One (of the many, obvs) aspects of Benedict Evans’ writing is the very helpful way he keeps breaking out into analogies, looking for ever-improving relevance for the topic being considered.

A recent topic being discussed by Benedict Evans and others is that simply breaking up the likes of FB into their constituent apps/networks would not address the real social network-related problems afflicting society right now.

At face value, I agree, and was stuck trying to think how we could do something more effective about it. Then an analogy appeared.

As a thought experiment, I would like to try out: society’s handling of alcohol as an analogy for society’s handling of social networks. There appear to be quite a few overlaps.

Drinking alcohol / being on social networks

  • can easily be addictive
  • affects your behaviour
  • some evidence that a little bit can be good for you
  • lots of evidence that too much can be bad for you
  • some people (and groups) are overly vulnerable to it
  • you say things under the influence you might not say otherwise (good and bad)
  • large groups under the influence can easily get out of control
  • large groups, with no limits or controls, generally turn nasty
  • mopping up afterwards is not very effective

For alcohol

  • many societies impose strict limits on the sale/use thereof
  • there is a duty of care on sellers to not allow their customers to self-harm
  • there aren’t many social concerns, as such, about the sizes of the businesses selling the alcohol, but there are societal concerns about the amount of alcohol being consumed per person, sold to whom, timings, impact on town centres and general health, policing costs, etc.
  • specific rules limiting sales on high alcohol-content drinks
  • there are checks in place to ensure that sellers adhere to the rules

This feels like a more useful line of thinking than simply saying Facebook itself is too big and should be broken up.

What is too big?

Perhaps what is too big is the size of each individual social network? Perhaps the type and connectivity of each network should be considered?

‘Breaking up Facebook!’ by peeling off WhatsApp does not address the fact that WhatsApp itself is still a monster social network, similarly the ‘blue’ Facebook network, Twitter, MMO games, YouTube, and all the rest.

Simply sub-dividing WhatsApp into 1000 smaller, disconnected, better managed networks, maybe still all owned by Facebook (who cares?), might be part of what is needed.

Other analogies

  • the airline industry and its approach to passenger safety
  • regulating broadcasters’ reality tv shows and tabloid talk shows
  • managing safety at festivals and concerts

… continues into Notes on … Imposing a duty of care on social network providers