Facebook Is Not the Town Square
The cavalcade of evidence that Facebook is a monstrosity is hard to keep up with these days. It’s not even shocking anymore. Okay, maybe it can still be a little shocking. But what can we do? We tried nothing and now we’re all out of ideas!
Besides, everyone knows that Facebook is just our new, digital Town Square, right? You can’t blame Facebook if it’s just a distillation of all our worst and best impulses.
Except that it’s not.
Look, I hear this “Town Square” analogy all the time and it always rubs me wrong. Have you ever been to an actual town and visited its square?
Let’s compare them:
In a real town square, you can fit, at most, a few hundred people. If you’re in the square of a giant, world-historic city in Russia or China, you might be able to squeeze in 600,000 people.
On Facebook, you have . . . everyone on planet Earth!
In a real town square, you can see people’s faces and usually you know them already. You can also hear their voices and utilize hundreds of thousands of years of human social evolution to understand the nuanced, non-verbal indicators that contextualize what people are saying.
On Facebook, you’re dumped into a group of “friends” you’ve never met, or interacted with—many of whom might not even be actual human beings. And the only help you get in determining social context is a combination of text, emojis, and gifs.
If a real town square were suddenly overrun with Adidas tracksuit-wearing strangers who said all sorts of provocative bullshit with heavy Russian accents—well, you’d probably suspect something was amiss.
On Facebook, you may be arguing with hired Russian trolls who are actively employed by Vladimir Putin to sow discord in the world.
In a real town square, if someone claims they plan to assault you and your family you can punch their physical face with your physical fist. This potential physical consequence greatly reduces the number of times that most normal folk venture such threats.
On Facebook, you have to endure anonymous abuse of this nature with absolutely no recourse other than to hit the “report” button and hope that some community standards drone, somewhere, suspends the offending account for a couple days.
In a real town square, people who insist that COVID vaccines are filled with mind control nanobots and that the Jews are enslaving children are relegated to the fringes.
On Facebook, they are brought together into powerful collectives, afforded megaphones, and algorithmically ushered into everyone’s sphere of influence to corrupt otherwise rational and healthy discourse.
In a real town square, if the entire town became convinced that their mayor is the Christ risen and decided that they needed to stockpile AK-47s in preparation for the apocalypse then visitors to the town would quietly leave (and warn the authorities).
On Facebook, those folks get a guest pass to every other Town Square—again in the world—and are free to go around preaching their lunacy to others without being constrained by space, time, or economics.
In a real town square, the town doesn’t benefit financially by attracting the stupidest/craziest/most pernicious townfolk to the soapbox and then doing everything in their power to make sure the residents of the town are afraid to leave the square for fear of missing something truly terrible.
Facebook makes approximately all its money by getting you to rubber-neck through your day as you slow-roll past trainwreck after trainwreck.
In the real world, the Town Square stays (as the name suggests) in TOWN! It’s not something that you have to keep track of while you’re putting your kids to bed. Or sitting on the toilet. Or relaxing on the beach.
Facebook follows you everywhere—like a psychotic ex. It’s always hiding in the bushes and you have no choice but to wonder what the heck it’s up to right now, even though you know it’s nothing good. You have to stay vigilant and pay attention because that’s how mother nature made you and it’s how Mark Zuckerberg exploits you.
But in fairness, there is one aspect of the town square metaphor where Facebook is a pretty decent facsimile of the real thing. It’s the one where we used to drag innocent people to a gallows, accuse them of something completely insane, like “witchcraft,” and then either ruin or end their lives.
Facebook is pretty good at that because its fortunes are made by making sure that you keep coming back—it doesn’t matter if you’re sharing pics of kitties, contributing to a genocide, or part of an angry mob that’s destroying someone’s livelihood or reputation on some fanciful whim.
What’s another real-world concept where a private unregulated enterprise gets to make a fortune running psychological experiments on the population of the world, which leads to a slow collapse of civil and civic order and drives everyone insane? I’m actually drawing a blank—but it sure as hell isn’t a “town square.”