Before 2016, Facebook (or any social media) wasn’t considered a serious topic to research or explore. I remember giving a talk about the problem with its algorithms in 2014 and people acted like my concerns were dumb because the website was about friendships and relationships. (Yes there was that David fincher movie but …it’s complicated.) company grew to 300 billion-ish market cap with extremely minimal media scrutiny

There absolutely were people — dozens — doing this critical work, but they have been almost completely erased by post-2016 criticism. Please steal my reading list for your syllabuses and lit reviews, academics!

The exception here is *the industry itself* took criticism seriously (so long as it was on its terms). This is why many of the early academics researching social media concurrently held posts inside major tech companies. that kind of conflict of interest doesn’t happen as much in journalism (it shouldn’t happen at all…but!) but legacy media generally covered tech as a business story only

Feel free to add examples of other early critical research and writing on FB if *you have read this material and can confirm the criticism is relevant.*
Another wrinkle here is how media absolutely bungled coverage of the Facebook emotional contagion experiment in 2014, while academics nitpicked IRB ethics instead of whether or not the experiment itself was wrong

I edited this piece myself in 2012 and I've yet to find an earlier example critiquing Facebook specifically as surveillance capitalism (the lens not the coinage)

@jomc have you read Resisting the Virtual Life? If yes, what did you think? I felt there was a lot of valid criticism of Facebook before Facebook just as a dystopic possibility of the internet

@fasterandworse haven’t read that one but I find mid-90s era criticism impressively plentiful compared to the aughts. Even in newspapers and magazines, the social and cultural aspects of the internet were more fully addressed

@jomc it’s like reading tv criticism from the 70s. You’re constantly thinking “you’re not wrong but you’re also kind of underestimating how bad it can actually get”

@jomc Worth comparing tech companies relationship with academics to that of relationship between Pharma industry and academic researchers

@jomc oh, wow. Thanks for articulating this so clearly. I've felt vaguely gaslit on this stuff for a long time, and it's amazing to see you put words to what was happening.

I hope there are reflexive things written by academics & journalists on how the majority missed this! 😅

@blaine thanks! A lot of it is resources (the actual investment into newspapers hiring reporters on a tech beat or academic departments building out to include people with expertise in machine learning etc). But there are other harder to pin down elements in play: like the perceived prestige of writing about or researching the subject

@jomc totally. Also, being critical of something everyone else is excited about usually doesn't go well. 😅

@jomc Not sure this quite meets your criteria – it’s hardly “research,” for one thing. But I think about it not infrequently. (I don’t think the ideas I tried to express here were *wrong*, necessarily, so much as rendered completely quaint and irrelevant by the onward rush of practice, including my own.)

@jomc *Raises hand* "Social Media Is Bullshit (St. Martin's Press, 2012.)


@jomc two essays of mine you probably already know. but just in case:

my earliest paper on FB’s homogenizing effects written/posted and circulated in 2011, (re)published 2014:

@jomc in my day it was enough to photocopy the work: now we have to actually read it? Critical correctness gone mad!

@jomc That has to be about the earliest example of this insight, unless you count Mark’s self-critique from 2004:

Zuck: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
Zuck: just ask
Zuck: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
Friend: what!? how’d you manage that one?
Zuck: people just submitted it
Zuck: i don’t know why
Zuck: they “trust me”
Zuck: dumb fucks

@jomc good piece! But the last couple paragraphs fall flat - seems like it's always been the users who have been confounded. I've long been skeptical of FB and I think if I read this ten years ago (perhaps I did!) I would react similarly to how I do now. Except for one big difference, in those ten years I've been radicalized to the importance of by building great, walkable, highly socially connected, diverse neighborhoods. I see everything through the lens of the spaces we occupy.

@jomc Thanks for this great thread! Terranova's 2000 work on free labor in the "social factory" is an important precursor, including an analysis of the advertising business model (though not data brokers or targeted advertising).

