Facebook is an imperialist nation, and people are its colonies

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/12/28/facebook-is-an-imperialist-nation-and-people-are-its-colonies.html

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Not to defend Facebook, but I’m genuinely wondering, how has it destroyed languages?


Not killed in this case, but the Anglo-centric design of nametags and hashtags in Facebook (and other social media platforms) has been bad for languages where words have more declensions. For example, in Lithuanian nouns have the basic nominative case, used for names:

“This is a theater” → “Čia yra teatras

but there are also other declensions depending on the role of the word in the sentence, e.g.:

“I’m going to the theater” → “Einu į teatrą
“I’m in the theater” → “Esu teatre

But if we happen to be talking about a particular Theater which has a Facebook page called “Teatras”, and we want to tag it in a post, we can only ever use the nominative case - the one form used in the page title. So to say “I’m going to the Theater”, instead of the grammatically correct “einu į Teatrą” we can only use “einu į Teatras”, which is understandable but obviously wrong, much like cartoon caveman speech (“me go theater”). Whereas the other example, “esu Teatras”, can not be used at all, because instead of “I’m in the Theater” it reads as “I am Theater”, and we’d need a longer sentence to convey the intended meaning.


This is how languages tend to evolve, though. Latin and Ancient Greek had a similar dependency on cases, but Italian and Modern Greek have, like English, lost their cases over time. Even Old English once had cases (which Modern English still has parts of especially in pronouns – “He has the ball” vs “I gave the ball to him”.)


The use of the term “evolve” has a built-in self-justifying connotation of “improvement” that doesn’t actually apply.
If we’re going to use that metaphor, though, it’s important to remember that actual evolution is 1.) not a means by which things improve, 2.) has no moral/ethical character, 3.) always entails death. So you could just as readily say “This is how languages tend to die.”

Misapplying a scientific metaphor is a way to render oppressive political and colonial actions seemingly benign, objective, and inevitable, and is typically done by those in a position of privilege (e.g. an English-speaker describing a language forced to become more English-like a a result of technologies made by English-speakers).

So,yeah, I guess death of languages and cultures may be “evolution” by some definitions, but that descriptor by no means makes that death an unproblematic or desirable thing.


Linguistic evolution isn’t a metaphor; it’s real evolution every bit as real as the biological form. In fact, knowledge of linguistic evolution actually helped Darwin find it in the biological realm – he had read a book that demonstrated that Sanskrit shared a common ancestor with Greek and Latin and realized the same reasoning could be used to study the relationships among animals.

And while linguistic “improvement” may be in the eye of the beholder, it is just a fact that languages that survive are not static but change over time, and one change that seems to be common is the loss of grammatical cases. There doesn’t seem to be many (if any) cases of languages going the other direction. This is interesting.


Finally - something the left and the right can agree on = Facebook is bad.

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Well, we Lithuanians pride ourselves for having the most archaic living Indo-European language, with a history of surviving attempts to suppress it out of existence by an actual empire, so it doesn’t come naturally to see changes as automatically positive. But even aside from the cultural preservation aspect, it would be nice if the evolution of the language happened as an organic internal process, and not as a side effect of some programmers from an entirely different culture deciding that it is too much bother to implement at least a Wikipedia-style distinction between link text and target title.


The article is very interesting, and LaFrance provides some very good points on how the things are now, but unfortunately there is not much on how they should be.
For example, she talks about facebook tweaking the algorithm to give more visibility to NPR and less to extremist sources, but she doesn’t talk at all if a private company should have this kind of power, and if not, who should have it?

Another point that seems neglected is when she (justly) criticizes facebook and other platforms for having too much data and control over it.
But, considering the fringe contents, the alternatives, a protocol for social media or smaller platforms, are much worse if you want to stop the spread of malicious content, because there is no central authority able to do it.
Facebook and twitter are a great to for law enforcement agencies, because it makes it easy to find the “bad guys”, the same way that backpage and craiglist were a big help to catch sexual trafficking (and after their dismissals all the activity was dispersed and went dark).

The only point i didn’t like in the article was that she gives no attention to the contradiction that facebook is both a megascale network, where everyone is connected ti each other, and several small silos created by filter bubbles.
Just accepting that it is both put too much focus on the algorithm, and ignores the agency of the users, and makes it looks like if the companies nerds harder, there will be a magical solution.

It feels that the message is that facebook is bad (indeed it is) and it should be destroyed, but then there is no consideration for what will be lost or if some of the problems are inherent to facebook or will continue on the new alternative.

by default, facebook autotranslates foreign languages, making the usual mistakes. Depending on your appetite for metaphor, the violent analogies may suggest themselves.

Back in the days of modems and BBSs, there was a pretty simple expectation of social media: people would post their thoughts, and other people would log in and read them.

I got really accustomed to my feed being the same -only longer - every time I logged in. When I started seeing posts from the last time I was on, I knew I was done, and I should log off and give people time to post more things.

After watching The Social Dilemma, I can see why its a bad idea to use anything else.

I don’t know if this counts as “destroying” languages but allowing their business to expand into regions where few to none of the people working at Facebook spoke the dominant language meant that they had no way to monitor how people were using their platform.

For example, the company happily signed up countless new members in Myanmar before they bothered to hire anyone who could speak Burmese. As a result, Myanmar became one of several places where Facebook helped facilitate actual genocide.

As horrifying as Facebook is in the English-speaking world it’s even worse elsewhere.


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