It seems like we should have a Meta thread…

by Eszter Hargittai on October 30, 2021

.. or bad idea? I do want to point to this excellent piece by Ethan Zuckerman called “Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago, It was terrible then, and it’s terrible now.” Read it for the great history, snark, and writing. In addition to being important and thoughtful commentary on Facebook’s Meta (yeah, yeah, I know), it’s also a fun trip down virtual life memory lane for those of you old enough (I suspect most of you) and geeky enough (presumably some of you) to have been there along the way.



Chetan Murthy 10.30.21 at 9:16 pm

Eszter: wow, that’s a great article. Love the punchline! Well, well worth the read!


oldster 10.30.21 at 10:41 pm

Eszter, I would love to hear your thoughts about how to design Facebook’s replacement.
I am convinced that Facebook cannot be salvaged. It is rotten to the core.
But people tell me that there is some need for some of it’s functions. (I have never needed or used it myself.) So, something else needs to take its place.

It sounds like it does one or two socially beneficial things that could be built into a new platform that did not have the algorithms, the tracking, the ad sales, the likes, the hates, the furious driving of engagement, and so on.
So, starting with the model of a post- office or email system, how would you add discrete features to make a new social media platform that was relatively abuse-proof, ie no worse than email, but provided some of the non-abusive functionality of FB?


SusanC 10.30.21 at 11:08 pm

Good to see the article mentioning Second alive, and how terrible it is.

Also that Neal Stevenson’s Snowcrash was a dystopia, but those people at LindenLabs appeared not to have noticed this when deciding to build the metaverse for real.

I think with more competent engineering you could build a Second Life that sucked less, but it is still, somehow, just not what you actually want. (Rendering a 3D space is kind of a niche requirement)


John Quiggin 10.31.21 at 12:07 am

Thanks, Eszter. I’ve been meaning to tweet something snarky about Meta and Second Life, but linking to this piece will be much better.

As regards Facebook, it works pretty well if you stick to sharing a suitably sanitised (“curated” is the term du jour) version of your everyday life with relatives and (loosely defined) friends. But I assume that wouldn’t generate enough ad revenue to justify the FB market valuation.


Chetan Murthy 10.31.21 at 12:58 am

Eszter, oldster, John: Here are some concrete ideas:

Facebook needs to be broken-up into a number of companies, that are statutorily required to share their entire data-sets, as well as their source-code and data-models, documentation, etc. Each competitor will thus have the entire real-time data-stream of updates, both to profiles and news-updates, and can display it as it wishes.

Since all competitors have all the code, they’re really only competing on how they display it, their efficiency, and how they can sell ads. But I don’t need to go to any particular version of FB, to see my news-feed.

There need to be strong limits on the number of news-items that can be shown to a user, that don’t come from people they are following. This isn’t enough, but if you make it very difficult for AI to show people stuff they didn’t ask for, it should help reduce the gaslighting.
Every time FB shows an unsolicited news-item (or ad) to a user, it must be held liable for the content of that item/ad, and there must be both a documentation-trail of how that item got shown, as well as a trail of to whom that item got shown (e.g. by forwarding).

I’m sure there are more. One key thing, it would seem: if you make the stream of profile/news-updates available to any competitor, it really does reduce the ability of a FB to sell that “product” to advertisers. B/c somebody else can just provide a version of FB without those ads.

OK, just random thoughts.


Chetan Murthy 10.31.21 at 1:01 am

Should have added: obviously that last bit means that Section 230 needs to go away, for unsolicited items/ads.


oldster 10.31.21 at 5:06 am

Thanks, JQ, CM.
When designing FB’s replacement(s), I do not think we should feel restricted to models that make it profitable. If anything, I’d rather have it be a semi-public good like the postal service or a utility. If it offers a genuine public good, then it’s worth some degree of subsidy. (Or charitable donation — I give a few hundred USD to Wiki every year, because I get so much value from it.)
CM –I love the larger point that, whatever else is true of it, its code and data should be freely available. Yes, let’s build that into any future design.
But this stuff: “…news-items that can be shown to a user…difficult for AI to show people stuff they didn’t ask for”
Why should it show me anything at all? The post office does not send me mail. And a community bulletin-board (a literal, physical one made of cork) does not post flyers of its own. It’s just a passive surface on which individuals post flyers. Why should a social media site do more than offer a passive surface for individuals?
This goes back to my larger question: what are the functions that people (at least claim to) benefit from? The only two that I hear (repeatedly) are that you can post your baby-pictures on it, and you can let people know when you’re traveling to their town. I have never heard anyone say, “I would hate to give up FB — it’s always exposing me to fascinating new view-points that I never asked for.” Maybe someone wants exposure to new viewpoints, but that functionality seems widely different from the core functionality of a public bulletin board, and better hived off into a separate system
Since that model of actively pushing content is the source of much of the mischief, and is also not something that I hear cited as a positive benefit of FB, then why build it into any future design?
So, if we stripped it down to the barest minimum of a network of passive nodes where I can post my baby-pictures on my node, and I can also find your node to see your baby pictures, then what else would we want to add on top of that? Pushing content seems like the first thing that we want to forbid, if anything.


