Pamela Paul and Cecilia Kang on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Internet
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Author and editor of the New York Times Book Review Pamela Paul and New York Times journalist Cecilia Kang join hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to consider how social media and search engines have changed everyday life. First, Paul provides a nostalgia tour of pre-internet life, and reads from her new book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet, a wake-up call to identify the elements that might be worth saving. Then Kang, who has covered Facebook for 15 years, analyzes the globally dominant company’s relentless focus on growth, and reads from her new book with co-reporter Sheera Frenkel, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. Kang also considers the impact of information shared by former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen.
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Excerpt from a conversation
with Pamela Paul
Whitney Terrell: I wonder if, as an editor and reviewer, you have noticed the ways that the internet has influenced novels or short stories. I’m not thinking so much about the way novels reference Twitter or Facebook, which they do, but how or if novels might be changing to compete with the internet and the changes that you’re describing in the book?
Pamela Paul: I think a lot of that depends on the age of the reader. I don’t think that we’re necessarily seeing a full answer to that question yet. But I will say that when you talk to writers of young adult literature, for example, and they’re obviously in the thick of it with a digital native reading audience, they basically say you have to hook the reader in by the second page, like, no one is going to have any patience with a sort of David Foster Wallace technique of trying to alienate your reader for the first 100 pages and kind of hope that those who persisted make it through will be rewarded on page 101. And so I do think that there is a lot competing for people’s attention, and that that may force writers into trying to get that attention.
On the other hand, and I don’t like to be 100 percent negative and pessimistic about everything, some of that’s good. Some books are boring. But also I do think that reading novels, in-depth narratives, can be a kind of antidote to the internet. And I thought it was really interesting during the pandemic when we were all forced into essentially an entirely online life, or many of us were fortunate enough to be able to quarantine during the most dangerous period, and when life got reduced to a screen, what happened is book sales shot up. I think it’s because being thoroughly immersed in an online life made people yearn for some kind of departure, some kind of escape from the kind of, you know, 2-D screen that we’re glued to — many of us all day long.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Also, there is a whole set of kids who kind of seem to think of Facebook, for example, as something for olds.
PP: Oh, Facebook is so uncool. It’s interesting, because many people of our generation, we think, how is Facebook doing so well, when young people don’t want anything to do with it? But they’re not thinking globally? Because, of course, in many countries, like, in India, for example, the entire population, including young people, are on Facebook. So that’s really a very American perspective, to think that young people aren’t using it.
VVG: Right. I mean, all of my relatives overseas… probably one of the reasons I’m having such a difficult time leaving it is because it’s a major way for me to contact my overseas relatives. I think I also have sort of preemptively worried that children and young people wouldn’t read as much, and they read just as much, and they forget to charge their phones. I have a rotary phone in my house attached to the wall, and one of my stepkids likes to go to the phone and have long conversations with herself, and it’s so heartening.
PP: According to this book, these lost things, many of them are lost permanently, but not all of them. And if they are lost, it’s not that we can’t revive them, we can recuperate them. And I think that you’re seeing that, as you mentioned, with young people kind of yearning for things like vinyl, or for paperback books, things that are now kind of relics of a pre-internet era. But I wanted to, when writing about these things, not only note that you can go back, these things are choices, the internet is largely products and services that are being sold to us. We can be selective about the things we choose. And we can also see that some of these things, you know, are multifaceted. It’s not all negative.
So, as you said, reading has not gone away. However, a lot of reading among boys has declined. And that I think, is in part tied to the internet and to gaming and to all of the things that the internet offers. For many boy readers, kids who are cerebral and who might have looked for, you know, books that are kind of fact-finding books, books that are highly visual comic books, there’s a lot online that taps into the needs and interests for that kind of previously bookish boy.
Excerpt from a conversation
with Cecilia Kang
Whitney Terrell: Since the Wall Street Journal first published the Facebook files in early September, practically every major news outlet has analyzed, reported, on those documents, including you for the New York Times. As a journalist who’s been covering Facebook for over 15 years, can you describe what your initial reaction was to the release of these documents, and what you predict their long-term impact will be?
Cecilia Kang: Yeah, I mean, I was surprised on the one hand by just how much Frances Haugen had retrieved with these tens of thousands of pages of documents that showed themes and showed and illustrated issues that were not surprising. And let me explain that. I think a lot of what was revealed in these documents that she took from Facebook supported, first of all, so much of our reporting in our book, the underlying message being that the company has made growth its number one priority. And that there has been a pattern within the company where employees in many different parts of the country are continuously sounding alarm bells and warning of problems that exist pertaining to misinformation, to hate speech, to data privacy problems.
