(without ditching your friends)
Lazar: Tevye! Tevye, I’m on my way.
Tevye: Where are you going?
Lazar: Chicago, in America.
Tevye: Chicago, America? We are going to New York, America.
Lazar: We’ll be neighbors. My wife, Fruma Sarah, may she rest in peace, has a brother there.
Tevye: That’s nice.
Lazar: I hate him, but a relative is a relative.
Collective Action Inaction in Action
In the opening scenes of the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, the narrator, Tevye, introduces us to his village of Anatevka, which is a pretty fraught place where people are unhappy and danger is on the horizon. Nearly three hours and (spoiler alert) innumerable indignities and terrors later, Tevye and his neighbors leave the village, all to go their separate ways.
From the first scene in Fiddler, it’s clear that this is a bad situation, but the next three hours show us why the Anatevkans can’t just pack up and leave: they are being held hostage…by each other.
They love each other. They need each other. And despite that, when it’s finally time to go, they can’t all agree on where to go next. Some go to Krakow, some to New York, some to Chicago (“we’ll be neighbors”). It’s a poignant scene because we know that their community is smashed forever.
Hypothetically, the Anatevkans could have spent the three hours of screen time in a people’s assembly, debating which town they will all move to, and they could have all decamped en masse to their new home. They don’t, for the obvious reason that this would be a pretty boring movie, but also because the task is an impossible one.
Lazar can go to Chicago because he has a (hated) brother-in-law there that will put him up. Tevye presumably has a good reason to go to New York, but it means leaving behind his beloved daughter Chava, whose new husband has his own reasons to relocate to Krakow.
As it happens, my own family history maps pretty well onto this — my grandfather was a Jewish war refugee from a disputed part of Poland/Belarus who fled with my grandmother, a Russian, to Toronto, where he had a half-brother who would help him. His other brothers — nine of them — scattered to the winds: New York, Uruguay, Israel, Russia and Poland.
My grandmother’s family stayed behind in Leningrad and she lost all contact with them for more than a decade. They all had their reasons for going where they went, and some of them fared better and others fared worse — some, much worse — and arguably they might have all done better if they could have relocated as a body to some safer, more prosperous place.
But they didn’t. Frankly, they couldn’t. They all had their own pressing needs and their own limitations, and they all had duties. My grandmother had a newborn and wanted to go somewhere safe. Her mother had a young son and couldn’t leave.
They had a collective action problem. Each of them could figure out what worked best for them, but getting together to decide what was best for all of them was literally impossible.
We’ve all experienced some form of collective action problem. It’s easy to figure out what you want for dinner. It’s harder to get your partner and kid(s) to agree on a menu. It’s still harder to get ten people at a conference to agree on where to eat. And, as anyone who’s ever catered a wedding knows, it’s impossible to serve a dinner for 80 that will make everyone happy.
Online, a lot of us have been unhappy with our social media platforms for a long time, but we hang in there, year after year, scandal after scandal, because as much as we hate the platform, we love the people who use the platform.
We don’t leave because we don’t want to lose them. They don’t leave because they don’t want to lose us. It’s a hostage situation, and we’re all holding each other hostage.
Collective action problems are hard problems.
Unwilling Accomplices to Benevolent Dictators
The Big Tech platforms style themselves as “benevolent dictators.” Sure, they have the final say over your digital life, but they only wield that power because they want to help you.
That’s the story whether it’s Facebook or Twitter blocking you from posting a link to a site like Distributed Denial of Secrets, or Gmail blocking independent mail-servers from reaching your inbox, or Apple blocking alternative Instagram apps that shield you from tracking and ads.
Sometimes, these companies really are looking out for your interests. They have armies of moderators and security experts who block innumerable threats to your data, your identity, and your physical safety. But those companies will never block you from their own leadership: when your interests conflict with their plans, the fortress walls that keep bad guys out become prison walls that lock you in.
You can still leave, of course. You can quit Facebook, and you might be able to convince some of your friends to quit Facebook with you, but can you all agree on where to go next? Or will you end up like the Anatevkans, scattered to the four corners of the internet?
There is a better way. The tech giants don’t have to run walled gardens, they choose to. We can make them choose otherwise.
A Machine for Solving Collective Action Problems
The irony here is that the internet is a machine for solving collective action problems. Wikis let millions of people coordinate their labor to produce all manner of materials (most notably, the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever seen), and source-control systems like git let large numbers of people collaborate to build software together (most notably, the most widely used operating system in the world).
The first online social spaces were distributed, not centralized. People who wanted to talk to each other chose a server based on the policies of its management, and if they fell out with the management, they could leave — without losing access to the communities and discussions that mattered to them. Anyone could spin up a server that connected to as many of these social spaces as they chose, and blocked whichever ones they chose, too.
When Benevolent Dictators Turn Malignant
When anyone can spin up their own server, that means that very bad people can do so, as well. But the mere fact that group is unwelcome on the big platforms doesn’t mean that they’re engaged in antisocial behavior.
The people who run these platforms know that we pay a high cost when we leave, and they go to extraordinary lengths to keep those costs as high as possible. They know that the harder it is to leave their walled gardens, the worse they can treat us without risking our defection.
But sometimes, the motive is sheer arrogance. In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook management team decided that Facebook would become a direct competitor to YouTube. Facebook lied to media companies, announcing that you and your friends couldn’t get enough of videos on Facebook and convinced them to pour billions into retooling as video production houses.
