taking the social media babies out of the social media bathwater

I don’t use Facebook right now. I may never return. Facebook, IMHO, is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad thing.

That said, I distinguish between Facebook, the person—corporations are people—and the actual, you know, people who do Mr. Facebook’s bidding. (If Facebook is a person, he’s a dude. I’m picturing young Harvey Weinstein in a hoodie.)

Question: are Facebook’s employees complicit in the damage? I don’t know. They’re just people, not Illuminati lizard men. (Sorry, Illuminati lizard people.)

I’ve known some very nice Facebook employees. The same is true for Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. As a younger man, I’d blame my Microsoft friends every time Word ate one of my documents. I’d yell at them. “You’ve got to get rid of Clippy, dude!” I didn’t know any better. I had no sense of the scope of these places—the unwieldiness, the systems-within-systems—until I’d worked for one myself.

Even if someone is on the “Office team,” their capacity to noticeably affect, let alone improve, Microsoft Word, for example, is minuscule. With products as colossal and complex as these, you’re lucky to be a cog. You’re probably just a sprocket. Between the big five tech firms, you’ve looking at roughly 865,000 employees. That’s the population of Columbus, Ohio, all roundly demonized by talking heads and talking TEDs. “Tech bros” are destroying our ability to concentrate, form real-world friendships, ever feel happy again, etc., i.e. unraveling the fabric of society itself.

How many are actually positioned to make a difference? Maybe none.

I got to experience society’s righteous fury firsthand when I helped start Amazon’s New York publishing imprint. People got mean. Literary agents would snub us at parties. Even readers blamed us. My wife and I ran into her colleague at the museum. This woman knew I worked in publishing but that was it. Clutching a New York Times, she inveighed against Amazon’s dangerous new imprint. It would destroy everything we all loved about books, she told me. These people are disgusting, aren’t they? My wife’s colleague understood the business ramifications because she’d read all the clear-headed and accurate coverage in the Times. (Wait a second. Was I a victim of fake news? Wall!)

I smiled and nodded. What could I say? Big tech employees experience outbursts like this from relatives, friends, even perfect strangers. Pity the Facebook developer at Thanksgiving dinner: “Grandma Doris doesn’t have a problem with your new boyfriend, Albert. She’s crying because your company helped elect Donald Trump.”

Cal Newport just wrote a scathing piece about Facebook deliberately exploiting its users. Others, like the brilliant Doug Rushkoff, have been ringing this bell for years. Social media is a problem, potentially the problem of our time. Something needs to be done about these corrosive systems. I’m just not sure we should target the individuals working at these companies. They’re trying to pay the bills. I mean, it’s San Francisco. We considered moving there a few years ago—from Brooklyn—and decided it would be far too expensive by comparison (!)

The fact is, many of the most vocal and active opponents of big tech’s influence today are former big tech employees themselves. The same is not true, for example, in finance.

As we try to sort out what should be done about all this, let’s start with empathy and kindness. Most of these 865,000 people aren’t all that happy with the larger situation and every one of them is a potential ally, once they leave. In their current roles, each one thinks the blame rests elsewhere.

I felt the same way working at traditional publishing houses. If only the company’s leaders would listen to me, I’d think, we’d get this whole industry collapse under control! I’d innovate the hell out of things. At the time, this meant something about putting videos in ebooks. Or doing author events and book readings in Second Life. (“Guys, I hear HarperCollins is building its own island. We’ve got to get on top of this!”) It wasn’t until I actually had the opportunity to sit down with various leaders and share my brilliance with them that I realized: (1) they had already considered and dismissed all of my ideas and (2) the real obstacles to progress were bigger and thornier than I’d ever imagined. I happily went back to my editing.

That’s the thing about being inside a system. You’re not a part of the problem; you’re the only one with any sense. When dumb stuff happens, it’s because of those people out there. When good stuff happens, it’s all you. Only long after you’re out—or if you’re ever unlucky enough to be put in charge of the thing—do you realize how little impact you can make either way. Even CEOs struggle to improve, even affect, things at their companies—paying them more only makes it worse.

We need a systems-thinking approach to fixing toxic systems. I’ve heard several people rave about Thinking in Systems so I’m putting that on my list. In the meantime, be kind, cultivate empathy, and stay the hell off social media. Mr. Facebook is not your friend.

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