Margrethe Vestager is saying that the Facebook outage shows the need for more competition in social media. And she’s right, if you enjoyed that outage and would like to make it permanent, not in the sense that you will stop getting any social media, but in the sense of crossing half your friends off of your friends list forever. For that is what will happen in a world of “fifty different Facebooks” in which, by antitrust design, you are no longer permitted to belong to the same social media platform to which everyone else belongs.
What the Facebook outage tells us is not that we need more competition in social media; it tells us that we need more regulation. That Facebook is a public utility and if it does not voluntarily pour resources into service quality, as public utilities do, then we must force it to do that.
If Facebook had a smart, Theodore Newton Vail-like CEO, however, the political fallout from this outage would be enough to focus Facebook’s mind.
Focus it on service.
Because public utilities are through and through political animals, satisfying political constituencies by delivering to them the services they demand, on pain of intemperate, unreasoning, wrathful antitrust breakup.
Indeed, the only rationality about antitrust in this context is that the anger that drives it makes it a credible threat in spite of its unreason, rather the way that the likelihood that a thug will kill you for the slightest offense—and hence do time, quite irrationally, over nothing—puts you on your best behavior around him. Antitrust intimidates. That doesn’t make it rational, but it does make it useful.
But is competition really irrational here? What about interoperability? Yes, of course we could make Facebook interoperable with other social media platforms, enabling us to take our data with us and so to switch with ease and even to use one social media platform to interact with users of other platforms. That would promote competition.
But think, please, about where this takes us: back to the Internet.
The decentralized communications system in which everyone is supposed to own their own server, which sometimes works and sometimes crashes, or rent space on someone else’s, which also sometimes works and sometimes not. And there is some standard-setting body out there promulgating protocols governing communication between these servers, the rules of which are voluntary and sometimes followed and sometimes not followed, enabling the servers sometimes to talk and sometimes not to talk.
It is the world of the bug, of feeling proud that, after 27 hours of hacking around and reading message boards, you finally got it to work.
It is the world in which the only reliable, stable mode of human interaction was: email.
And even that wasn’t all that reliable, because it was the target of avalanches and avalanches of spam, itself a bug of decentralized networking that was only really solved, and then still imperfectly, by the centralization of email service under a single roof—Gmail—enabling a single artificial intelligence to learn to identify and filter the spam effectively.
The whole point of social media, what made us flee from the Internet and embrace Facebook, or its competitors (which social media platform didn’t really matter—it only mattered that everyone embraced the same one, allowing it to substitute for the Internet) was that these platforms weren’t platforms at all in the sense of an open field upon which anyone can play; they were integrated, centralized, organized spaces in which engineers could solve all of the problems of the Internet because they could control the entire space.
That’s right: they were never meant to be platforms; we loved them, from the beginning, precisely because they were walled gardens.
You couldn’t choose your own server or run your own software or handle almost any of your own configurations. And you didn’t have to run some client side program that sometimes made a connection to the network and sometimes didn’t. Facebook did all of that for you, and it was the network, so if you could log into Facebook you always had a connection.
That is what made possible a level of service quality so complete that the recent Facebook crash was memorable in the way that a New York City blackout is memorable: because it is rare (which is not to say that we shouldn’t insist that Facebook do better, just was we insist that the power company do better). It is also what made it possible to have feeds and likes and chat and friends all integrated buglessly into a single place.
The desire for interoperability is the desire to return to the Garden of Internet of the 1990s, the one we left because it wasn’t, actually, Eden.
Well, why can’t we have it both ways? Decentralize the administration but mandate the protocols and service quality and so on? The answer is: of course we can. But if we’re going to regulate all aspects of service, and hence retain the centralization of social media through the medium of the government rather than a private corporate entity, wouldn’t it be easier to, um, just regulate Facebook?
But that would deny us the pleasure of killing it.