Big Tech Is Boring
Five days after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance in a Clubhouse chat room, the New York Times reported that Facebook is considering launching its own Clubhouse-style service. The two events are not necessarily connected — sources told the Times that Zuckerberg “has been interested in audio communication forms” — but the coincidence of the two is symbolic of both the way Facebook endlessly imitates its fiercest competition, folding copycat services into its own apps (Instagram’s Reels closely resembles Tik Tok videos), and how the tech sphere more broadly seems stuck in a imaginative rut.
The second might be a function of the first, as Shira Ovide argued last week. Big tech companies co-opting the ideas of their upstart competitors means there’s less chance we’ll see something new take over. “We’ve seen before that big leaps forward in technology can bring down industry titans, like the cellphone pioneer Nokia,” Ovide wrote. “But boy, it sure feels like the tech giants today are so entrenched, so good at what they do — and, perhaps, skilled at tilting the game to their advantage — that they simply can’t be beaten.”
Maybe Ovide is right in assuming that taking down Facebook or Google at their own game might now be impossible. When it comes to catering to our every individual need and building a personalized portal to the world (even a personalized world, in some cases) they’ve got it covered — and when they don’t, they have the money to cover it. Then again, we might ask at this juncture whether we actually need any more of what the big platforms provide. Or, for that matter, even what the upstarts offer as alternatives.
There’s a danger in assuming that the game the big platforms play is the only game to play.
The buzz around Tik Tok or Clubhouse is, in the end, excitement over what’s largely a repeat of what we already have, or have had recently. Tik Tok drew immediate comparisons to Vine, the defunct video-based social app, the key aesthetic difference being that Tik Tok is arguably far stranger — not to mention its significantly larger mainstream cultural influence.
As for Clubhouse? “At first, it seemed like a typical chat room. A list of people with names like Lizardog and Lisarae appeared on the computer screen. Curious visitors came and went. Someone typed a few words of hello,” Lisa Guernsey reported for the Times in 1999. “Then Lizardog spoke up — literally. ‘It’s real quiet in here,’ he said, his low gravelly voice coming through the computer speakers. […] These were the sounds of the latest in on-line communication: voice chat. Instead of typing messages back and forth, people are talking into their computers and hearing the spoken responses of others from around the world.”
This isn’t to dismiss Tik Tok or Clubhouse as unnecessary or not worth using (I love Tik Tok, for what it’s worth) — just to say, instead, that if we’re looking for an innovative route out of the current platform monopoly, different kinds of social media are still social media. That they are regularly subsumed by the larger, dominant players should be entirely unsurprising. Given the opportunity, why wouldn’t Facebook copy Tik Tok’s design? Why wouldn’t it make its own Clubhouse?
The point is there’s a danger in assuming that the game the big platforms play is the only game to play. We will never find something new — never create a different kind of technology — if we always look for those that feed the same desire, individualism, and then seeks to capitalize on that.
The controversy this month between Facebook and Australia highlighted this problem. Faced with incoming legislation that would effectively have tech giants pay media outlets when Australians accessed news content via the major platforms, Facebook simply booted Australian news outlets off its platform altogether. The conversation quickly became about how much journalism might be worth, and in what way it should be supported by the tech giants. The question we probably should have been asking was: why should journalism be governed by the same rules as Facebook?
That is to say, while it makes sense why Facebook might want to — or even should — incorporate other social media into its platform, it doesn’t make sense why it has to do the same to everything else. It simply doesn’t make sense why things other than social media should be governed by social media rules, values, and expectations. Yet, this is essentially what has happened, including with journalism. It has been driven toward optimization, toward data-based success, user tracking and advertising — just like a social platform. The debate in Australia laid this bare. It was about the value of journalism, but only inasmuch as it was pertined to the amount of money that will change hands between private companies — platforms and news organizations — based on Facebook’s metrics.
The internet has hit a dead end, and big tech platforms led us here.
How can we expect our technology — or any other aspect of culture (journalism, fashion, music, etc.) — to give us something truly new if it’s always based on the same basic idea, one that’s now nearly two decades old — that of the endless ad-driven data cycle? Facebook’s devouring of its potential competition wouldn’t matter as much, wouldn’t threaten our society with the same monopolistic totalitarianism, if we hadn’t willingly allowed for our cultural and economic success to be driven and dictated by social media.
The same half-dozen or so companies that captured the zeitgeist nearly 20 years have been allowed to ensure nobody else can grab the next one. In short, if our technology lacks imagination it’s because we continue to operate on their assumptions about the world — what it’s for, what matters in it , and that they are unbeatable masters of it.
But this obscures a truth that’s sitting right in front of us, the one that Ovide noted. It’s is that our platform-based internet — and by extension, our platform-based life — is boring. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly tired of it. I’m tired of engagement, of metrics, hashtag campaigns, trending topics, likes, DMs. I’m weary of everyone, including myself, saying something – talking and posting – all the time, the virality of it, and the optimization of that chatter that creates billions in profits for an elite few… and for what? So that more music can be optimized for playlists? More TV shows can be crafted for bingeing? More book jackets will be designed for sharing? So that we get to see more of the same restaurant aesthetic over and over? So that more of life can also become data, so it can also be content? What are we even doing anymore.
The unending sameness of everything is exhausting. It’s a sign that the internet has hit a dead end, and that it’s the big tech platforms that led us here.