Should we still be afraid of Facebook?
Greetings from Read Max HQ! Every month or so I solicit questions from subscribers and rifle through my moldy brain for vaguely entertaining answers.
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Has your thinking about Facebook changed?
What does it mean that Meta doesn’t seem to be very good at things these days? Has their lack of success (relatively speaking) changed your thinking about them at all? — Dan
This is a good question that I’ve been asking myself recently. Between, say, 2014 and 2019, I wrote a lot about Meta/Facebook. I write a lot less about the company now, for a bunch of interrelated reasons, like:
Facebook is no longer as important to or influential within the newsmedia industry as it was during most of the 2010s. As I imagine most readers are at least vaguely aware, Facebook was once such a disproportionately huge traffic source for digital publishers that it was impossible to ignore (or, for that matter, to overestimate); these days, most successful publishers have managed to diversify the sources of both their traffic and their revenue, which means that Facebook’s power is much less visible to us on a professional level.
Similarly, Facebook ex-Instagram just doesn’t play as big a role as it once did in the social lives of the American middle-aged millennial urban professional cohort to which I belong. This is absolutely not to say that “no one uses Facebook anymore” but that a lot of that usage is out of sight for me and my peers.
One reason that Facebook’s influence over newsmedia has shifted is that Facebook has overhauled (several times now) its newsfeed weighting and sorting system (i.e. “the algorithm”) in ways that both make it less important to publishers’ bottom lines but also make it less menacing a force for social decay and distrust. This makes covering Meta feel somewhat less urgent.
The story of Facebook as a uniquely bad actor in an election whose result can be straightforwardly blamed on misinformation has been complicated to the extent that focusing on Meta’s role in politics can feel counterproductive. (Put another way: You don’t want to sound like a Gen X CIA liberal blaming Trump on Russian desinformatsiya.)
Finally, and I think this is what the question is getting at, Meta has acquired the stench of a doomed company. Zuckerberg’s sweaty pivot to a bargain-bin Metaverse, Adam Mosseri’s series of sex-creep youth-pastor selfie apology videos, the comic failure of its cryptocurrency: It is hard to cultivate the proper attitude of fear and loathing to a company so obviously inept.
I write out this long list because that final item -- the fact that, as Dan says, Meta doesn’t seem to be very good at things these days -- actually hasn’t changed my general thinking about Meta very much, even if it’s rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom about the company. It’s not that I don’t think that the company is embarrassingly mismanaged, or that Zuckerberg seems like a deeply terrible CEO. But by the numbers, Meta is still immensely large and powerful: nearly 2 billion daily active users (a widely reported decline from the first quarter of this year was reversed in its second quarter), a market cap of $390 billion, complete control of three of the biggest smartphone apps worldwide. Are those users going to stay forever on a platform increasingly given over to engagement-bait and staged viral videos made by magicians? Will Tiktok colonize the youth? I don’t know, but I’m not sure my immediate personal experience is a good guide; it’s hard to bet against inertia and incumbency. Don’t get me wrong: I have absolute faith in Zuckerberg’s ability to destroy his own company, but I’m not sure he’ll allow himself a long enough leash to do it.
Where my thinking has changed is more around the third and fourth items above. Sometimes I feel like I spent years writing about Facebook in an effort to make more people pay attention to it -- only to find, in the years after Trump’s election, that people were paying what felt like the wrong kind of attention to it. The simplistic story of misinformation and Russian influence in the 2016 election just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and it misses both the much broader ways in which Facebook has transformed politics and media, and the ways in which Facebook represents continuity with the political and media regimes that preceded it. It’s not that I don’t think Meta is a malevolent force, but I think that good criticism (journalistic, academic, etc.) needs to understand Facebook not just as a cause but as an effect, i.e. not as some evil that emerged ex nihilo to lay waste to a just and functional system, but as a product or even embodiment of particular technological-historical processes and struggles that predate it. “Fixing” Facebook won’t “fix” the contradictions that create political instability and social decomposition because Facebook -- from its very existence to its business model to its functions in the world -- is an exacerbating symptom of those contradictions! Criticism that doesn’t account for this fact is at best incomplete, and at worst damaging.
Is there such a thing as a “Mom Thriller”?
Hi Max—I’ve been thinking a lot about your Dad Thriller essay. I love both the genre and your definitive analysis. It brought to mind a question though: is there a corollary Mom Thriller? I’m thinking of movies where an abused/wronged woman has her revenge (Sleeping with the Enemy, Double Jeopardy, Enough), a movie where a woman uses her skills to get justice (The Net, Erin Brockovich), and so on. Of course, there’s no reason some of these do not belong in the Dad Thriller canon, but drawing a distinction may be an illuminating expansion of the theory. — Kalewold
This is a great question that requires further investigation. I think you’re on to something, though -- my sense, and this is just notes toward a theory, is that “Mom Thrillers” are those movies from that era in which mostly ordinary women are thrust into thriller-type events.
So, movies where the lead female role is a cop (Murder by Numbers) or a world-famous scientist (Contact) or a serial killer (Eye of the Beholder) or a super-spy (Point of No Return) aren’t Mom Thrillers, even if they might be Dad Thrillers. What does that leave us? In addition to the movies you suggest, I think you’re looking at Single White Female, What Lies Beneath, Deceived, The Juror, The Rich Man’s Wife, maybe The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, maybe Sliver. More questionable is stuff like Speed, Kiss the Girls, and Pelican Brief, which are about ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances, but which all have action-y male co-leads; these movies also stray away from the main two themes of our preliminary Mom Thriller canon, i.e., “My Husband/His Mistress Is Going to Kill Me” or “Someone Has Stolen My Identity.”
