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Facebook's outage proved we need it, bad business practices and all

Facebook has become for millions of people their primary tool for interacting with the world.
Photo illustration: A thumbs up sign and thumbs down sign made up of people walking.
MSNBC / Getty Images

During the pandemic I had two primary obsessions. The first was records. In May 2020, I purchased my first turntable since high school and immediately set out to build a top-notch vinyl collection. The second obsession, sports cards, is a bit more difficult to admit. When my brother and I were kids, collecting baseball cards was one of our greatest childhood obsessions. He mentioned that he was getting his oldest son into the hobby and urged me to take a look at the binders of cards that had been sitting in my closet untouched, and, quickly, I developed a middle-aged fixation.

I know all the reasons why I should loathe Facebook, but I would prefer to live in a world where the Facebook platform exists.

I listened to podcasts, read articles, went to card stores, talked to the owners and shopped on eBay, but I found that the greatest fount of information came from the website everyone loves to hate: Facebook. This year I joined a host of Facebook groups: NFL Football Cards, NBA Basketball Cards, Vintage Baseball, Rookie Cards and others. I shopped for cards or talked about the hobby with people like me, some of whom were rediscovering their love of collecting.

I know all the reasons why I should loathe Facebook — and truth be told, I love to hate Facebook, too — but I would prefer to live in a world where the Facebook platform exists.

As for the Facebook company, well, that’s a different story. Its business practices are appalling. The site has become a tool for propagandists, sex traffickers and drug cartels. In Myanmar, Facebook played a key role in spurring violence against the ethnic Rohingya. The company’s executives not only refuse to properly regulate Facebook’s users, but they clearly see the financial benefits of allowing extremism and misinformation to run rampant on its site.

A recent Wall Street Journal article detailing the ways in which Instagram (owned by Facebook) causes young girls to develop body image issues made me nauseous — and that it said Facebook knew about this corrosive impact convinced me not to let my young kids anywhere near the app.

On Monday, when the site went down for several hours, I joined many on Twitter, that other much-derided social media site, in mocking Facebook’s public pratfall and expressing no sense of urgency in seeing it get back online.

But then I thought of all those card sellers who rely on Facebook to put money in their pockets — and collectors who use the site to search not just for cards but also community. As I tried in vain to reach my brother who lives overseas and with whom I only communicate via WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), I remembered how many people around the world depend on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to talk to one another. There’s a reason why so many people continue to gravitate to Facebook: It remains an extraordinary — and likely irreplaceable — tool for bringing people together.

Indeed, my records obsession was born, in part, out of a rekindled friendship with a vinyl junkie with whom I attended high school. How did we become friends again? You guessed it: Facebook.

For all its many faults, Facebook allows people to communicate online, find people with like-minded interests and reconnect with friends and family. Love it or hate it, Facebook has become for millions of people their primary tool for interacting with the world.

To Facebook’s critics, the site is a viper’s nest. They’re not wrong. Whenever I make the mistake of scrolling through Facebook’s news feed and see the vacuous, often misleading news stories the site bizarrely thinks I’d be interested in, my blood pressure rises. But while the bathwater may be dirty, the baby is not.

For those who can’t just walk out their door and make a new friend, Facebook is a lifeline.

Indeed, for those whose social circle is extraordinarily limited; or who can’t just walk out their door and make a new friend; or who are buoyed by the chance to see what new adventures their friends and family are up to (or tell the world what they are up to); or don’t know many people who, for example, like to collect baseball cards, Facebook is a lifeline and a life preserver. That’s even more true during a global pandemic that’s kept millions of us for home for much of the past 18 months.

Of course, there are other ways to communicate online — and many people I know have walked away from Facebook, fed up with its business practices. I’ve often debated doing the same. But adapting to new technologies is easier said than done. And if you’re a frequent Facebook user or if you make your livelihood on the site or supplement your income with it, imagine trying to re-create those connections on a new and different site. It would be basically impossible.

I wish Facebook could be replaced tomorrow by a better, more responsible company that lived by its ethos of bringing people together rather than the mindless pursuit of greater profit. In an ideal world, Facebook the corporation would not simply be broken up, or more heavily regulated, it would become, in effect, a public utility.

But what I don’t want — what none of us should want — is for Facebook the platform to simply disappear. It’s easy to bemoan the corrosive impact that social media has on our lives and how it often amplifies the voices of the most extreme and dishonest. But like any new technology, there is both good and bad, and if one steps back and honestly assesses the impact of sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, the positive more than outweighs the negative.

Facebook’s critics are not wrong to disparage the site, but if they fail to recognize how essential it has become for tens, even hundreds, of millions of people around the world, they’re missing a big part of the story.