TechScape: The unbearable sadness of Mark Zuckerberg

Meta is finally admitting how serious a Facebook ban can be. Plus, Joe Rogan and Zuck have a heart to heart

Would you rather be banned for life from Tesco or Apple? Or, to go further: would you find it easier to cope with losing access to all major supermarkets, or Google alone? The answer will depend on your particular circumstances, but there’s no denying that losing access to a major technology company can be catastrophic. In my case, losing Apple’s services would render my smartphone near-useless, while losing access to Google would take out my email account. An Amazon ban would block me from reading thousands of pounds worth of purchased books and comics linked to my Kindle, while a Microsoft one would turn my Xbox Series X into an expensive paperweight.

The number of non-tech businesses who could inflict equivalent harm is slim. If Sainsbury’s banned me from its supermarkets, I’d have to walk a bit further to Waitrose, but I wouldn’t have to return all of the groceries I’d already bought from the store. If my bank blocked me, it would be wildly inconvenient, but strict regulations mean it would be hard for the company to close my account and keep my money.

Despite that, technology companies have long been reticent to acknowledge the severity of a ban from their services. Legally, they may have a right to deny service as they see fit – but that’s cold comfort to former users whose lives are thrown into disarray over accusations of rule violations.

So it’s nice to see one is finally starting to take the issue seriously. Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner reports:

Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc. is building a customer-service division to help users of its social networks who have had posts or accounts removed unexpectedly.

The effort is in the early stages, and has taken on a higher priority thanks to feedback Meta has gotten from the oversight board, the independent body set up in 2020 by the company to review some of its decisions on questionable or problematic content. The board has received more than a million appeals from users, many of them related to account support.

“How do we provide care and customer service and responsiveness to people about why their content has been taken down or why their accounts are taken down?” said Brent Harris, Meta’s vice-president of governance, who confirmed that improving Meta’s customer service is something they are “spending a bunch of time on.” He didn’t provide details on how the group would interact with users.

Losing access to a Facebook account can be brutal. For most users, it will take down two social networks at once – Facebook and Instagram – leaving them bereft of online socialisation and isolated from their friends. For some, it will also render a few pieces of expensive gadgetry, such as the Portal videophone or the Oculus headset, useless.

And for a few it could be ruinous. If you run a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business, the ability to pay for Facebook adverts can be the difference between survival and failure. If you run an online media outlet, promoting your content on the social networks isn’t optional. And if you are a professional influencer, your Instagram account is your career.

But unlike its mega-corp peers, Facebook runs a social network. It might be bad if I get banned from Amazon but, unless I return too many goods and trip their fraud algorithms, it’s unlikely. On Facebook, though, the platform’s community standards span 25 pages in the public versions alone, and hundreds more in the detailed documents handed to moderators to guide their work. Simply knowing what rule you were banned for can be difficult, and getting in touch with a human to argue your innocence, or plead for leniency, can be nearly impossible.

So it’s good to see the social network finally acknowledge the seriousness of such bans. Facebook has historically been loathe to hire humans to do work that can, at times, be poorly automated, but the sooner it can get this team up and running, the better.

Of course, the power of a Facebook ban is a direct consequence of the power of Facebook itself. Being turned away from Tesco isn’t ruinous because other supermarkets offer almost identical products; an HSBC ban could be survived because banking regulations require the company to provide a smooth off-ramp, rather than simply delete your account with no appeal.

For a social network with a vast market share and slim regulatory limits on the capricious exercise of power, account bans become a much more pressing problem. So far, governments have focused on a particularly narrow form of the issue, with conservatives in the UK and US opposing politically motivated moderation that doesn’t seem to actually exist. But even that serves to embed the idea that Facebook and its ilk need to exercise caution with their banhammers – and perhaps that idea finally prompted Facebook to act.

Sad Mark

Zuck needs something to be happy about.
The King for Life needs something to be happy about. Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Sticking with Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg sat down with Joe Rogan, the only podcast that your ex-boyfriend with the abs listens to, for a three-hour interview. It’s easy to be dismissive of Rogan, and easier still to be concerned about his tendency to promote interviewees who flirt with rightwing radicalisation, but his interview technique is genuinely impressive. Rogan’s persona is that of a total naïf, ready to believe absolutely anything he is told in an excited, collegiate manner. He’s terrible at holding people to account in the conventional sense, but good at forcing people to unpick the implications of their positions, and at revealing mere waffle for what it is.

All of which did make the Zuckerberg interview interesting, not as a piercing revelation of Meta’s future plans or Zuckerberg’s genius, but as a character study of a man who is pretty sad about his job, and desperately looking for something new to be excited about.

“You wake up in the morning, look at my phone, get like a million messages … it’s usually not good,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s almost like everyday you wake up and you’re punched in the stomach.”

One major takeaway for me from the interview was that financial analysis of Metas’s pivot to the metaverse misses the point. Yes, the Facebook parent company needs a new narrative to justify its stock price after flatlining growth of Facebook and Instagram. Its slogan – “We’ll all live in the metaverse” – provides that.

But Facebook isn’t run by, or for, shareholders: it’s run by and for Mark Zuckerberg, King for Life, and Mark Zuckerberg desperately needs some joy in his life. Losing $10bn a year building virtual-reality technology that lets you play poker in space might not be great a business move, but it lets Zuckerberg spend a portion of his working day not being yelled at by humanity for having created a website that destroyed the old world order and replaced it with a crappy one that doesn’t even have a customer service helpline for when your account gets permanently deleted.

Who among us can honestly say we wouldn’t do the same?

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Alex Hern

The GuardianTramp

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