But I would be very interested in other thoughts on this category/question! When we convene the first-ever Dad Thriller academic conference we’ll need a panel on the Mom Thriller.
How do you archive your online life?
How do you archive your online life? I come up with systems and databases for a while for files, photos, notes, etc. And then I move onto a different platform. I feel like I leave semi-organized detritus all around, some abandoned forever, some rescued when I remember where things are. Any tips? — Chauncey
This is a very familiar feeling to me! I have, lying around in various places on various hard drives, archives and backups from Evernote, Notational Velocity (and nvAlt), SimpleNote, Scrivener, Ulysses, Notion, Workflowy, and Coda -- I’m sure I’m forgetting some, and I’m not even mentioning the TXT and DOCX files just sort of floating around, or the Airtable or Asana accounts I started to try to organize my to-do lists.
As you can tell none of these apps have ever really stuck, and I think I’m probably done with my yearly ritual of trying out whatever new archive/notes/productivity app, for two reasons:
First, I no longer really trust any given piece of software to survive on the kind of time horizon necessary to be a useful archiving app. In 90 percent of cases the app will be bought, or sundowned, or go out of business, or updated into something unusable, or it will stop being updated at all. I enjoyed playing around in Notion (the most recent one of these apps I tried), but I felt exhausted at the prospect of moving all my work onto it, only to repeat that whenever it becomes part of Microsoft Teams or whatever. Longevity (and passive maintenance) needs to be one of the core values of a good online archive tool.
Second, on a practical level, I’m no longer really convinced that having an all-in-one solution for note-taking, bookmarking, archiving, list-making, etc., is actually desirable! It’s too easy for a single app or even a single system to get unwieldy, overpacked, or stressful to use. And at this point in my life, I have desire line-type habits and tendencies that I think it’s probably more efficient and productive to lean into, rather than trying to teach myself a whole system.
So, that’s a long windup to the answer, which is mainly: Pinboard for links, bookmarks, and images; Google Docs for writing, outlining, and note-taking; Workflowy for quick lists and reference (books to read, numbers I need to remember, that kind of thing); Apple Books for PDFs; and Apple Notes for anything else.
Pinboard is clean, fast, relatively flexible, and I understand its business model and have faith in its ongoing existence. Anything I read or see that I think I might want to have access to later (images included) I save with an extension and add a couple tags; in the last year I dropped Instapaper entirely and just use Pinboard’s “Read Later” tag to keep track of stuff I want to read.
Google Docs is not a great app by any means, but it’s free, relatively straightforward, accessible from basically anywhere, and it’s easy to share documents with editors or writers.
Workflowy is very simple and straightforward and still pretty fast; it may yet be destroyed but I am not worried about being able to replicate my basic uses for it within Google Docs if that ever happens.
Apple Notes (and to a lesser extent Gmail) is the sort of wild-card, “I need to save a scan of my passport/tax return/birth certificate somewhere.” And Apple Books is a serviceable and unremarkable place to save PDFs of papers or articles or books that I come across, plus it puts them in the cloud so I can try to read them on my phone.
There’s no particular “system” beyond trusting that I’ll be able to search for the right text string to find whatever I archived. But it's basically the underlying system that’s worked for me for a decade now, even as I tried to build more coherent and centralized systems on top of it, and I feel pretty good about it.
On the chatroom on the side of the pirated sports broadcast
Where does the "chatroom on the side of the pirated sports broadcast" fit in the taxonomy of social networks/internet spaces? Feel like they are a regular part of the experience of being a sports fan for a lot of people, but you rarely see anyone talk about them. Obviously you're gonna see a lot of abhorrent content in there, but at the same time the actual sports discourse is probably more cogent than you'd find in, say, Sportscenter's twitter replies, and I can never quite find myself Xing out of them. — Gabe
I’m one of those cucks who pays for a bunch of streaming services these days (or, at least, shares log-ins), so I never see these anymore and it makes me kind of sad! The closest thing I get is the individual-player comment section in the Yahoo! Fantasy app, which I would definitely not describe as a “cogent” community but is an active and useful space for soliciting bad fantasy-football advice, not to mention venting when, for example, Carson Wentz does anything at all on the field.
The funny thing is that while I -- an old dipshit -- think of the illegal-sports-stream chat as a kind of lost social formation, it’s the direct ancestor of the Twitch chat, which has to be among the most popular and productive youth social spaces online.
Anyway, I hope someone in Cooperstown is monitoring a bunch of illegal-stream chats this week during Aaron Judge’s at-bats.
Where would I live?
1. If you were forbidden from living in your current neighborhood, which NYC neighborhood would you choose to live in?
2. If you were forbidden from living in NYC, which city would you choose to live in? — Keenan
I’m pretty lazy, and pretty adaptable, and I love living in New York, so it’s kind of hard to narrow down an answer to the first question. There are very few neighborhoods in the city that really have nothing to recommend them, and which I can’t imagine finding reasons to love, or, at least, to tolerate. Even when I try to make a list of places I don’t want to live -- SoHo, e.g., or Murray Hill -- I start to think, well, actually, maybe it could be cool to live there? I feel the same way about cities a little bit: There are a handful of cities I’ve spent a lot of time in and felt “this would be a nice place to live” (Providence, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh), but I think most cities can be nice places to live. If enough people live in a place there will be culture and institutions worth exploring; you just might have to give up on some things you think you need out of a city (like, in most of the U.S., decent public transportation). (Of course, if I really believed that I could adapt and come to love any city, it raises the question of why I’m staying here, in the most expensive city in the country, but let’s chalk that up to inertia and sentimental attachment. And good public transportation.)
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