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Essay

Swimming With the Sharks in Facebook’s World

Our columnist is searching for his own niche in a universe dominated by giants.

Credit…Glynis Sweeny

  • Jan. 14, 2021

My friends, in these difficult and frightening times, humor is more essential than ever. So let’s talk about antitrust law and content monetization.

Funny stuff. Bear with me.

Start with Facebook, which may be in trouble with the government over whether it has gotten too big and powerful.

I’ve been following the lawsuits filed against Facebook closely, because Facebook is where I see the photos of my adorable grandchildren and also keep up with the latest in seditious conspiracy theories.

Astonishingly, these suits aren’t focused on the ways that Facebook, as well as other social media, helped amplify the division and hatred that led up to the storming of the Capitol earlier this month. (Though Facebook has tried to squeeze those messages off the site, and in recent days even blocked President Trump from it.)

The cases, filed by the Federal Trade Commission and more than 40 states, say that the company bought up potential rivals to suppress competition. The suits demand that Facebook undo its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp to make the overall company less dominant across social media. Federal and state authorities are suing Google, too.

At bottom, these giants are just following their instincts. I think the problem is that they are fundamentally sharks.

How these legal battles play out is anyone’s guess. Even if you agree that companies that have gotten too big and powerful need to be brought down a peg, antitrust is a rough tool that can’t fix everything that’s wrong with big tech, and it has side effects, too. Years ago, I reported on another government effort to rein in a major tech company: Microsoft. And before that, I covered the fallout from the antitrust suit that led to the breakup of the AT&T telephone monopoly and the rebirth of the “Baby Bells” as giants in their own right, as well as their subsequent mergers.

Those various lawsuits made lawyers rich, and Bill Gates said the attacks on Microsoft had the effect of making his company more cautious, giving Google an advantage in the race for dominant cellphone operating systems. If that’s true, then it’s possible that what these suits accomplish, in the end, is a kind of bubble-under-the wallpaper effect of pushing great power from one dominant company to another. I’m still typing in Microsoft Word, so in a very important way my life has not improved.

Still, if regulators can possibly cut Facebook down to size, that could mean opportunities for bold entrepreneurial geniuses — maybe even people like me. I am not rich. But I remain optimistic.

Competing directly with Facebook would be too dumb, even for me. Instead, like any consultant, I want to work with the colossal moneymaker, in hopes of getting a little of the excess. If corporations are sharks, we are remoras: suckerfish that hang onto a shark’s body while it swims. We get to eat even smaller parasites off the shark’s skin, and to gobble up scraps of food that fall out of the shark’s mouth. If the remora economy isn’t a model for social media success, I don’t know what is. Chum. Yum!

The trick is figuring out how to swim with the sharks and get some of those scraps from the newly unsettled online world — ideally with the tools that are already in our personal toolboxes. I, for example, already make paragraphs for a living. Could I make more through peddling myself online?

Creative people have begun to ask people to pay them for what they write through sites like Patreon and Substack. If you make a catchy video, YouTube will pay you for bringing in the clicks. “Influencers” on Instagram can make money hawking products while being cool, young and beautiful. But I don’t have video skills, and when it comes to cool, young and beautiful, I am 0 for 3.

How to get those clicks?

Well, one idea immediately comes to mind: videos of me taming lions. That seems cruel, though, to me as well as the lions. I’d get mauled in no time. Also, it’s not like you can just pick up a lion at PetSmart.

Some people apparently made money by livestreaming videos of themselves storming the Capitol, but my legal training tells me that gambit isn’t for me. And besides, it’s been done.

Sex workers put themselves out there on OnlyFans, but that’s not a likely winner for me, either. Last I checked, there wasn’t a big market for photos of gnomish old guys.

What’s left? I am occasionally funny, though my kids might disagree. And my work covering climate change does not give me a lot of opportunities to make people laugh.

But I have come up with a nearly foolproof plan. In the language of venture capital, it is a small-bore but potentially scalable one-on-one entertainment monetization system.

More simply, I will try to get people to pay me for amusing them. As they say in Hollywood, “Funny is money.”

Maybe we could combine laugh remuneration with the cybercurrency phenomenon: Twitcoin? Gigglebucks? I mean, so much of the buzz around online currencies is laughable, especially when it comes to people who might lose millions of dollars because they’ve lost the passwords to their digital wallets.

I tried out this gem of an idea with Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on social media and especially Facebook, which he wrote about in his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us And Undermines Democracy.” But he said only a comparatively few people in social media make real money, or even enough money to pay the rent.

The result, he said, was a “race to the bottom,” which he assured me was not a reference to those suddenly ubiquitous rear-flap pajama ads that show a flash of the model’s derrière.

Nonetheless, I decided to try out my one-to-one humor model in a phone conversation with him.

I mentioned that Facebook, with its huge power and resources, “really knows how to lean in,” a reference to the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote a best seller about, well, leaning in.

Professor Vaidhyanathan is a kind man, and he laughed.

“You chuckled!” I said, putting my plan into action. “Would you be willing to pay me for that? I mean, you could Venmo it to me — ”

That led to a bigger laugh. “A guffaw!” I said. “I should get even more for that, if the system works.”

He chuckled, but barely. “I’m losing ground here,” I said, and envisioned having to send him money.

He tried to be consoling.

“‘Keep your day job’ remains the best advice,” he said. He became truly mirthful, as he added, “If you can.”