It’s All Fun and Games Until Facebook Starts Losing Money

December 13, 2011 § 3 Comments


Over the last few months, I’ve had the very cool and sometimes incredibly weird opportunity to talk to all kinds of media people and academics about my research, particularly the stuff I’ve done with Facebook memorial page trolling. Although I’m grateful for (if a little confused by, since what the hell do I know) the platform, I often end up feeling like some kind of ambassador to trolldom. This is a very odd position to occupy, especially when talking about the most emotionally damaging forms of trolling behavior.

Especially weird, and especially difficult to articulate, is my position on Facebook’s position on trolling. Essentially, and as I’ve explained before, I’m deeply suspicious of Facebook’s motives, and find myself at odds with almost every single one of their policies — including their pushback against trolls. But not because I think RIP trolling (it’s important to note that not all FB trolling is RIP trolling; many FB trolls steer clear of memorial pages, but that’s a different conversation) is awesome and above rebuke. Quite the contrary. What I take issue with is the profound cynicism of Facebook’s response, compellingly discussed here.

It might seem surprising for me to use Grant’s argument –which gestures towards and in no uncertain condemns a number of problematic trolling/trollish behaviors– to support the claim that Facebook’s response to trolling is disingenuous and gross. Despite the strange bedfellowsedness of it all, I think Grant’s argument is apt, especially the following:

If it was not clear before, we must understand now that Facebook wasn’t built for us — it was built for the profit of the very few. That Facebook is of value to the public as a communications platform is only important to Facebook insofar as it allows them to sell targeted advertising against our own speech. Its governing document, the Terms of Service, has been repeatedly applied unfairly and without accountability to its users, as its purpose is to legally protect Facebook from our conduct, not provide us with a free space, or even a safe space. 

In other words, it’s not the trolling Facebook cares about. It’s the economic disruption that trolling causes. Currently it’s in their interest to make trolling impossible, but this isn’t so much a victory for the targets of trolling as much as evidence that trolling is bad for business. For one thing, you can’t advertise to trolling sockpuppets. They have no purchasing power, and consequently have no place on the site. When Zuckerberg waxes poetic about “authentic user identity,” this is what he’s describing. Real people are worth money. Fake people are not.

Again, I’m not suggesting that Facebook’s response to trolling is somehow unfair to trolls. Instead, it illustrates the ways in which economic incentives trump whatever lip-service Facebook might be paying to the groups they think are most relevant to their interests. Trolls just so happen to be the canary in this coal mine.


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