Chetan Murthy 10.31.21 at 5:35 am

oldster: You’ll get no argument from me. 100% with you.

People will make the argument that that would break the “discovery” aspect of social media, which has created stars, businesses, etc, etc, etc.


John Quiggin 10.31.21 at 6:48 am

Oldster, to be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that FB’s profitability should guide things, just observing that it clearly does, and that this seems to account for many of the bad things about it.


oldster 10.31.21 at 7:29 am

CM —
“…that would break the “discovery” aspect of social media, which has created stars, businesses, etc, etc, etc.”

My first thought is the snarky one, that stars and businesses predate FB.
But a more serious thought, prompted by your point about discovery, is that Google also picks winners and losers via its search results, and I don’t want to weaken FB only to strengthen Google.
Google search strikes me as a product that is both more widely beneficial and less pernicious (no one spends hours a day “engaged” on Google search, I think?), but its power to drive searchers to Site A over Site B is also ripe for abuse, and perhaps riper when it loses a rival.
I don’t know — everybody here knows more about these issues than I do, since I have never even been on FB.
So, I will shut up and hope to hear positive proposals from Eszter and other experts.


Neville Morley 10.31.21 at 8:25 am

I’d happily forgotten quite how dreadful Second Life was. I remember spending an hour and a half just trying to create an avatar in order to visit the educational space a colleague had created in it – and I wonder how much money various institutions of higher education poured into projects to establish themselves there, on the assumption that this was where all the kids would be hanging out in future. At least creating a university presence on Instagram Tiktok etc is relatively cheap – mostly counted in staff time, forcing us to create regular content. You’d like to think that they’ll have learnt their lesson, but I’m sure a new generation of university management will buy into Meta if it gets off the ground.

Query, to people who understand these things, from someone whose grasp of tech is only marginally better than my cat’s: how far was the original impetus for such developments partly based on data speed and processing limits? In the age of Teams and Zoom, headache-inducing as they can be in excessive doses, it feels really difficult to imagine why it seems like a good idea to hold online meetings or deliver lectures in a poorly-rendered virtual space – if all the demand is coming from the guy who wants to look like a robot, the answer seems to be better face filter apps. But besides the influence of Snow Crash, maybe the assumption then was that you’d never be able to handle multiple live video streams, so best to focus on rendering a more abstract environment based on software routines already programmed into your computer..?


Eszter Hargittai 10.31.21 at 9:29 am

Oldster, this is an important, but HUGE question that we can’t do justice to in the comments section of a blog post. I’ll just make a few points.

I’ll start by saying that whatever alternative there may be, the incredibly difficult part is getting it populated with enough users for it to work as a viable alternative. The biggest value of such a system is the number of people already on it, it’s about network externalities. Since connecting with people we already know is a big part of the appeal of FB, enough of people we already know need to be on a system for it to be worth it. That’s a huge barrier to entry for any new service. Some have tried (e.g., and, but you probably haven’t heard of them. Some of us sign up for those as they start, but there just are not enough people on them to make it worth our while to stay. (Of course, one irony in all this is that social media is part of how word spreads about such things and the existing big ones are not going to prioritize – i.e., by showing them on people’s feeds – telling people about their potential competitors.)

What’s the value of such platforms? First of all, it’s probably best not to collapse them to mean the same thing (I realize the query didn’t, just pointing that out in case anyone wanted to;). (My previous post on Social media repertoires speaks to this as well.) What I get out of FB at least in its current instantiation is different from why I use Twitter or Pinterest or whatnot and this is likely true for others although I am not sure what scholarly work would say about how people think of them differently (but the little I’ve seen does suggest they think of them differently as in meeting different needs/interests in their lives). The comments above mainly focus on people sharing updates about their lives and people getting news links. But I don’t think anyone has mentioned the community aspect by way of FB Groups. These can be on any topic (and you are likely to find one, if not twenty, on literally any topic you think up no matter how obscure, but in case you don’t find one, you can start your own) and people who find that topic (or affiliation or identity) of interest for interaction and exchange will congregate there to discuss it, very often with people they don’t otherwise know. Much of this has nothing to do with politics (although like anything, can become political). People likely join these groups for learning about the topic, for support, or just to have an exchange with likeminded folks (and when I say likeminded, I don’t mean a certain political persuasion, it can just be others who enjoy your hobby). For me personally, that’s a big part of why I continue to visit the platform occasionally. And seeing that many millions are active in such groups, I suspect it’s an important motivator for many.

