Can Facebook be fixed? Social media and the unintended consequences of technology in the wild

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 developer conference. (Facebook photo)

Sheryl Cababa is a user experience designer with technology and product design firm Artefact in Seattle who studies the impact of social media on people, communities, and society. One of the experts she likes to cite is Dr. Ian Malcolm.

Sheryl Cababa

You probably won’t find his name in the academic literature, but if you’ve seen the first “Jurassic Park” movie, you’re familiar with his philosophy.

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” says Malcom, the fictional mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum in the 1993 film, speaking to Jurassic Park theme park creator Dr. John Hammond.

Cababa sees direct parallels between that statement and the modern-day technology industry — most notably Facebook, which was just hit with a $5 billion fine for mishandling user data.

“This relates to Mark Zuckerberg continually saying that in order to fix Facebook’s problems, people just need to use Facebook more,” said Cababa, who authored a report called “Can Social Media Be Saved?” She describes it as an example of the tendency toward “tech solutionism” in the industry.

“What happens when we do that in the tech industry is we’re absolving ourselves of responsibility and accountability for what we’ve created,” she said. “So my hope is that as we move forward in the industry, we can be more thoughtful about the potential unintended consequences, and anticipating for them.”

Despite the restrictions it imposes on Facebook’s business, the Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with the social media giant is viewed as insufficient by some critics. So what can we do as Facebook users? What impact is Facebook having on us in the meantime? And what can the tech industry learn from the whole thing?

That’s our topic on this episode of the GeekWire podcast, featuring highlights from a discussion with Cababa and tech industry veteran Andre Vrignaud.

Listen above or subscribe in your favorite podcast app, and continue reading for highlights.

Vrignaud has worked in tech for decades in Seattle and Silicon Valley, at companies including Amazon and Microsoft. (He now works for Mozilla but joined us in his personal capacity.) Last year he noticed that he had a problem with Facebook. He was addicted to it.

Andre Vrignaud

“I found myself using it all the time. I’d be on the computer, I’d be sitting there waiting for a bus, or trying to get coffee and you know, if I had a spare moment I’d just pull out something with the little blue icon on it and click it and I find myself mindlessly scrolling through. And it was really kind of frustrating because I was realizing there wasn’t that much content there, and I wanted to pause and sort of start taking control of my life back.”

At the same time, he found himself among those who have growing concerns about the use of data by Facebook and other tech companies. As detailed in this GeekWire story earlier this year, he didn’t quit entirely, but did find a solution by adjusting his behavior to engage more periodically and purposefully with the social network, and finding alternatives.

“There are other solutions for a lot of the things you want. You want a feed of information to scroll through mindlessly? Go to Reddit. You want a Facebook Messenger replacement? Go to Signal, or go to Telegram. There are plenty of solutions out there that aren’t inside of Facebook that you don’t have to compromise on.”

So how would he design a social network if starting from scratch? Vrignaud said he would focus on “user agency,” giving users full control and understanding of what’s done with their information.

“You understand what you’re sharing, why you’re sharing it. It’s clearly displayed to you. And if you decide you don’t want to later on, you have a very simple place where you can either granularly manage, granually unshare what you want to do or share, delete all your information, probably make it portable. … At the end of the day, the user owns the data store, and owns the access to it, and there’s a recognition that personal data is personal, private, and valuable.”

Andre Vrignaud, center, with Sheryl Cababa of Artefact, right, and Todd Bishop of GeekWire, left, recording an episode of the GeekWire Podcast. (Photo courtesy Jasmine Whiting, Artefact)

Paid subscriptions are another option often cited for the potential to reduce the incentive for a social network to rely on personal data.

Cababa isn’t sure that reinventing the general interest social network is the answer. “I don’t think I would even start a new social network, Because I am starting to wonder what it actually brings to us, from a social perspective, and whether it’s worthwhile. And there are other models out there that adhere to these more niche ways of social sharing.”

To design better products, Cababa said, “the first thing that you can do is acknowledge that your technology is not neutral.

“I think we’ve spent many, many years kind of assuming that we can put out these technologies, and it just depends on how people use it. And you’re not actually responsible for how people use your technology,” she said.

“If we can make sure that we understand that the way that we’re designing our technology is not neutral, the people designing our technology are not neutral, you come with a perspective, then we should bring to the table the perspective that we feel will result in the best, most positive societal impact.”

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