That message is just not being heard enough by the top leaders, and the top leaders are not doing enough to change and to address these warnings and these problems. So I think that the leaks, the revelations, have been incredibly impactful, and that it provides such a comprehensive view of just how the company works from the inside, and how the leadership of Facebook, especially Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO, is calling a lot of his shots and not putting, in some cases, security first, over this drive for growth. I think the impact of this is to be determined. Because, in the moment, a few weeks ago, when Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, was testifying before the Senate, it seemed like things were really going to change, it seemed like that was just like the worst existential crisis moment for Facebook.
We have lawmakers sort of reciprocally raising their hands saying that this is a big tobacco moment for Facebook and big tech, and things are going to really change. And have you heard a lot since? I’m not going to say that things won’t change, that there won’t be some sort of momentum for legislative action, but I do think that the questions of what to do next, and how to hold Facebook accountable are hard. They’re thorny, and they have’t changed in the last few years. I think lawmakers are really grappling with what to do. So the impact really is to be determined.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: What was the moment when you, who have been covering Facebook for 15 years, were kind of like, this is the moment that I have to stop writing? Because every second, there’s breaking news. And then simultaneously, there’s just this fascinating coverage problem, which you’ve just referenced, right, that the problem doesn’t change, also for 15 years. How do you as a writer contend with this?
CK: You nailed this on the head. For us, one of the biggest challenges among the many challenges we had in reporting and writing this book, was knowing when to stop. Because we were covering the story. We were writing this and figuring out what the book would be in real time. We actually went through several versions of what we thought our core arguments would be.
Early on, we thought this is going to be a book about domination and antitrust and data privacy, then we realize, oh, no, this is really shifted toward like speech and misinformation, then we realize, oh, my goodness, it’s actually all of these things. So what’s the underlying problem? Is there sort of a systemic underlying problem of Facebook? And that was a good animating question, because that got us to our final… Well, what we finally concluded would be the theme, which is to look at how the business model that technology has led and has sparked a lot of these problems, and the priority of growth has been through the underlying problem within the company.
So with that in mind, once we figured out what the sort of bedrock problems were at Facebook and what our bedrock arguments would be, then we realized it doesn’t really matter when we stop because they’ll all kind of come back to this foundational issue that we’re exploring, which is you know, the business model. So that made it a little bit easier and made us feel like okay, no matter what happens next, we feel like this will still have a long life, our central arguments, because that is the core problem.
WT: The problem is growth right? The thing that’s good about Facebook, right, the reason that Facebook is is going to be able to weather these problems, I think, is because if you listen to investors, you listen to Wall Street, they’re like look, it’s growing, and we think that this regulatory stuff will blow over, and you should invest there. The minute that this story drops, the coverage on a place like CNBC is totally different than it is in regular, in you know, in media that I normally read like The Times right? And so you’ll hear people on like Fast Money, which is a show that is on every night, say like, yeah, this has happened before, nothing will change.
CK: I think the problem is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re an investor, you see no problems in the actual returns; you’re getting in the share price. If you’re concerned about societal problems, and if you’re concerned about genocide in Myanmar, if you’re concerned about the election, you know, misinformation, and health misinformation around the COVID vaccines, then that’s a different sort of view on what the problem. I think you’re pointing to something that’s really important, which is there’s a really big disconnect with, or delta, I should say, with the the scrutiny of the company and the reputational damage of the company, given just like story after story, and now five years’ running revelations of really systemic problems within the company in terms of these bigger societal problems, and then this business that’s just operating fantastically and super successful.
So I mean, that’s this crazy disconnect. Right now, you see shareholders who say, internally, who are activist shareholders who are trying to change things, but they have no power. Mark Zuckerberg has really all the power on the stock side. There’s not a lot of incentive for the company to change dramatically a business model that is so successful. So the question is what will incentivize the company to truly put in much more into security and safety?
Rectangle Time • How to Raise a Reader • My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books • The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony • Pornified • Parenting, Inc. • By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life • 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet •
Baby Einstein Videos • A Clockwork Orange • David Foster Wallace • Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon • The Good Wife • New York Times Book Review • Talk of the Town, “Spring Rain” by John Updike • Washington Post •
“Whistle-Blower Says Facebook Chooses ‘Profits Over Safety,’” by Cecilia Kang and Ryan Mac • Buzzfeed • NPR • Times of London • McClatchy • Mark Zuckerberg • “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook” by Chris Hughes • Metaverse • Roblox • Sheera Frenkel • “Network Free K.C.: The Free Network Foundation Takes on Google in Kansas City” by Whitney Terrell
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf. Photo of Pamela Paul by Rodrigo Cid. Photo of Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel by Beowulf Sheehan.