@jomc I would definitely include Dave Eggers' novel/speculative fiction The Circle (2012) in this list.

There was a so-close-in-spirit-maybe-it's-plagiarism controversy re The Circle / Boy Kings, but Eggers insisted he had never read Boy Kings.

@jomc I can say that at Wired from 2010-2012 we were pushed to cover Facebook as a business story, not so much from our immediate editors, but from above. Gadgets were in one vertical, and all social media fell under the business vertical. Twitter (and weirdly Google+) could be covered for their culture, but Facebook was a steady drumbeat to the IPO, what was the mobile strategy, would they build a phone, etc. That’s what got promoted: stories about identity, user experience, politics got buried

@jomc I remember when Yahoo sued Facebook (a suit that ultimately came to nothing), we had to drop everything we were doing to cover it, even though we had a law and tech vertical! It’s not that they weren’t interested in negative stories, but they all had to be about the business, not the culture or what was happening on the site itself. Or very little of it.

@jomc danah boyd's It's Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens is another one worth reading, it came out in 2014 but focused a lot on examining the MySpace era and the MySpace to Facebook transition and centered on the youth usage and experience.

@jomc Also, although it's not specifically social centric, I think Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It from 2008 is an important one to go back and look at to understand the transition from being desktop based to mobile based, something that definitely effected the way a lot of social media tools were built and adopted by the public.

@jomc thank you so much - have book marked for assignment 😉👍

@jomc I thought social media, as in content hosted on centralized commercial infrastructure, was inevitable.
No one wanted to install their own software. Personal hosted websites, Phpbb forums, usenet groups, irc were all gone.

@jomc I find it’s still only considered to be a serious topic in certain contexts in the UK — normally once a provable harm has emerged at scale. Observation and critique of emergent trends still has a very limited audience, with many constrained in their conception of what may or may not be serious.

@jomc @blaine In 2014/15, a public health and epi friend tried to fund a project on rise of anti-vax in online social networks — particularly facebook. Zero takers. Feedback was that it would be of limited impact.

Hindsight is 20/20, etc.

@jomc That’s depressing. I remember having conversations in early Indymedia networks (in 2002-2005 roughly) about how Google introducing its algorithm was going to destroy the internet as we knew it. Everything we were afraid of came true & worse.

@jomc as a former member of the Facebook PR team, I can confirm. Media were so eager to get access & use FB in their headlines, they usually didn’t kick the tires on company talking points. When the scrutiny finally showed up, the company was unprepared & indignant at not being taken at their word.

@jomc yeah sorry but there was. LOT of great work being done well earlier than that

@jomc I can't comment on who it is that wasn't seeing FB as a serious topic, but there are definitely pre-2016 publications on Google Scholar that mention FB. And pre-2009 articles that mention blogs. But I'm sure it is fair to say that the elites in some academic field or other did not take such work seriously. I do know that blogs were pretty hot among academics in the late 2000s.

@pamelaoliver there’s quite a difference between facebook (corporate, centralized) and blogs (largely decentralized on the web). And there’s been a lot of interesting research in recent years about how much more funding and resources have been devoted to growing the tech beat in journalism and academia, I’ve covered the industry for twenty years and watched it grow from niche to A1 story-worthy

@jomc Sorry, not trying to pick a fight. Just as an academic, we get picky about "nobody was writing" kinds of statements when there were actually published articles. Facebook was in fact the topic of academic articles before 2016. In fact, there are academic articles about Facebook listed in Google Scholar that were published before 2009. You said "taking seriously" not "writing," but surely the people who published those articles took it seriously.

@pamelaoliver Yes, and in the post immediately following the one you responded to, I listed many examples myself

@jomc I think people fail to understand how exponential growth happens. I've noticed that with real estate development. It seemed slow when I was a kid and there was still a lot of nature around the towns I used to live. Now I feel lucky to see anything green anymore. It was always going to happen.

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