As Facebook reveals fundamental flaws, music tech might reexamine the platform’s role

In just 48 hours, we’ve been treated both to whistleblower testimony that questions Facebook’s impact on society – and a massive technical outage that shows our dependence on it (and its fragility). Maybe it’s time for the world of music to stop treating Facebook as inevitable and entirely benign.

Before we even get to the damning accusations against Facebook originating from the company’s own internal research, let’s talk about that outage.

Outage as accidental performance art

The outage of course is hard to ignore. From a technical perspective, Facebook engineers evidently screwed up – big time. That can happen with any vendor, of course, but there are specific implications to what happens when Facebook is the company involved.

As for what likely happened (including for those not well versed in security and net admin), you can find various explanations. Professor, security expert, and director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Jonathan Zittrain puts it best. They locked their keys in the car:

What is even more astounding is that Facebook managed to do this right in the middle of the company defending itself (again) to the public and the US Congress. That’s important not just because it represents poor timing, but because of the nature of this particular outage. Since it was global and impacted all Facebook’s product lines at once, Facebook themselves illustrated just how monolithic the company is and how dependent we are on that one provider. It says this is a utility – the impact almost immediately like knocking out Bell prior to its breakup.

It may be tempting to turn this into an opportunity for arguing for decentralized Internet technologies – that’s a fair point, too – but it’s also possible to just look at this in more immediately practical terms. This is one company with a lot of dominance, operating across properties that were acquisitions (WhatsApp, Instagram, and Oculus), and then bringing all of them down at once – which wouldn’t have happened had those same companies been independent. That would seem to raise an eyebrow for anyone interested in government regulatory action (like, spitballing here, I don’t know, breaking up the company). The dominance wasn’t inevitable; it was something we’ve watched the company lobby for since its inception, over hurdles like anti-competitive regulation that might have slowed its growth.

Just how dominant? Even in countries like the USA, UK, and Germany with relatively competitive and heterogeneous platforms, a lot of us nonetheless thought “the internet” was down or our phone or wifi wasn’t working – because it’s hard to tell the difference, so much stuff gets routed through Facebook. (I’ll talk about China’s Internet landscape another time; it’s obviously another story, in ways that impact how music communities work, too.)

Downdetector did some live analysis of how the outage looked:

Massive Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp Outage Happening Now [speedtest blog]

The full list of services you might not know so here’s a rough list as far as we know of the big items. Knocking out Facebook DNS means you lose these Facebook-owned properties/products:

  • Facebook (the social platform itself)
  • Facebook Messenger
  • WhatsApp
  • Instagram
  • Oculus VR (not a complete outage in that locally downloaded apps would work to the extent they could operate offline, but knocking out anything requiring connectivity)

But you also interfere with the operation of other non-Facebook apps and sites depending on their services, especially:

  • Ad services – not only on Facebook, but other sites and apps (what they dub the Facebook Audience Network)
  • Facebook authentication, also used by a variety of sites and apps

Facebook’s domination of the Internet

It’s difficult to even calculate the number of users here – but Facebook alone counts over a third of all people on earth among its users:

Add in other tools – WhatsApp especially – and the number grows even more. (Statista estimates around 2 billion WhatsApp users and 1.3 billion Instagram; obviously, figure a fair bit of overlap between the three.)

If you’re wondering where music will come into this, that graph looks painful to any of us working in communications in music and music technology. The runaway growth of Facebook around 2009 sure hasn’t felt victimless. I believe it came at the cost of attention and income for independent writing on music, avenues for independently sharing and discovering music, and what had been an open Web ecosystem of blogs and community sites.

But before I get to that argument, you can likely work out what this meant from what didn’t happen in your world yesterday during those six hours.

And it’s worth considering what it meant for others. There’s a great interview with Nic McKinley of DeliverFund on People that talks about the outsized impact of this outage in parts of the world. That is, for all the folks in your Twitter feed saying “why don’t you download something else” yesterday – that’s something of a first-world privilege itself.

How the Facebook Outage Impacted Developing Nations That Rely on WhatsApp: ‘Really Hurt People’ [People]

But, hey, you can also read about a bridal store in Pittsburgh.

The fact that this coincides with other Facebook criticism and whistleblower testimony matters because it undercuts a lot of the excuses the company likes to make for itself. Facebook’s public use is such that “we’re trying really hard” or “we’re just one company among others” isn’t really good enough. If we are this dependent on the company, and if this many products that people might think of as distinct not only share an owner but can fail at once, that makes conversations about the company’s ethics, its impact, and questions about what interventions governments or other players might take become all the more urgent.

This is not to let rival titans like Google off the hook, either – least of all when American tech companies share a great deal in history, culture, investment, and people. There’s now domination by this handful of large, US-based transnational over communication (Google, Facebook), content (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple), music (Google, Apple, Spotify), sales (Amazon), Internet infrastructure for third parties (Amazon, Google, Microsoft), devices (Google, Apple, Microsoft), and so on. These are I think not fundamental to the architecture of “Web 1” or “Web 2.0” or “Web3” – even if those are worth discussing – but the specific evolution of corporate domination of the markets on top of these platforms.

And they certainly impact music and artists – our communities, our distribution, and even things like digital art commissions and discussions of how immersive media tech works (dominated by Google, Microsoft, Apple, Oculus, and so on) or AI research and art (Google, especially).

That being said, there are particulars to Facebook that also merit investigation for music.

