Disruptors Disrupted

Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to share a couple drinks with me in the last four or five years has heard a version of this rant: disruption is just tech speak for “we don’t have to play by the same rules as existing competitors.” Let me crow for a minute. This has been a week of validation for my theory.

First, let me clarify my ranty position. I view disruptive business models, like Uber or Facebook, not as inventive or novel applications of technology to an unsolved problem or market inefficiency. Instead, I view their very models as being predicated upon not having to play by the same professional standards and regulatory policies.

Let’s look at Uber first. Sure, their app made ordering a ride really easy. They could have sold that software to existing cab companies for a tidy sum. They didn’t. Instead, they wanted to disrupt the cab industry. Cool. No one likes cabs. They did it by shifting the cost and risk to drivers and advertised it as part of the “gig economy.” Gig economy is just a bullshit term for low-paying, part-time work.  By their own words, “Uber is a technology platform. Our smartphone apps connect driver-partners and riders.” See, they just connect people who want to drive with people who want to ride! All for the low, low price of 30-40% of the ride cost! That is technology, not transportation!

Uber sample

They do not purchase cars. Drivers do. They don’t maintain the vehicles. Drivers do. Don’t worry, they totally negotiated a couple of minor deals for you! They do not manage driver pools– the riders do by rating drivers! If something goes wrong, it is not Uber’s fault. Blame the driver. Boom, disrupted!

Facebook, and the rest of the social media companies, are similarly disrupting the traditional media ecosphere. They are tech companies, not publishers! They are not responsible for anything posted on their platforms. That is the user’s fault. It isn’t Facebook’s responsibility to ensure that the “news” posted on their site has any validity. Why should they have to tell you that Alex Jones claiming the Sandyhook massacre never happened and that the grieving parents are despicable actors trying to ruin America is completely false and disgusting? You the user can decide!

Alex Jones is an extreme example, but he is hardly alone. Remember all those fake Russian political pages? Not Facebook’s problem. Until Congress called Mark Zuckerberg in. The President of the United States uses Twitter to spread lies and misinformation. In the past, a journalist would have questioned and challenged his account. Articles in the newspaper on the evening broadcast would mention that say a claim that liberal Californians are dumping water into the ocean that could be used to fight fires was an outright lie. Twitter has no such responsibilities– they are just a tech company. It is just a platform for discourse. According to Jack Dorsey, rather than Twitter embracing an editorial role as a publisher, it is the responsibility of journalists to critically “document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.” Right. Because journalists with hundreds of followers can really easily combat powerful celebrities with millions of followers with their own “opinions.”

Oh, and they also are well within their rights to collect data on you that they can sell to advertisers or foreign governments that want to influence our democracy.

The era of no rules for disruptive tech companies is coming to an end. It was always going to happen this way. This is a case study in why capitalism in a democratic society requires some measure of regulation. Avoiding risk, cost, and responsibility for their actions was never going to last. The spurious argument that they are tech companies doesn’t pass the smell test. Pretending that you are not a transportation company in order to avoid the regulation was not going to last. Pretending that “social networks” that derive their profits from advertising/data sales from people consuming content they host and promote is not media is similarly laughable. Suddenly, you are not so much leaner, nimble, or efficient. You are just avoiding the professional standards of the industry you have joined.

Rejecting the idea that publishers are responsible for the quality of what appears on their platforms is bullshit. Hiding behind vague user rules and definitions of “hate speech” is equally weak. No one thinks you, Facebook, banned Alex Jones because he finally said something too hateful– the jackass is nothing but hate. You finally banned him because the public pressure was mounting that you turned a blind eye to his lies in the name of profits. No one is buying your argument, Twitter, that other publishers and journalists should uphold the standards of the publishing industry on your platform for you, for free. Fuck you, Jack Dorsey. You want to fancy yourselves as providing a voice for all. In practice, you have created platforms that amplify the powerful voices of other corporations, celebrities, and popular politicians through direct publishing and then demand others do the hard work of uncovering lies and promoting the truth.

The banning of Alex Jones is just the beginning. For Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other big social media companies to survive moving forward they will have to develop publishing standards. They will have to punish “content authors” who publish demonstrably false information. Simply removing the offending posts will not suffice. Any journalist who lied as often and as flagrantly as Alex Jones would never be published again. If you are unwilling to ban users, then some sort of flag needs to be applied to false information published on your platform. Asking Maggie Haberman to do the job for you (for free) is bullshit. She has enough paid work to do. If you refuse to do this yourself expect the public to force it on you, and in much more cumbersome and costly ways. The choice is yours.

This is how life in a democratic society works.

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