaming media, paparazzi culture, and sexual harassment.* The Wall Street Journal itself likely makes 1/3 of its women readers feel worse about themselves after reading it, simply by enforcing capitalism and platforming antifeminists like Peggy Noonan.
To use Facebook's own research against it is disingenuous at best and malicious at worst. I imagine that News Corp would never dream of altering its content standards based on academic media effects research, and would never conduct its own research on how its body-shaming tabloids effect readers waiting in line in the supermarket. Rupert Murdoch and Anna Wintour are as responsible for shitty body image issues as Zuckerberg, but they never bothered looking in the mirror until internet culture forced them to.
Again, Facebook isn't blameless by any means, and they need to take big steps to protect young users. But it's frustrating that what gets my peers and Congress riled up is the protection of girls and not the optimization for anger or political disinfo for profit. All this as abortion rights are being undermined in Texas and across the U.S., when women are the ones hardest hit economically from the pandemic. Particularly if you're a man, please, leave the sanctimony aside when railing about Facebook and figure out more productive ways to protect women and girls.
What these hearings and stories will ultimately do is discourage tech companies from investing in research on their effects on users, lest it be used against them at some time in the future. After all, whistleblowers can't say you're complicit if you never conducted research about the "effects on girls" in the first place.
Can we move past handwringing about Facebook?
Yes, we need more regulation for how social media operates and promotes content. But let's put the bullshit about effects on women and girls to the side unless we're ready to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Let's be honest about News Corp's and legacy media's role in this whole mess: they believe that Facebook "stole" their advertising and their audience. The reality is that audiences abandoned them for different products, content and experiences that were more inclusive and creative. Now those products and experiences have evolved to a nasty apex of commercial bullshit, and audiences will move on to what's next.
Zuckerberg handles his business badly, his execs respond poorly to all critique, and Facebook is not a great product, but let's look at the precedents we set with all the media frenzy and handwringing. What we had before Facebook was a similar pile of garbage, in the hands of similarly horrible people, all of whom still have an outsized amount of power over our culture.
What we need is more diverse executive teams; a shift in storytelling norms that rewards complexity over brief attention; true accountability for all the sexist and racist behaviors in the advertising, media and tech industries; and a move away from the profit-above-people imperative.
If we want to protect children: Fund early childhood education. Pass gun control. Fix American health care. Don't let this not-great software take our emotion and resolve away from reforms that will actually make our culture safer.
On a pettier note: Facebook is nothing like smoking. No one ever looked as attractive using Facebook as they did smoking a cigarette. Also, I never want to talk about Facebook again. Can we point the magnifying glass at Amazon please? Or talk about how maybe it's the hardware and not the software that feels so addictive?
Ok I'm done. I have nothing else to say about Facebook.
*I worked for News Corp at HarperCollins in 2004, in the publishing heyday before Amazon and Facebook shook the industry, and I can tell you that few of them gave a shit about the well-being of women and girls as long as they were making money. Coincidentally, the first time I ever used Facebook was at my HarperCollins internship, but that's another story for another time.