Over the years, Facebook executives have compared the social network to chairs, telephones, newspapers and cars, to name a few. (Washington Post illustration; iStock)
Defending his company from charges that it harms users’ mental health, the head of Facebook-owned Instagram last week raised eyebrows by comparing social media to cars. “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy,” Adam Mosseri told Recode’s Peter Kafka on the Recode Media podcast. “And I think social media is similar.”
Critics were quick to point out that the automobile industry is heavily regulated for safety, precisely because its products are understood to be dangerous. In contrast, social media is relatively unregulated. Others questioned Mosseri’s premise that cars have been a net positive, noting their contribution to climate change and suburban sprawl. Yet this wasn’t the first time Facebook executives have compared their products to seemingly un-Facebook-like things. Whether it’s chairs or newspapers or telephones or churches or the printing press, Facebook has a pattern of reaching for analogies to older, more widely accepted tools to downplay criticism and justify its march to global ubiquity. It’s a tactic that reveals how Facebook’s leaders rationalize the social network’s problems as they navigate seemingly endless waves of backlash. But historians of technology say that these sorts of comparisons can also be revealing in ways that the people drawing them don’t necessarily intend. Facebook’s comparison of its products to inventions of yore is “ironic, because these people are often trying to fight off regulation,” said Lee Vinsel, a professor of science, technology and society at Virginia Tech. “But the reality is that one of the reasons so many technologies around us have become acceptable is because we’ve regulated them. We’ve taken the sharp edges off of them.” Vinsel pointed to the strict federal rules governing aviation, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of chemicals and pollutants, and building codes that constrain modern construction. Facebook isn’t the only Internet company to seek shelter from controversy in likening itself to more established institutions. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has explicitly compared his platform to a public square. In its recent antitrust trial against Epic Games, Apple compared its App Store to a department store. (The judge didn’t buy it.) But Facebook has a particularly colorful track record of leaning on metaphors. Facebook keeps researching its own harms — and burying the findings In Facebook’s 2012 filing to go public, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social network was inspired by technologies such as the printing press and television. “By simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society,” he wrote. “They gave more people a voice. They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organized. They brought us closer together.” It was an ambitious analogy, one meant to sell investors on the revolutionary potential of a company whose products were viewed by some as faddish and trivial. But the IPO was a flop, and later that year the company reached for humbler reference points: Its first-ever TV ad compared the social network to, of all things, chairs. “Chairs are made so that people can sit down and take a break,” a narrator intoned. “Anyone can sit on a chair. . . . Chairs are for people.” (The ad also compared Facebook to doorbells, airplanes, bridges and dance floors, for those keeping score.) The spot, called “Chairs Are Like Facebook,” was roundly mocked. But the marketing line was clear: Facebook was something simple, humble and trustworthy that deserved a place in every home — not something complex, troubling or creepy that merited skepticism. In 2013, a time when frustrated users increasingly found their feeds overrun by clickbait and Zynga notifications, Zuckerberg touted a redesign that he said would make the platform feel like “the best personalized newspaper,” with the News Feed functioning like “the table of contents of a well-curated magazine.” Zuckerberg said he'll reorient Facebook towards encryption and privacy, modeling communication after a living room By 2017, Facebook had achieved ubiquity, but a backlash over its role in elections and social movements had it rethinking its mission of making the world more open and connected. And so Zuckerberg turned again to quaint analogies to recast Facebook as a force for building communities via a renewed focus on Facebook Groups. In a 2017 speech in Chicago, he compared Facebook’s role in society to that of churches and Little League teams. More recently, Facebook has turned to analogies that acknowledge its downsides while reframing them as trade-offs for a greater good. In the recent book “An Ugly Truth,” by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox recalled how the company weathered a user privacy backlash over the launch of the News Feed in 2006: Mosseri’s defense of Instagram last week struck a similar chord. To be fair, he was responding to a question in which Kafka compared the platform to cigarettes, asking if it should be similarly restricted or taken off the market. Mosseri rejected that comparison, pointing out that cigarettes lack the societal upsides of social media, and suggested cars as a more apt example. He also said in the interview that Facebook would welcome some forms of regulation, though “we think you have to be careful, because regulation can cause more problems.” Facebook privacy settings to change now Vinsel, the Virginia Tech professor, said he can see the appeal of such historical reference points for the creators of controversial new products. “We can look back in history and see that people often have negative reactions to new technologies that later seem ridiculous,” Vinsel said. “Over time, these things just become an assumed part of our technological background.” He cited the Pessimists Archive, an online compendium of old articles lamenting how technologies such as electricity and bicycles would be the ruin of society, which is popular with venture capitalists and techno-optimists. But there are at least two common flaws in such comparisons, he said. For one thing, focusing only on the historical technologies that later achieved acceptance is a form of cherry-picking. “I could talk about counterexamples where we were not careful enough,” he said, such as the use of drugs that turned out to cause birth defects, factories that became Superfund sites, chemicals such as DDT, and minerals such as asbestos. Even with the innovations that proved wildly successful, skipping ahead from the initial backlash to widespread acceptance misses crucial steps in the process, Vinsel went on. In many cases, early fears of new technologies were followed by intense regulatory scrutiny, and often they only died down once the resulting industries had been heavily regulated. Cars, for example, started out with little regulation and serious safety issues. “The first thing we did was put into effect traffic laws,” Vinsel said — literal rules of the road for how the industry’s products could be used. Then, a 1916 court ruling held that automakers could be sued for producing dangerous vehicles, prompting a scramble by automakers to use more reliable metals and woods and implement safety standards. (Vinsel’s 2019 book “Moving Violations” is a history of auto regulations in the United States.) Telephones, meanwhile, drew regulatory scrutiny from early on, and AT&T opted to become a federally regulated monopoly in 1913 rather than face an antitrust breakup. Misinformation on Facebook got six times more clicks than factual news during the 2020 election, study says Zachary Loeb, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies how technology can exacerbate risk, said the similarities between new and old technologies can be instructive. But they also risk obscuring the vast differences. “There is often this temptation . . . for these very, very complex technological systems to try to compare themselves to significantly simpler technologies, to make it seem like they are more easy to understand and less threatening,” Loeb said. What Loeb finds interesting about the evolution of Facebook’s analogies is how the company seems to be lowering the bar for itself over time. There was a romanticism to the analogies to the printing press and the telephone — technologies that were instrumental in breaking down societal barriers — that was absent from Mosseri’s grittier comparison of Instagram to cars. “There used to be this utopian aura where they had been trying to act as though they were the latest in the stream of these transformative [communication] technologies,” Loeb said. “Now they’re kind of like, ‘We’re this banal, everyday technology that we’ve all gotten used to, and we understand it’s screwing up the environment and actually really annoys you and people die all the time because of it, but you can’t imagine getting rid of it anytime soon.’ ” While cars and Facebook may seem inevitable, Loeb noted, there are many critics of automobile culture who are arguing today for a shift away from car ownership and car-oriented infrastructure.
“We can think of other ways to organize our societies than around the personal automobile — and we can think of ways to be organizing our information ecosystem other than around Facebook.”Ω