Logging Off Facebook? What Comes Next?
Announcing an unconference Nov 12 to explore paths forward. Plus why Meta could be "dead" in the water; problems at TargetSmart; DEI in global civic tech; and much more.
Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!
With media attention on Facebook at a zenith, now is as good a time as any to bring together people to talk about what, if anything, comes after. Lots of folks are doing valuable work, either to build alternatives or to fight for better laws or regulations to govern social media companies. And plenty of organizers and organizations are searching for ways to reduce their dependence on Facebook or move their communities to healthier digital spaces. With those intersecting interests in mind, I’m excited to announce that next Friday, as part of #TheFacebookLogout campaign, Kaliya Young and I are hosting a half-day unconference under the auspices of Planetwork for anyone who wants to dig in further. The event is called “Logging Off Facebook: What Comes Next,” and it will run from noon to 5pm ET. Kaliya, who is the longtime co-founder of the Internet Identity Workshop, itself one of the leading places for people working on empowering users to control their own data, will be facilitating the event using the process of open space technology. Which basically means that we all co-create the unconference together.
In the first hour, we’ll meet in one big virtual room and anyone who wants to offer a session with get a chance to pitch it. Then we’ll have three hour-long breakout sessions, and attendees will be free to move to whatever breakouts grab their interest. In the last hour, we’ll all share back what we’ve learned, and after the event we’ll send attendees a compilation of all the notes taken in breakout sessions. Tickets are on a sliding scale from $5 - $100, with the funds going to cover the cost of QiqoChat, the conference platform we’ll be using (it’s the brainchild of civic coder Lucas Cioffi and it’s basically Zoom plus social profiles plus more fluid ways for users to move around among breakouts), along with facilitation. We’ve got a great (and non-exhaustive) group of co-convenors, including technologists, political reformers, Internet rights organizers, authors, policy wonks, and funders. Please come for all or part of the event, and please help spread the word.
My other announcement is more personal. Starting this month, I will be writing twice a week for Medium as part of their contributing author program. I’m planning to do one topic per post, rather than the potpourri you get here weekly from The Connector. If you enjoy the mix of topics that I cover here, then please sign up to be a Medium member. Basically, if you want more Micah, you can get it from Medium for just $5 per month of $50 per year (and roughly half of that accrues back to me if you sign up through my partner link). Membership in Medium also unlocks access to original and exclusive content from many other great writers, like Susan Orlean, Jim Surowiecki, Bonsu Thompson, Elizabeth Spears, Douglas Rushkoff, Laura Shin, Cory Doctorow, Alex Kantrowitz and Savala Nolan. Here’s a friend link to my first post, just for readers of The Connector.
In Hebrew, the word “meta” (מתה) means dead. That bit of brand confusion apparently didn’t make it to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before his decision to rebrand his company. Evidently the years he spent at Temple Beth Abraham here in Westchester had no impact on him (I’m told he was an indifferent Hebrew School student, something he didn’t deny in this commencement address at Harvard, another school he was an indifferent student of many years later). Evidently his COO Sheryl Sandberg skipped out on learning much Hebrew too, despite her having been twinned with the daughter of a Soviet Jewish refusenik couple as part of her Bat Mitzvah ceremony (see below for a letter she wrote). It’s funny that for all their recent declarations of love for their Jewishness, neither Zuck nor Sheryl seem to be worried about the juxtaposition.
But that’s neither here nor there. Zuckerberg’s decision to focus his energies on building a “metaverse” is an understandable punt for someone who has already colonized most of the existing world of Internet users (outside of China and Russia, mainly) but who is clearly overwhelmed by the challenge of taming the Frankenstein he has brought to life. It’s interesting that this is Zuck’s third major pivot; there was the move to mobile, which Facebook nearly fumbled until he bought competitors Instagram and WhatsApp; the move to privacy and virtual currency, which were heavily criticized and appears stalled; and now the metaverse moonshot. Lots of people have written eloquent critiques of this idea; this one in the Atlantic by my friend Ethan Zuckerman says most of what needs to be said.
It is amusing to see supposedly serious commentators fall over themselves to take Zuckerberg’s announcement at face value, as if he can solve all the technical problems making a real-time metaverse experience work AND also not replicate or worsen all the socio-political problems that he’s created with Facebook and Instagram. Here’s Casey Newton of the Platformer, making the case that we should keep our minds open about the metaverse’s prospects. I’m pretty doubtful, not only because virtual reality makes most people nauseous, but because if we don’t drastically mitigate climate change it’s hard to see what’s going to be powering all those servers and viewers.
Tech and Politics
--The owners and founders of TargetSmart, one of the big Democratic data firms, “also own a company that earns millions by helping to elect Republicans, including far-right GOP state legislators who have tried to overturn the 2020 election results, who were involved in the January 6 march on the US Capitol that turned into a seditious riot, and who have been part of the Republican crusade to skew election laws against the Democrats,” David Corn reports for Mother Jones. This is not ok.
On Twitter, Josh Mendelsohn, a longtime political technologist, argues that it’s understandable for a political data company to make money from bipartisan groups like trade organizations because they need to pay their bills and subsidize their more ideological campaign season work. That argument seems like a dodge from Corn’s reporting, which shows TargetSmart sister company Access Marketing Services specifically helping Republican candidates. Mendelsohn points out that TargetSmart benefits from a de facto monopoly given to it by state Democratic parties, who pay it to clean up and append information to their voter lists. (One might add, doing a lousy job at that as anyone who has worked a voter file knows.) Alloy, which tried to build an alternative to TargetSmart, failed, in part, Mendelsohn argues, because it lost months to “party resistance and ignorant infighting.”