What the whistleblower said

I think it’s worth letting the whistleblower herself – Frances Haugen – speak for herself. If you haven’t watched the full interview already, it’s worth hearing in her own words, even in addition to reading reporting by The Wall Street Journal:

[embedded content]

The Journal broke this story, and what is extraordinary about it is, the whole body of criticism comes directly from internal documentation which you can now read. This is not a picture the rest of us are painting of Facebook; it’s a dire portrait produced by Facebook’s own research, which the company ignored. It has the smoking gun quality of similar documents about health impacts in the tobacco industry or climate impacts known by petrochemical giants.

Facebook’s Documents About Instagram and Teens [WSJ]

What I’m surprised folks have not made so explicit is whether Facebook properties might be similarly reshaping perception, mental health, and community in the electronic music and musical instruments worlds. It sure is something you’ll hear a lot from artists engaging heavily in those platforms. For instance:

Think about this – in just over a decade, Facebook has come to dominate social interaction (with Groups and the Facebook feed), and communication (with the Facebook feed and Instagram), all with algorithmic control over what appears. That has had a particularly major impact on music, in part because it’s not terribly easy to share actual music via these platforms – the result partly of byzantine licensing rules from rightsholders, partly of business decisions made over time by Facebook leadership to deprioritize music listening.

A lot of the cliché gripes you hear about music today – that it’s image dominated, that it’s all Instagram people, that there’s no actual music, but tons of pictures of gear and pretty faces – those arguably describe Facebook’s algorithmic values more than they do a change in music culture. The problem is, over time those algorithms start to shift human behavior and mood until you can’t actually separate the two. And that’s part of what the data is looking at.

On Instagram, across all age groups, Facebook reports “social comparison” to be one of the prime drivers of use – and a major source of anxiety for some users.

It’s fair to say that this isn’t negative for everyone – indeed, it’s more often positive than negative, though that depends on the case.

In addition to social comparison, which concentrates in Facebook’s own data heavily on celebrities (some of them in music), these documents also raise serious concerns about depression, anxiety, and negative body image – particularly for women.

For now, I want to raise the question, because it would require some self-examination. This has implications – not all of them positive – for music media and how music products are marketed as well as for Facebook properties, specifically. Those issues blur together now that artists and music tech are both marketed on Facebook and Instagram, too, but they’re worth raising in all contexts.

There is a Facebook-specific angle that Haugen addresses directly – that Facebook teams ignored some of the advice suggested to pursue greater engagement. That is, they knew what was going on, and they chose not just profits, but actual misery for their users. And the SEC is involved because Haugen also alleges they misrepresented the company to investors – which means they may have broken the law, and is part of how Haugen is protected as a whistleblower (under the Dodd-Frank Act). You can read up on that last bit on the SEC’s own site.

Facebook, for their part, pushes back and says that the data itself shows there is a net positive for users. Now interestingly there does not seem to be a direct rejection of some of Haugen’s other claims – that whatever the positive impact on a majority of users, Facebook ignored opportunities to act on behalf of more vulnerable users or those struggling with body image or depression. That gap is what will no doubt get heavily picked apart in the coming weeks.

But there’s no reason for us in music to sit by and wait, especially because some of the leaked data doesn’t look at our particular case and doesn’t have an enormous sample set to begin with. I think it’s something we need to ask ourselves over time. And as experienced voice Julia Alexander points out, some of this has been a long time coming – not just because of Facebook. Here the reference is body image, but any issues around mental health and hate online apply, too (and music has a body image issue, too):

Some of the other allegations here should immediately raise alarm bells, too. It’s fair to say that over the last decade or so, there has finally been a more public reckoning in electronic music about racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia – at least in raising concerns and looking ourselves in the mirror.

In the same period of time, though, evidence from Haugen and others suggests that Facebook in particular – more than other social networks let alone other online social forums – may be amplifying some of those worst characteristics.

That’s an important question to resolve. If you’re trying to drive up a mountain, you might want to consider whether the back of your bus is hitched to a tow truck pulling hard the opposite direction.

The WSJ is not always my paper of choice, but this pretty much makes it worth paying to jump over the paywall:

The Facebook Files

For still more, there’s an entire book on the subject of whether Facebook amplifies hate:

Reporters Reveal ‘Ugly Truth’ Of How Facebook Enables Hate Groups And Disinformation

Maybe the oddest thing here is Facebook’s answer, which is some sort of non-apology “this is really hard,” but also a plea for regulation?

Every day, we make difficult decisions on where to draw the line between free expression and harmful speech, on privacy, security, and other issues, and we have expert leaders who engage outside stakeholders as we craft our policies. But we should not be making these decisions on our own and have for years advocated for updated regulations where democratic governments set industry standards to which we can all adhere.

That makes it even more surreal that Facebook is now evidently trying to push back hard against the whistleblower narrative.

But in short, this is all a debate we should watch closely. And we should ask ourself a series of questions, I think:

What do we want for our music-making and listening online?

What sort of online communities do we want to be a member of? With whom?

Want kinds of time do we want to spend there?

How do we want them to make us feel?

How is our time on Facebook and Instagram making us feel?

If they were to be suddenly out forever instead of six hours, what would we want our time filled in their place?

Would the alternative look like these apps and networks, or something entirely different? (Dunno, zines and mix tapes, anyone?)

That’s a lot. I guess in order to have time to really dig into that, we’ll have to spend less time scrolling through our feed, huh?

But I’ll say this – I remember the first time I went online, before the Web or Facebook. And it was magical. And I still wouldn’t wish away this technology because of meeting all of you. Let’s fix this – even if fixing it means going elsewhere.

And maybe this is the real bottom line of why Facebook properties have a troubled relationship with music:

— that Facebook is designed to harness emotions for engagement, often with harmful consequences.

I mean, the problem is, music does that better, and can do so without harm. And maybe that should be the message to reflect on for deciding what we do next.