Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Corporate Thought Police

I remember the time back in the early 90's when I had a show on a local college radio station.  After coming home from having just done a show consisting of a string of especially unpatriotic musical selections, I picked up my land line (which back then was referred to as "the phone") and rather than hearing the familiar dial tone, I heard three beeps followed by a recorded message:
Because you have violated community standards, your phone line has been disconnected for thirty days.
And then they gave me a toll-free number to call if I felt I "had received this message in error."  I couldn't call the number from my disconnected phone, of course, but when I went to a friend's place to use their phone, I was disconnected every time after being on hold for two hours, and never got to talk to a representative of the phone company.

Did this ever happen to you?  If so, I'd love to hear about it.  But it never happened to me.  I just made that up.  What did just happen to me is in every way identical, except that Facebook is an unregulated monopolistic corporation, rather than anything classified as a public utility like phone, broadband, or electricity.

What I woke up to two days after my 51st birthday, four days before I'm flying across the Atlantic to start a tour of Europe, was yet another message from Facebook that I was banned from the platform for a post from years ago that no one will ever come across sharing a song by the satirical London-based band, the Commie Faggots.  After the last ban a couple weeks ago I tried to delete all posts related to the band, but apparently I failed, and one came up and randomly got me banned again, this time for 30 days.

Whether satirical band names should be flagged as hate speech is one question.  Whether such posts should get you banned from publicly posting to the platform is also a question.  But I think it's important for people out there to understand that when someone gets banned from Facebook, they are not only banned from making public posts, but they also can't reply to private messages.

There have been a variety of questions that have come up in the recent Congressional questioning of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg.  One of them was related to whether Facebook was capable of policing its own content, whether Facebook was capable, for example, of telling the difference between satire and hate speech.  The answer, clearly, is no.

Another question that's perhaps far more relevant that came up is the question of whether Facebook is a monopoly.  I suppose the answer depends on how strictly the term is defined, but if we go with the definition of a corporation that is singularly dominant in one or more major forms of public and private communication, then Facebook is clearly a monopoly.

Many people who are not professional journalists or professional artists may not realize that when Facebook changes their algorithms this can (and often does) have a clear, measurable impact on how many people are likely to see different kinds of posts.  Years ago, Facebook devastated musicians around the world when they changed their algorithms so that all of a sudden posts related to gigs or tours would hardly be seen unless you paid to boost them.  More recently, Facebook changed their algorithms again, supposedly to deal with the problem of fake news.  With their new algorithm, progressive websites such as Counterpunch and Alternet suddenly started getting far less traffic, and with that, fewer donations.

Facebook is like other massive, profit-driven, predatory corporations, but far bigger, and they buy up or mimic the competition, swallowing much of it up, becoming so dominant that if you want to communicate with many people privately or spread the word publicly about gigs, tours, albums, protests, or whatever else, you can do this without Facebook, but you won't reach or stay in touch with nearly as many people.

My own numbers seem to be typical as far as indy artists go, and they clearly show what a dominant platform Facebook is.  Notwithstanding the fact that there is of course some overlap between platforms, the numbers are still revealing.  I wrote a post last week where I listed ten good alternatives to Facebook -- that is, ten platforms that do the same things Facebook does, or better.  Which is great for people who want to live without Facebook for one good reason or another.  And it's great in terms of the quality of these alternative platforms in terms of user-friendliness.  But in terms of scope there is no competition.  Between "friends" and "followers" on Facebook there are around 15,000 people.  If you combine everyone who's on my email list with everyone who follows me on all of the other platforms I mention in last week's post, only when you add them all together do you approach the number from Facebook alone.

I wonder how many people out there who aren't artists realize that when you post a link to a video on another platform such as YouTube on Facebook it will get far less attention than if you post the video using Facebook's video-posting application.  Post it directly and it gets the eyeballs, at least comparatively speaking -- even if you don't pay to boost it, unlike announcements related to gigs, tours or albums.  For example, I posted a song on April 8th about the most recent Land Day massacres of children in Gaza by Israeli soldiers.  After uploading "Land Day" to YouTube and posting about that on Facebook and other platforms, the song on YouTube has so far been viewed 360 times.  Since uploading the song on Facebook the same day, without sharing the fact that the song had been posted to Facebook on any other platform, it got several times as many views -- 1,600 so far.

Because two billion other people are on the platform, including most of the people I know, Facebook is extremely useful.  But the algorithms they use are very destructive in many ways.  The fact that billions of dollars are invested in thousands of brilliant people who spend all their time figuring out how to make the platform more addictive and thus more profitable results in a platform that seems to cause as many problems as it solves.  In a weird way, I have found this phenomenon to play out directly in the numbers.  I only just realized that although I did successfully use boosted posts on Facebook to slightly increase attendance at gigs to the extent that I made around $2,000 more last year than I made the year before, I spent over $3,000 in Facebook advertising.  Maybe I'm just bad at advertising, but it had become clear that non-boosted posts about gigs were not being seen.  I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the folks at Facebook have figured out how to make their post-boosting function just barely useful enough to keep people doing it regularly.

It is very obviously a tragic thing that we have gotten to this stage, where what could have been (and what briefly was) a free internet became such a destructively corporate-dominated space.  We clearly need to either strictly regulate Facebook and social media in general so that it behaves in the public interest as the public utility that it has become, or we need to leave the platform en mass.  While I can't effect either of these developments myself, I'm going to experiment with deactivating my Facebook account at least while I'm banned from posting, commenting or messaging on the network.  While I'm banned from doing these things, it seems like the most sensible move, since I don't want people thinking I'm ignoring them for a month when I don't respond to their comments or messages.  My hope is people who want to find me will have the wherewithal to look me up on the web.  Realistically, with people being as they are, some will and some won't.

While I am absent from Facebook, please rest assured that although I'll miss some of the comments and conversations, I'll overall be happier with less noise, and I can easily be found by anyone who wants to find me, which I hope will be more than a handful of people out there who manage to notice through all the noise that I'm not there anymore.

A brief rundown of ways to keep in touch with me that are also dynamic and interactive like Facebook is:

  • Go to www.davidrovics.com, where you will find links to all of the platforms listed below, and where you can also get on my email list -- email lists are great!
  • Follow me on Twitter @drovics -- www.twitter.com/drovics
  • If you follow me on YouTube, that's where I post songs I just wrote -- www.youtube.com/drovics
  • Most of those phone-made broadsides also end up in audio form at www.soundcloud.com/davidrovics
  • Whenever I put out a new album, it first appears on Bandcamp -- www.davidrovics.bandcamp.com
  • At www.songkick.com you can follow artists you like, and hear about when we do gigs near you
  • Whether I'm home or on tour, hanging out with my kids or at a protest, I post a lot of pictures at www.instagram.com/davidrovics (I know, it's owned by Facebook)
  • My phone number is +1 503 863 1177 and I can be called or texted directly or via WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and other messaging platforms
  • There is a David Rovics app you can get for your phone or tablet on the Google and Apple app stores, which allows me to send you relevant, occasional push notifications
  • I blog at www.songwritersnotebook.blogspot.com
If you want me and other indy musicians to be able to keep making music, don't ever say "I'll look out for you on Facebook."  In recent years, if you saw a post of mine in your feed on Facebook it's probably because I paid to boost it.  This is not how Facebook used to work, when it first wormed its way into everybody's frontal lobes, and it's a far cry from the great possibilities that the internet still offers -- potentially -- for us humans to interact and learn about each other and the world we live in.