--New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg says social media hurts society because we aren’t meant to be so connected to each other, pointing to Vermont’s Front Porch Forum as an example of health social media. Now where have we heard that before?
--Code for All, the global civic tech network, has a new report out by Nonso Jideofor looking at the “State of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity in Civic Tech Organizations.” Its topline findings:
1. Organizations tend to romanticize the idea of shifting power but don’t acknowledge that there is a reason power exists where it does.
2. Civic tech organizations are hoodwinked by the general global discourse on diversity, inclusion, and equity which lacks the practical and specific details needed to promote a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable civic tech organization.
3. Organizations undermine the health of the organization and the ability of its members to look the part of an ideal, diverse, inclusive, and equitable civic tech organization.
4. Organizations are overpromising on equity and inclusion and underdelivering on those promises to their members.
5. Civic tech organizations lack the money, time, and processes to understand, develop, promote, improve and be accountable to their diversity, inclusion, and equity in an applied way that fits their reality and context.
Notes on Today’s Elections
--While most eyes will be on the big Virginia governor’s race, we should also pay attention to lowly school board races around the country. That’s because the backlash wave against COVID-19 protective practices as well as diversity, equity and inclusion in schools has been getting big money, both from fat-cat conservatives and grassroots small donors. In Pennsylvania, for example, libertarian venture capitalist Paul Martino has provided at least $560,000 of the $721,000 raised by the Back to School PA PAC, Mallory Falk and Katie Meyer report for WHYY. Martino claims he just supports getting kids back in school, but his money is being funneled in $10,000 increments to local organizers for them to use as they see best in local races. (If only progressive fatcats were as loose with their money!) Nearly every beneficiary is a Republican, many whom reflect the opposition to COVID-19 mitigation and curricula that deal with America’s racist legacy. One Denver suburb school board has seen more than $300,000 flow in for conservative candidates, triple their opponents’ funding, Allan Smith reports for NBC News. The Des Moines metro school districts candidates have raised more than $180,000 for this year’s election, almost six times what was seen in previous cycles, according to a Des Moines Register story (that is behind a paywall). If the backlash wins at local polls, this wave—which is just the most visible expression of Republican anger at the results of the 2020 election—will only get bigger. (The Washington Post’s in-depth look at January 6th and its growing aftermath is a must-read, in that vein.)
--I’m also watching the race for Buffalo’s mayor. And If you think India Walton, the progressive outsider who upended longtime Democratic Mayor Byron Brown in last June’s primary, is going to cruise to victory tonight, think again. Brown is mounting a vigorous write-in campaign, with help from state Republicans as well as Democrats like Governor Kathy Hochul, who has refused to endorse Walton even though she has the Democratic line. According to a WIVB/Emerson College poll released a week ago, likely voters favor Brown over Walton 53.8-36.2%.
--In case you didn’t need another reminder, today’s election will again show how disadvantaged Democrats are because of their long-term failure to invest in independent, progressive media. The anti-critical-race-theory wave wouldn’t exist without Fox News, which has run hundreds of segments claiming it is taught in public school. (It also wouldn’t exist if so many whites didn’t hold deeply racist fears about what “others”—be they Black children or transgender kids—might do to their innocent ones.) As David Turner, senior strategist at the Democratic Governors Association, told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, “One of the strategic advantages that Republicans have is they’re able to feed their base propaganda and misinformation directly through their news outlets,” adding, “The Democratic Party needs to figure out ways to more actively court its base voters on a regular basis.” Ya think?
Good News, Department Of
—Deliberative democracy works: If you bring a random, representative group of Americans together to ponder what to do about the climate crisis, offering them good and balanced information about the problem and walking them through a structured process of deliberation in small groups, it turns out that their thinking shifts in important ways. That’s what the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford just did in August and September with a group of nearly 1,000 participants. Concern about the human activities that increase atmospheric warming rose across the spectrum, the center reports. For example, “[F]ollowing deliberation, 75% of the participants (an increase of 12 points) endorsed the need to get to Net Zero by agreeing with this statement: ‘In order to stop the increase in global temperatures, humans must stop adding to the total amount of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere.’ Support among Democrats rose slightly to 91%, while Independents and Republicans each increased their agreement by about 20 points--from 57% to 78% among Independents and from 35% to 55% among Republicans.” The study also followed a control group that didn’t go through a deliberative process. Sadly, it reports, “Despite a summer of floods, tropical storms, severe drought and other weather events, the control group changed hardly at all in its opinions on climate and energy.”
—Direct mutual aid works: The Rolling Jubilee Fund just canceled the probation debts of more than 20,000 people living in Florida and Mississippi, as Rachel Cohen reports for The Intercept. Recipients of the help got a letter informing thing of the relief, ending with the phrase, “You are not a loan.” In California, the Debt Collective has launched the Abolish Bail Debt Tool, which aims to help more than one million across the state deal with their bail bond debts.
—The always interesting Peter Pomerantzev explores in Coda how global attention to human rights abuses has waned since the end of the Cold War, arguing that the collapse of that grand unifying narrative plus the rise of social media and government-sponsored misinformation campaigns has undermined our ability to see what is common, and outrageous, about what is happening to dissidents worldwide.
—I had planned on writing this week’s edition of The Connector on the terrific new book Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in Twenty-First Century America, by Hahrie Hahn, Elizabeth McKenna and Michelle Oyakawa, but got sidetracked. I’ll get to it next week. In the meantime, read the book!
Are we on the verge of chatting with whales? Talk about click bait.