The Cost of Living in Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet Empire

What’s on your mind? Right now, as I’m writing this, The New York Times is breaking the news that Facebook, after a year of staggering revelations concerning everything from misuse of private data to enabling Russian election interference to knowingly providing inflated metrics publishers used to remake the media landscape, has been caught giving other big companies access to its users’ information outside the framework of its normal privacy rules. “Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent,” the Times reports. It gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read users’ private messages. It allowed Yahoo to view real-time feeds of friends’ posts, despite the fact it publicly claimed to have ended that kind of snooping years ago and despite the fact the feature in whose service Yahoo supposedly required this information had been discontinued in 2011.

What’s on your mind? I keep thinking that as bombshells go, this one has the distinction of being both outrageous and utterly unsurprising. When someone shows you who they are, believe them, as Oprah used to say. (Oprah might not be famous as a tech analyst, but she knows a thing or two about getting people to share their personal data.) Facebook has long since shown itself to be a conspiracy of moral ghouls harvesting human intimacy for ad dollars; as sickening as it is to imagine Netflix browsing your private messages, these new disclosures don’t change your basic understanding of the operation any more than, say, a snowstorm changes your understanding of December. But each new Silicon Valley betrayal has the effect of making the internet seem a little less bearable, a little less human.

What’s on your mind? That’s the question that appears in Facebook’s status box before you start typing, and it’s an essential question of the moment: What’s on your mind is either a commodity for Mark Zuckerberg to sell or it is something else, something that belongs to you alone, and which of those alternatives you choose will go a long way toward defining the next decade of life on the internet. I mean not only in terms of a regulatory framework that I do not believe is forthcoming, but also literally in terms of how you imagine what it means to a human being—how mechanized you’re willing to allow your conception to become, how in thrall to a handful of apps. Since I believe that almost everyone actually hates almost every interaction with almost every algorithm online (when was the last time a discovery feature didn’t surface an uncanny-valley parody of not quite your taste or when you loaded Instagram without the photo you were looking at disappearing when your feed reordered itself after a tenth of a second?), the issue here seems to go quite a bit deeper than mere consumer choice. It was possible for a long time to tell ourselves we could have everything, that we could be humanists with highly accurate recommendations for Belgian cop dramas on Netflix. But one of the real cultural shifts of 2018, I think, is that we are facing the end of that particular delusion.

What’s on your mind? I can tell you only what’s on mine. What’s on my mind is that I miss the human internet with an intensity that borders on homesickness. The first time I ever went online, it was the fall of 1995. I had been in college for three days, and I felt lost and terrified. We were the first incoming class at Harvard to be assigned email addresses automatically; they were available before that, but you had to go somewhere and register. This was the period when AOL CDs were just starting to show up in people’s mailboxes, when phrases like “the World Wide Web” (always capitalized) and “the Information Superhighway” were beginning to feature in TV ads aimed at a mass audience. I didn’t know what email was, exactly, but long-distance phone calls cost 25 cents a minute, and I thought it might be a way that I could talk to my friends back in Oklahoma. So I went to the computer lab in the basement of the Science Center.

What’s on your mind? I remember the sound of dot-matrix printers, blaring away like little robot trombones. Plastic bins full of torn-off sheet edging. Some surly upperclassman behind the help desk, who, surliness aside, must have shown me how to log on, what a username was, how to change my password. (I picked “bledsoe,” because I was trying to give it a go as a Patriots fan; the poor Patriots, who never won anything, seemed like they needed me.) I have no memory of what I saw on the looming beige CRT monitor—physically enormous, though it probably had a 9-inch screen—or of the first website I visited. I have no idea how I even found out about websites. It all would have been slow and blocky and text-based and frustrating, full of Matrixy green status messages about mailer daemons and server handoffs, but I don’t remember any of that. I remember only feeling, immediately, that this was a place where I would not be lost and terrified, and that here, on the web, was where I would be living from now on.

What’s on your mind? I am thinking about that phrase, “living on the internet.” It was certainly how I felt that year, and for many years after it. I never felt quite at ease in the real world, and I never got over my first alienation from Harvard—where I ended up in the same dorm as Mark Zuckerberg, though less profitably and not at the same time—but none of that mattered so much, because online I could live an actual life. The internet of 1995 and 1999 and 2001 and even 2007 was a backwater by today’s standards, but to me, it was the most wonderful thing. It was strange and silly and experimental and constantly surprising, and it made you feel good about other people, because online, away from corporate media and every channel of established culture, other people turned out to be constantly surprising too. They translated Anglo-Saxon poetry and posted photographs of Victorian ghosts and told you, to your eternal benefit, about what it was like to be someone other than yourself (in my case, to be a woman, to be a person of color). They wrote fascinating, charismatic diaries. And all of this, this faster, weirder, more forgiving universe, was right there, at your fingertips, for free. This sounds like nostalgia, but it was how I really felt at the time. We were making this thing together.

