Would I, Facebook asked the other day, like to do some special upload to mark the third anniversary of my Facebook friendship with Michael. No I would not. I have known Michael for more than half a century. He is my brother.
This was a useful reminder that Facebook is a large computer masquerading as a social service. It does not really know you, or care about you. It is like the Transport Department: interactions are polite, but based entirely on a few simple rules.
This is not my only quarrel with Facebook. It has become clear that Facebook makes an innovative contribution to political life. It allows people to say two incompatible things simultaneously. It is a paradise for liars.
With old media you had to make a choice. You could support an idea, or oppose it. More complicated positions on the fence was also available, but risked attracting abuse from both sides. What you could not do was tell the people who supported the idea that you agreed with them, and the people who opposed it that you agreed with them also. Because everything you said was going out to both groups.
On Faceb0ok this is not the case. You can tell the people who like guns that you support them, and tell the people who want guns banned that you agree with them, and as they are not on speaking terms they will never know.
This is partly our fault, of course. My mind boggles at the thought that many people now rely on Facebook for news. Having a computer pick which posts you see is acceptable if we are dealing with cat videos or pictures of food. But having your news chosen on the basis of what you last looked at or “liked” is a recipe for disaster.
Most of the perennial issues are perennial because they are difficult and complicated. Facebook’s system produces an automatic drift towards palatable, over-simplified solutions advanced by… well, people like Donald Trump.
There are other worries about Facebook. I recommend an entertaining novel called “I hate the internet”, by Jarett Kobek. Mr Kobek is an exuberantly radical writer with a nice line in witty one-liners like “The John F. Kennedy School of Government, an institution where war criminals taught the global elite how to rule with an iron fist”, or “marriage, a social tradition where sex is legitimised through shared bank accounts”.
Mr Kobek’s beef with the internet generally is that it has become a place where a few big businesses make oodles of money by selling advertising space next to content which they have not paid for.
There is of course no such thing as a free lunch. Everything on Facebook has been created by someone. And if we exclude the Macedonian teenagers making up lurid stories about Hilary Clinton on a cash-per-click basis, most of these contributors are doing it for nothing.
Facebook has this nice way of asking innocent looking questions: your name, your school, your age, your job, so that they can “improve their service”. But the answers to these questions, mingled with the equally free offerings of other people, can be packaged and sold. Space can be sold. Access to your newsfeed can be sold. The virtual you can be sold.
It is ironic that the internet, once offered as an anarchic liberated space in which individual diversity could flourish, has fallen into the clutches of a few giant corporations whose tentacles are difficult to escape. And the selling ads by offering free content line seems very popular.
When you Google something, which I do all the time, you are directed to someone else’s website. Usually for me its Wikipedia, which is the result of a great deal of voluntary effort by other people who are not paid by Google.
You could say this is a sort of 20th Century theme. Mr Kobek traces it back to the people who invented Superman, and other comic book characters who are now multi-million dollar franchises. These lucrative fantasies were originally developed and drawn by people who were paid by the hour. Their employers owned the copyright.
Indeed the calls for copyright reform to which we are often subjected are based on a deception. The purpose of copyright is not to protect artists, but the corporations who profit from their work. The length has to be increased occasionally to protect the interests of Walt Disney’s ghost, which would turn in its grave if Mickey Mouse emerged into the public domain.
It is difficult to fight back against all this. I gave up my iPhone a few months ago because I was fed up with its constant attempts – loyally supported by my Apple computer – to recruit me to all sorts of iThings run by the Apple empire.
See also: Young people who rely on social media for news are more dissatisfied with gov’t – poll
I now have a Samsung phone, and am bombarded by attempts to recruit me to the Google empire instead. This effort has been abetted by Hong Kong Baptist University, which has put its email service – which I have used for years – onto the Google system.
This is irritating, but at least I can prevent the computer and the phone from talking to each other. This is not technically impossible, but I have not switched it on. I am fed up with having domestic appliances plotting behind my back.