In this sense, the platform seems to meet different needs, some have to do with keeping up with those in your life, some with finding likeminded folks about whatever is of interest to you. Those two groups (existing friends/family vs shared affiliations) can and do overlap sometimes (e.g., group membership in an alum community), but I suspect often they do not. In that sense, there could be two different systems that address those functionalities.

Must push notifications of content we did not request be part of either of these? In the case of the former, certainly not. Just show me content my connections have posted and leave it at that (sounds like earlier FB, right?). (Of course, deciding what to prioritize remains an issue.) The latter could also exist without pushing new suggestions, although there is some value in stumbling across other communities that may be of interest to you.

You’ll note that I talk very little here about politics and contentious issues. It is very much possible to be on FB without those. Presumably it depends on your contacts, the kinds of groups you join, and what accounts, if any, you decide to follow (e.g., news media). And what FB decides to show you as recommendations for other communities.. and this is where things can get thorny, but you can decide not to join those communities. I may see the occasional political post by a friend, but most of the groups I belong to are only political if someone steers them that way (e.g., ceramics handbuilders, postcard exchange, local community for hiking rarely go in political directions, if they do, I move on, either by not engaging or if it happens a lot then by leaving the group). Of course, if people are choosing to engage, are joining hate-based communities, and are participating in hostile exchanges, they will have a very different experience. And when a platform decides to encourage, promote, and amplify that type of content and exchange then you get a hot mess. To what extent FB and other platforms are contributing to the mess vs making it more visible than it had been in earlier times requires much more research. Of course, since much of the data that would help answer those questions is in the proprietary hands of said platforms, we do indeed have a hot mess on our hands.

So yeah, I didn’t really answer your question, but hopefully I gave some helpful context.


oldster 10.31.21 at 10:03 am

Thank you, Eszter!
I had not meant to derail. I had thought that since MZ is presenting “Meta” as an expansion/evolution of FB, then our topic was, “what’s next after FB?”
Thanks also for telling me about affinity groups. Again, never using FB, I don’t know about these things. But they sound familiar from Reddit and older online BBs.
As for the problem of getting enough people on, well, my preference would be government nationalization of FB’s social graph, but some might object.


Eszter Hargittai 10.31.21 at 11:27 am

Thanks, Oldster, you didn’t derail, it’s just a very big complex question that could fill a book if not several. It’s certainly on topic.

And yes, you’re right that these types of groups are very reminiscent of older forms of online interaction and like contemporary ones elsewhere. I’d argue that the upside here is that it doesn’t require logging into different systems. But of course, the downside is one entity running everything in a walled garden. In that sense, it’s also very reminiscent of AOL (not something I had used, but had had enough exposure to through my studies to understand it somewhat).


SusanC 10.31.21 at 12:18 pm

Signal is becoming popular with many of the political activists I know.

There’s a security “network effect” in encrypted communications. (The more diverse communities use it, the harder it is for someone eavesdropping the cipheryext to work out which community any particular user belongs to. Tor is an example of this.)


NickS 10.31.21 at 4:53 pm

As far as policy responses to Facebook, what do people think of Paul Romer’s idea for a steeply progressive tax on digital ad revenues:

It is designed to push in the direction of something like Chetan Murthy’s ideas in 5, but only by creating a financial incentive for Facebook to diversify. On the other hand, it’s a simpler idea that doesn’t require Congress to push specific technical solutions.


Chetan Murthy 10.31.21 at 10:22 pm

NickS: Even besides the steeply progressive tax on ad revenues, I think it’s necessary to create a countervailing force to Metcalfe’s Law (“the value of a network rises as the square of its nodes”), to which Eszter alludes in her comment #12.

Maybe a way to achieve this effect is to break up FB into several competitors, and mandate full code/data-sharing, so that eventually the barrier-to-entry becomes lower. But I do think that for too long, we’ve allowed Metcalfe’s Law to be a “heh heh, that’s the point” meme of a sort in the tech industry.


John Quiggin 11.01.21 at 5:46 am

@Eszter. I’ve had the same experiences as you with MeWe and The big problem (for me) with is that it seems to assume you should start with a link to an MSM article. It’s a pity – I hoped that the success of Wikipedia would rub off somehow.

I’ve found that Twitter works pretty well if I avoid/mute long arguments, block trolls and snarks on sight, and mute people I find annoying, but don’t want to block. That still leaves plenty of room for discussion among people who share enough common ground to make it worthwhile.

As I said above, FB is great for happy snaps. I occasionally repost my own articles, but avoid getting into debates there.


