Pluralistic: 19 Sep 2022 How to ditch Facebook without ditching your friends

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The header graphic for 'How to ditch Facebook without losing friends,' a circle with a stylized flowchart linking a megaphone, a gear, a flywheel and a cloud.

How to ditch Facebook without ditching your friends (permalink)

Facebook users claim to hate the service, but they keep using it, leading many to describe Facebook as "addictive." But there's a simpler explanation: people keep using Facebook though they hate it because they don't want to lose their connections to the people they love.

Calling Facebook "addictive" plays into the company's own mythology, the sales-pitch they make to advertisers, in which they claim to be neuro-sorcerers whose mastery of "big data" and "dopamine loops" can sell anything to anyone, which is why you should buy ads on their service.

The simpler explanation – that Facebook is holding the people you love hostage, and you'll put up with a bad situation in order to stay connected to them – has many advantages over the "evil sorcerer" hypothesis. For starters, it doesn't require that you accept Facebook's own self-serving and improbable claims about having invented a mind-control ray. Instead, the "hostage-taking" explanation rests on a visible, easily verified fact: if you leave Facebook, the service won't let you send messages to the people who stay behind.

Economists have a name for this: "switching costs," this being everything you have to give up when you switch from one service to another. Internally, Facebook's product managers are very frank that they deliberately design their products to have the highest possible switching costs:

Here's how their thinking goes: if leaving Facebook is easy, then we have to treat our users well or they'll go somewhere else. But if leaving Facebook is painful, then they'll stick around, even if we abuse them. The higher the switching costs are, the worse we can treat our users without risking their departure.

Now, digital technology has intrinsically low switching-costs, because the only digital computer we know how to build – a Turing-complete Von Neumann machine – can run every program we know how to write. Someone can always figure out how to plug something new into something old.

Plugging something new into something old is called interoperability. There's no real technical barrier to plugging a new service into Facebook, so that you could quit Facebook, join the new service, and continue to send messages to the friends you left behind. If Facebook was federated with lots of non-Facebook services, the switching costs would plummet.

Facebook might treat its users better if they could leave. But even if Facebook's notoriously awful corporate culture meant that it continued to abuse its users despite falling switching costs, it wouldn't matter as much, because those users could easily leave Facebook and find a better service.

That hypothetical "interoperable Facebook" is the subject of a new white paper and narrated slideshow I've just launched with EFF, called "How to Ditch Facebook Without Losing Friends."

The impetus for this project was our collective frustration with the implementation of the EU Digital Markets Act, an otherwise very promising interoperability law that will force all kinds of tech companies to lower switching costs by offering APIs to rivals:

The DMA is incredibly promising, but the implementation could create chaos and discredit the idea of interop altogether, thanks to the decision to start with mandating interop in end-to-end encrypted ("E2EE") messaging services like Whatsapp and Imessage.

The thing is, secure, encrypted messaging is hard to do well, and even minor errors in E2EE can expose all users of the service (not just in the EU) to risk. There are deep-pocketed, vicious cyber-mercenaries like the NSO Group who weaponize these tiny, subtle errors to make interception tools for the world's worst dictatorships.

Cyber-weapons like NSO's Pegasus are used to attack opposition figures, human rights workers and journalists. Pegasus was key to the Saudi government's kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.

Making interoperable E2EE is a great idea, but it's a long-term standardization project that must proceed with the utmost caution, and the DMA imposes an unrealistic timeline on interop for E2EE. I think they're either going to miss that deadline, or, worse, press on with an immature standard despite security risks.

It's a little baffling that the EU would start with E2EE, given the difficulty – especially when interoperable social media is such an obvious way to shatter the market power of the largest tech companies in the world.

I have a theory, though: I think that every EU policymaker has experienced interoperable messaging through SMS. If you've used your Dutch phone in Brussels to send a message to a German colleague having a vacation in Spain, it's easy to imagine a multi-vendor, seamless, interoperable messaging system.

The problem is that SMS is a dumpster-fire, an absolute security disaster that has been compromised over and over again in increasingly horrible ways. SMS works well, sure, but it fails very badly.

Meanwhile, interoperable, federated social media was snuffed out decades ago, with the death of Usenet (enclosed and suffocated by Google) and the enclosure of blogs and other promising successors. It's likely that the decision-makers who decided to start with E2EE have never experienced federated social media and have no easy way to imagine what it would be like.

Hence this "interoperable Facebook" project. We describe how federated social media would work:

A dialog box confirming account migration from Facebook

  • How you would move your account from Facebook to an interoperable platform run by a co-op, nonprofit or startup;

A dialog box seeking a user's consent to maintain a connection to an off-platform user
A dialog box allowing a user to set universal preferences for off-platform communications

  • How your friends' consent to send their messages to you would be obtained;

A dialog box telling a user that members their service can't join a community
A dialog box warning that an off-platform user has been blocked for violating community standards
A dialog box telling FB users that an off-platform user has been blocked

  • How a federated service could impose different moderation policies than Facebook's, permitting things Facebook prohibits and vice-versa.

It's hard to imagine how interoperable social media might work, but some lawmakers have got their heads around the idea; the US ACCESS Act would create an interoperability mandate for social media.

Getting the ACCESS Act passed – and getting the DMA on track – will need lots of public support for the idea of interoperability as a way back from an internet composed of "five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four":

That's why we made this design fiction; to help people understand why we need interop, and how it would work. We need to get past the self-aggrandizing Big Tech story of evil sorcerers "addicting" us to their services and focus in on the real problem: Big Tech took everyone we love hostage inside their walled gardens. We need to smash those walls!

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Today's progress: 517 words (40974 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Friday's progress: 509 words (36853 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Sound Money

Upcoming appearances:

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Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

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