The fact that I cannot remember the last time the internet made me feel, on balance, less anxious and better about other people tells you something about how much has changed online since 1999, 2001, and even 2007.

This is supposed to be a piece about Mark Zuckerberg, and so far I’ve barely mentioned him. Yet everything I’ve written here is about him. This is true partly because he’s the CEO of Facebook, and thus ultimately responsible for dehumanizing much of the internet, but in a broader sense I think that Mark Zuckerberg has himself become a kind of atmosphere, a context for online disillusionment. And that atmosphere, the translucent Zuckerberg hologram now flickering across most of the internet, says more about the mood of 2018 than anything Zuckerberg himself could do.

Here’s what I mean by that. It drives me wild when tech reporting unthinkingly assumes the perspective of people with power in Silicon Valley. Facebook faces new accusations. Sheryl Sandberg has been dealt a new setback. Will Zuckerberg be able to recover? This kind of coverage presumes that what really matters is the drama of the moguls’ own experience, as though they were the protagonists of a movie. I can speak only for myself here, but personally, my interest in the moguls’ experience is vanishingly dim; what matters to me is the internet itself and the people who use it. Before I started writing, I did a Google search for “Facebook” and “annus horribilis,” which showed that dozens if not hundreds of media outlets—The Guardian, the BBC, El Mundo, Die Welt, The Atlantic, the Silicon Valley Business Journal—used this phrase, Latin for “horrible year,” to describe Facebook’s 2018. But 2018 wasn’t an annus horribilis for Facebook. It was an annus horribilis for us, the people who actually faced the surveillance and dishonesty and abuse. It was an annus horribilis for us because of Facebook.

This is what I mean when I say that Mark Zuckerberg is a context. No one short of President Donald Trump did more to define the online experience in 2018. But 2018 wasn’t the year of Mark Zuckerberg because of the things he did in his office or the way he dodged questions when he testified in Congress. It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because almost everyone I know who spends time on the internet feels as though they have lost something. It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because people who were once thrilled by the internet now talk about it in a tone that combines gallows humor, weary resignation, and a kind of cynicism toward the possibility of mercy. It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because people in their 20s have stopped being ironic when they talk about what they make as “content.” It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because half the good writers I know are out of work. It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because I can’t think about the love I feel for other people without wondering how it’s being used to sell me shaving cream. It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because we don’t even talk about how absolutely, hideously sad all this is, since talking about it would mean questioning why we still spend so much time online, and, after all, we’re the people who live here. It was the year of Mark Zuckerberg because our jadedness toward the internet is really a form of grief.

What’s on your mind? For some reason, maybe because of the Latin of annus horribilis, I’m thinking of the Roman emperor Augustus. No one could have less to do with anything I’ve been talking about here than the Roman emperor Augustus. But one thing I’ve always loved about the internet is that it’s a place where meaning can come from the most surprising non sequiturs. And it turns out that Mark Zuckerberg does love the emperor Augustus, and has said so publicly; this is some of the personal data he has chosen to share online. One of his daughters is named August. Another one is named Maxima. He has said that Latin is “very much like coding,” which, sure. It’s possible that he sees Augustus as a model for his own career. Augustus “had to do certain things,” Zuckerberg has said, but “basically, through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.”

You can almost see how this metaphor works, if you’re looking at it from the perspective of a shatteringly arrogant tech mogul. After all, Augustus moved fast and broke things (Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet). He disrupted (centuries of republican government). Egypt having essentially been the Instagram of the first century BC, he preserved Rome’s dominance through strategic mergers and acquisitions. His corporate culture surfaced useful life advice for his subject peoples. Bowing is leaning in.

It’s here where the metaphor gets just a little historically dicey. Augustus “had to do certain things,” Zuckerberg says. What things? But those things were fine, whatever they were, because they led to “200 years of world peace.” Which is absolutely true, if you leave out all the wars.

From Zuckerberg’s perspective, the whole point of Facebook has always been to bring people together. Well, nothing brings people together like an empire. Talk about engagement with a platform! The question, for those of us who would prefer to remain barbarians (and who hold out hope of someday sacking Rome), is how does he imagine an empire expands its borders? Who is Facebook making war on, if not us?


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