Kiwanda 11.01.21 at 5:53 pm

See also various social networking systems. All that’s needed for people to use them is for people to use them.


nastywoman 11.03.21 at 5:57 am

OR? –
it seems like –
WE (the ‘girls’) finally need a platform where we finally can rate ‘incel nerds’ into oblivion?
(but didn’t I write that already?)


KT2 11.04.21 at 2:06 am

From “Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago,”
     ” Remember, he’s [Zuk] not humbled by the problem of Russian disinformation, or the spread of anti-vax misinformation, or the challenge of how Instagram affects teen body image.”

Eszter Hargittai at 9:29 am says “And when a platform decides to encourage, promote, and amplify that type of content and exchange then you get a hot mess. To what extent FB and other platforms are contributing to the mess vs making it more visible than it had been in earlier times requires much more research.”… see Toxic Ten 

oldster at 5:06 am says “Pushing content seems like the first thing that we want to forbid, if anything.”

Except for the Ten Toxic sites & 186m followers below, who enable push with pull & content, and approx 2Billion hits per year via the global heating deniers content creators. Remember Facebook (oops Meta) is just a giant promoter of advertising which also facilitates cat images,  groups and chat. It is always someone else’s content. No content no Facebook. Users could fix Facebook in about a week with a strike on using or posting. The share price drop would scare Z & investors to rethink. As JQ said “I assume that wouldn’t generate enough ad revenue to justify the FB market valuation.”

Chetan Murthy’s idea is great for accountability;
“Every time FB shows an unsolicited news-item (or ad) to a user, it must be held liable for the content of that item/ad, and there must be both a documentation-trail of how that item got shown, as well as a trail of to whom that item got shown (e.g. by forwarding).”


The Toxic Ten global heating disinformation spreaders. Two linked to Exxon. 

Ivory has two trading houses. We could stop ivory trade tomorrow. 

69% of climate denial comes from ten sites. We could reduce disinformation tomorrow. 

Question. How might these sites be moderated, and replace disputed material with what, as nature abhors a vacuum – of ‘news’ as the Toxic Ten have had 1.1m views in 6mths!. Note YouTube is ‘trying’ whereas ‘meta fbook’ not so much. These two behemoths are like the two ivory trading houses providing cash – ad revenue – for bad actors to continue… ” The Toxic Ten’s 186m folliwers have received nearly 1.1 billion visits in the last six months alone, earning those that are part of Google’s AdSense platform an estimated $3.6m. This money is given to Google by brands such as Chevrolet, Capital One and the delivery company DHL International, whose Google AdSense ads have run on Toxic Ten sites.”.

Top Ten Toxic sites:

Western Journal
Townhall Media (which, the report notes, was founded by the Exxon-funded Heritage Foundation)
Media Research Center (another Exxon-backed “think tank”)
The Washington Times
The Federalist Papers
Daily Wire and Sputnik News
Patriot Post

From the Center For Countering Digital Hate;  
“The Toxic Ten have 186 million followers on mainstream social media platforms. 

“The Toxic Ten account for 69% of interactions on climate denial Facebook posts

“CCDH analyzed 6,983 climate denial articles from the last year featured in Facebook posts with 709,057 interactions in total using the social analytics tool NewsWhip.

“This analysis shows that posts containing articles from just ten websites account for 69.69% of Facebook users’ interactions with the climate denial content in our study.

“Despite promising to start attaching information labels to posts about climate change, 92% of posts containing content from the Toxic Ten carried no labels. 99.05% of user interactions with posts containing Toxic Ten content were with posts that carried no information or fact-checking labels.

“The Toxic Ten’s websites have received nearly 1.1 billion visits in the last six months alone, earning those that are part of Google’s AdSense platform an estimated $3.6m. This money is given to Google by brands such as Chevrolet, Capital One and the delivery company DHL International, whose Google AdSense ads have run on Toxic Ten sites.”

Via boingboing. Thanks.


nastywoman 11.04.21 at 5:20 am

and if a ‘incel nerd’ starts a internet platform in order to rate ‘the hotness’ of girls –
why in the world should WE -(the ‘girls’) take such a platform seriously or even join it?

I never joined F-book and I’m just waiting until IT finally completely dismantle itself –
like all platforms who are started by ‘incel nerds’ in order to rate the hotness of girls…

And about the ‘Meta-thingy’ – I think it was around 2013 when even in small provincial German town they played with a Metaverse of the Prähistorische Pfahlbauten and when ‘the Zuck’ a year later bought Oculus for a jaw-dropping $2 billion – and posted all this nonsense that he wanted to change reality with IT he was already pretty late to ‘the show’ and now 7 -(in words ‘seven’) years later?

Shouldn’t he just go back to his major purpose ‘rating the hotness of fellow students’?

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