Facebook and Christmas are victims of success

Happy Hanukkah and TGIF.

Today seems to be a good day to talk about the excesses of success and a concept called “scaling.” Take a look at this beautiful Christmas tree. It’s seven stories tall.

It’s a matter of scale

Can you guess where this tree is? I can tell you, because I took the picture myself in 2011. This beautiful Christmas tree is in the Paragon Siam Mall in Bangkok, Thailand. This mall was so decked out for the holidays, you’d never know you weren’t in the United States, or some country where there are a lot of Christians.

In fact, 95 percent of Thais follow Buddhism, and the country has a law stating that the King must be Buddhist (though the current one seems to have an extremely loose interpretation of asceticism). The preceding thought, if published in Thailand, might earn me a jail sentence, because you can publish anything you want online in Thailand, except things that might in some way cast dispersions on the crown. There is no Section 230 in Thailand.

Only 0.7% of Thais are Catholic, and the number of evangelical Christians in that country is vanishingly small, despite the labors of missionaries (who continue in the labor today) for several centuries. But Christmas in Thailand is marvelous.

Christmas is a victim of its own success. The holiday that began as a celebration of the Lord of Lord’s birth into the mortal world, humbly, attended by the lowest of the low—shepherds—in an animal pen, surrounded by scandal, yet celebrated in joy by a host of angels, is now a worldwide phenomenon of lights, trees, gifts, and good cheer. It in itself has become a vehicle and an idol, for commerce, for joy, for family, and for lasting memories.

The only thing missing from modern Christmas is Christ.

Facebook, in this vein, is in a similar rut. Mark Zuckerberg’s baby was designed to connect people at a psychological level (Zuck studied psychology at Harvard before leaving), offering them an ever-growing, never stale experience to share with each other.

It has grown from a college who’s who into the largest social media network in the world. Since it’s free (and will always be), anyone can sign up and wade into the pool, and anyone can pee in the water.

To be clear: the business of Facebook is business. It exists to drive ads, and revenue, into the pockets of merchants, content creators, and other businesses. The means to that end are the posts shared by millions (billions?) of users. Some users, however, are not who they say they are. They are accounts controlled by foreign governments, hackers, trolls, political weasels, and criminals.

Facebook has a difficult task: to keep the experience of sharing and participating in a social network as easy and intuitive as possible, while filtering out the heaps and mounds of trash dumped into it every day.

That task has been made a lot easier by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. I am intimately familiar with this law, from the standpoint of one of those it protects. In 1996, I ran an ISP in Middle Georgia. It’s basic protection is this sentence:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

That means Facebook can’t be responsible for what I say, but it can exercise editorial privilege and power over me saying it. Facebook can censor at its discretion, but isn’t responsible for the things that don’t get censored. The company can filter out all content it doesn’t like, for practically any reason, and not be sued for the truth, accuracy, or bias of what’s left.

Since Facebook has become so unbelievably popular, by developing application interfaces (APIs) to allow other services, ad agencies and large businesses to leverage its mountains of user data, and has bought other services like Instagram and WhatsApp, which complement its core service, now the government is intensely interested in clipping its wings.

Read David Thornton’s dive into why Forty-six states are unfriending Facebook. The Biden administration is also pushing for a solution.

An open question is how the Biden Administration will react to the lawsuit. Joe Biden has said in the past that breaking up Facebook is “is something we should take a really hard look at,” per New York Magazine. House Democrats have also investigated the business practices of Big Tech companies and compared them in a report to the “era of oil barons and railroad tycoons.” Antipathy to the social media companies is an area where Trump Republicans might find common ground with the Democrats. 

It seems either Section 230 (which Trump had issued empty threats to veto the latest defense budget authorization if it’s not repealed), or Facebook is in jeopardy. Facebook would be very happy to have Section 230 repealed.

There’s a business concept called a “regulation moat” that allows big businesses to uniquely respond and comply with onerous government oversight, and hampers small business’s ability to enter the marketplace. Behold, the Bell System, which navigated a nest of tariffs and state utility commissions to maintain an effective monopoly for many decades. Facebook would love to be Ma Bell. Get rid of Section 230, and then the thicket of laws, commissions and oversight needed to ensure Facebook keeps its nose clean would filter out nimbler competition.

It’s a bad idea to kill Section 230. Which leaves us with dismantling Facebook. That’s also a bad idea, although it may work out for Facebook, for investors, and for those who need a political head to display on a platter.

Facebook’s biggest crime, like Christianity’s, is being too successful. Like the difference between living in a commune, or the Amish, communities based on shared responsibility work well when the leaders can walk to everyone’s house, but they don’t scale well. An Amish community scaled up becomes a giant, centrally-controlled church that demands all its patrons to give up worldly goods to the elders. A commune scaled up becomes the Soviet Union. A small college who’s who with individual posts and sharing scales up to become…Facebook, with the government hot on its heels to break it up.

And Christmas, taken from home and hearth, and caroling in the streets, scaled large, becomes a glitzy tree in Thailand, about as distant from the quiet lowing of cattle in a manger, and the song of the heavenly host bidding “glad tidings” as Christ’s bloody death on the cross is from His marvelous birth.

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Today’s items:

What is Trump’s endgame, by David Thornton. Are we done with the legal battles? And what follows?

Long Tom Jefferson tweets. Jay has come up with some humorous, pithy and timely things our third president might tweet, if he had that available. It’s a fun Friday, so enjoy.

David takes a look: South Dakota makes the case against herd immunity. COVID-19 is still out there, ready to spread. We’re not “there” yet, though there’s hope.

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Have a great Friday everyone and enjoy a politics-free, and sickness-free weekend!