By defrauding other companies into incurring the expenses associated with its business strategy, Facebook was able to insulate itself from the risks associated with its business strategies. When you and your friends stubbornly refused to watch Facebook videos and the whole thing collapsed, it was the media companies, not Facebook, that went broke.
Last year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that you would use virtual reality from now on. He renamed his company “Meta” and poured billions into VR tools. Some of Facebook’s suppliers hopped on the bandwagon and spent their own capital to make VR content, but many refused, having learned the lesson of the “pivot to video” fraud. They were wise to do so: Facebook users don’t want to use VR and have stayed away in droves.
Mark Zuckerberg is carrying on a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of social media. In 2003, Mark Abrams launched Friendster, a pioneering social media site, and declared that his service would not support interest-based groups; users could befriend each other, but couldn’t form a group based on their shared interest in a hobby, sport, or technology. His users revolted, creating fake profiles for “people” with names like “LSD” and then “friending” them so that they could all chat with one another.
Friendster eventually crashed and burned, as Facebook appears to be doing today. Facebook has seen its market capitalization crash by $700,000,000,000 (seven! hundred! billion! dollars!). Zuckerberg greeted this news by telling his investors that he was “pretty confident this is going in a good direction.”
Zuckerberg’s bizarre pronouncement doubtless reflects his company’s strange financial structure: though Zuckerberg no longer owns a majority stake in his company, its “dual-share” structure means that he controls a majority of the company’s voting shares. His investors can sell off their stakes, but no matter how many shares they own, they can’t outvote him.
This dual-share structure is typical of companies whose founders view themselves as visionaries bent on remaking the world. It’s how Rupert Murdoch has been able to keep control over NewsCorp and wield its corporate might to support far-right causes (for example, his HarperCollins subsidiary pays right-wing politicians absurd advances for books that barely sell, as a means of laundering cash bribes).
These structures allow self-deluded, arrogant billionaires to pursue their bizarre ideological projects without being “interfered with” by the markets (as Peter Thiel says, “Competition is for losers”).
The Awesome Destructive Power of a Billionaire
On a related note, Elon Musk owns Twitter. He bought it with borrowed money, which means that while he has creditors to answer to, he can win any shareholder vote hands down. He is now the dictator of Twitter, just as surely as Rupert Murdoch is the dictator of NewsCorp and Zuckerberg is dictator of Facebook.
Musk’s chaotic acquisition of Twitter has many of its users worried. The private communications where Musk discusses his plans for the service reveal a chaotic, seat-of-the-pants approach to the service that has little contact with reality. Many of those plans are obviously doomed from the outset.
If you value the relationships you formed on Facebook or Twitter, you are likely worried about the future of those relationships. Those platforms are in the hands of arrogant, insulated billionaires who have promised to transform them into something that would be unrecognizable to you, and that’s the best case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is that they recapitulated the demise of MySpace, which was purchased by Rupert Murdoch and driven into the ground by his idiotic, unchecked theories about how it should operate.
Go, Then. There Are Other Worlds Than These
There are plenty of other places we could go. The Fediverse is a collection of “federated” social media services that are easy to set up and run. You can find a server whose management strikes you as reasonable and competent and move there.
You don’t have to convince your friends to join the same server as you! These servers are designed to federate — that is, connect to one another — which means that so long as your friends choose servers that your server connects to, and vice versa, you can keep on exchanging messages with one another. And if the people who run your server make life intolerable there thanks to their bad decisions, you can switch to another server and your messages and links to your friends will follow you there.
But there’s one problem that stands in the way of this mass exodus — one critical collective action problem the Fediverse can’t solve.
Anyone in the Fediverse can easily talk to other people in the Fediverse — but they can’t talk to the people they leave behind on the big platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The vast majority of social media users are stuck inside those walled gardens, and they are holding each other hostage. You might be able to extract your data from a platform and quit, but you can’t maintain your connections with the people you leave behind.
For hundreds of millions of people, that is price that’s too high to pay.
Interoperability to the Rescue
Stein’s Law holds that “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” As Facebook’s precipitous collapse demonstrates, there are limits to the reality-distortion fields of even the world’s most ruthless billionaires.
There is a way to give these toppling monoliths a soft landing, and that’s something we should want. Even if you are eager — as I am — to consign Big Tech to the scrapheap of history, the communities, friendships and family relationships they’ve taken hostage should be preserved. They aren’t the problem with Big Tech.
There’s no technical reason that Big Tech can’t directly connect to the Fediverse. The ACCESS Act, a proposed US law, would do just that. The EU has passed the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which promises to impose interoperability on giant social media platforms…eventually.
But without immediate action, the ACCESS Act will probably die without coming up for a vote. And the EU has decided that the DMA’s first target will be end-to-end encrypted messaging —a project that is both important and possible, but which comes with powerful risks and technical challenges.
Under its previous management, Twitter made some very promising noises about its interest in federating with other services. Bluesky, the company it spun out to oversee this project, is independent of the new Twitter management, which means that it can carry on its work — but also that Twitter can simply ignore it.
None But a Blockhead
It’s easy to look at the hours and passion we’ve poured into these platforms over the years and beat ourselves up with Samuel Johnson’s maxim, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
But the problem with social media isn’t that we gave them our labor for free —that “labor” was for the people we cared about, not for social media’s shareholders.
The problem with social media is that they used our presence as bait to lure in our friends and vice-versa and now they won’t let us go without extracting as high a price as possible for our disloyalty.
We don’t have to accept those high prices. We can — and should — force the tech platforms to free their hostages.