August 5, 2021

Facebook on Trial.

In addition to their liberal tilt, Millennials are the first generation to be brought up on social media.  Mark Zuckerberg, himself a Millennial, was born in 1984, and his “genius,” if you call it that, created the platform for much of Millennial culture.  Launched in 2004, Facebook quickly became the favorite site for Millennials as well as others.

During congressional testimony Tuesday, Zuckerberg began his prepared remarks by stressing that “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company.”  Indeed it is, and in this it reflects the values of its users.  In what follows, although he acknowledged its failure to restrain Cambridge Analytica and other bad actors, Zuckerberg portrayed the company as primarily a “tool for good.”

Strictly speaking, one could say Facebook is not primarily a tool for good: it is a capitalistic enterprise, and a successful one.  Zuckerberg claims that his top priority has been “connecting people,” not profit.  I would admire him more if he had frankly stated that he is a businessman who has found a way to make a great deal of money off the site’s users.

Facebook reflects, and to an extent creates, Millennial values.  It operates not just as a “neutral platform,” but as an instigator of Millennial culture.  That culture is intensely progressive, naïvely idealistic, and thoroughly nonjudgmental.  (“It’s all good,” as Millennials like to say.)  Trusting, openness, and “liking” (on and off Facebook) are values engrained in Millennial thinking.  Skepticism and critical thinking are less common.

Millennial culture is distinctive in that it is the product of a remarkable period of global affluence and security beginning with the fall of Soviet communism in 1991.  Unlike previous generations – the Silent Generation growing up in the shadow of WWII and the Great Depression and the Boomers with their Depression-era parents and the challenge of the Vietnam War, the Millennial generation is the product of a remarkable period of global peace and prosperity.

In this they may seem fortunate, but they are not.  As Milton put it in his verse play Comus, “A virtue untested is no virtue at all.”  Except for 9/11, which many Millennials barely remember, and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, also a fading memory, the Millennials have seen little of war or economic challenges.  They have grown up in a bubble believing, as apparently does the leading Millennial historian Yuval Noah Harari, that the bubble will never burst.  (Harari, author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future, asserts in the latter book that wars, plagues, and economic depressions are a thing of the past.)

Mark Zuckerberg, one of the pied pipers of this coddled generation, was pressed hard in Tuesday’s congressional hearings.  Deflecting questions as to whether he would support regulation, he remained composed while insisting that Facebook will do better at self-regulation in the future.  The most important point of his defense, however, had nothing to do with Facebook privacy policies.  It was Zuckerberg’s insistence that the fundamental nature of Facebook is a platform for maximum “sharing” of personal information and that it is for this very reason that two billion users have signed up.  Facebook, in effect, was created by its users.  That point seems incontrovertible.

What’s remarkable is not Facebook’s behavior, which, despite its smiley-face persona of serving the greater good, is actually engaged in making money; it’s a generation of users intent on unzipping their private lives to a world of “friends,” many of whom they have never met.  This narcissistic behavior is not restricted to Facebook.  “Selfie” and “tweet” are Millennial creations as well.

To me, that behavior seems embarrassing and silly (self-important and exhibitionist are other terms that come to mind), but for those who have known nothing but affluence and security, the self-assurance of Facebook users may seem quite normal.

I am not defending Facebook.  In his testimony, Zuckerberg often insisted that Facebook does not sell user data.  Instead, it uses data to “improve user experience” by targeting ads to users.  OK, Facebook does not sell data, but it certainly monetizes data.  That may be viewed as improving user experience.  Or it may be seen as pressuring consumers to buy based on personal information.  To me, Zuckerberg’s repeated insistence that he is not primarily interested in profit is unconvincing.

The most incisive questioning of the day was that of Sen. Ted Cruz, who grilled Zuckerberg on reported Facebook censorship of conservative opinions.  Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook operates out of the “leftwing” culture of Silicon Valley, implying that at least some of his 14,000 content-reviewers may hold bias against conservative views.  I would go much farther.  The question is not whether there are a few rogue employees censoring conservatives; it is whether a systemic culture of political bias exists not just at Facebook, but at Google, Yahoo, and other Silicon Valley companies.

In the end, Facebook is a private company devoted to profit-making, but it is also a company with enormous political and cultural influence.  Privacy concerns and concerns about other forms of user abuse are legitimate, but the “solution” is not regulation.  It is, quite simply, don’t use Facebook.

To my way of thinking, most of what transpires on Facebook is a waste of time anyway.  Why would any rational person spend hours perusing a “friend’s” photos of a humdrum luncheon – if that’s the sort of thing Facebook users do all day – when he could be reading books like Mario Livio’s Is God a Mathematician?, T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, or the Library of America edition of Poe’s poetry and tales, some of the books now on my desk?

That leads to another point about the Millennial generation: they don’t read in a serious way.  Madeline Hill, a Millennial herself, points out that Millennials have plenty of time to read, but they’re just too absorbed by social media, or too lazy, to do so.  According to one source, Millennials spend 18 hours a day consuming social media, with 5.4 hours of it devoted to user-created content.  That doesn’t leave much time for War and Peace.

Not to be too hard on Millennials, they are the product of their times, as were the Boomers and the generations before.  The Boomers had their own issues with “untested virtue” and lack of application, yet most of them grew up, as I’m sure most Millennials will.  The Boomers “grew up” not just with Vietnam and Watergate, but after they married, entered the workforce, and underwent years of responsibility as breadwinners and homemakers.  The Millennial generation, already the largest component of the U. S. workforce, will do so as well.

The greater testing may still lie ahead.  The Millennial values – essentially nonjudgmental, atheistic, socialistic, and self-absorbed – are not the sort that sustain a person through hard times.  Their Facebook culture won’t be altered in any significant way by congressional hearings or media exposure.  It can only change as a result of testing.

For many years to come, the Millennial generation will continue to frequent Facebook and other social media sites, disclose their personal information online, and fawn over socialists like Bernie Sanders who promise to postpone their day of reckoning by canceling student loans, offering “free” health care for all, and providing guaranteed employment with a “living wage” regardless of ability or application.

The underlying cultural values that pervade Facebook won’t change any time soon.  America’s Millennials are the product of unprecedented affluence and security.  Over time, they will change – they may even become conservatives – but only when affluence and security are threatened.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Source: American Thinker