Thursday, October 21, 2021

Project Z: The social media writers group

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The idea came about in a blackboard conversation at the Humanities Bloggings when Co-founder and COO Kate Kaumgartner began chatting with President Esther Dyson about starting a way for writers to connect with other writers. (Dyson is the founder of the Esther Dyson Group and one of our advisers.) When several of our contributors suggested ideas and started to describe them in broad strokes, Kaumgartner kept iterating on the idea. After a day or two, she had worked it into a small outline and was amazed at the amount of positive feedback she got.

After only a few weeks, we had a group of writers — including ourselves — supporting the idea, by contributing, by speaking out, and in-person and via email. We didn’t know how it would be received, and made no effort to find out. Our critics may have had their own explanations, but we knew that we were doing something good, and felt inspired to do more of it. So, with the advice and support of our advisers and community, we formed the Facebook Group under the name Project Z.

At first, we stayed focused on building the Group, but after a couple of months as more and more writers joined, we made another decision. “Shrink Facebook to Save the World,” was becoming less of a rallying cry and more of a factual presumption, that Facebook’s scale and reach meant it was getting too big and too powerful, that its activities were weakening the very sources of social exchange it was designed to promote. We hoped to encourage our members to examine the endless flow of information that Facebook churns out and speak out against its abuses.

We soon discovered that the better our message became about the dangers of Facebook’s in-your-face disinformation operations, the more other writers were drawn in. We got a series of invites to panels at the forefront of the Facebook debate: the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Atlantic Council, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. It has been fun, thrilling, inspiring, and sometimes even exhausting to play in this sea of truthfulness. Sometimes, we see the long-term results of that truthfulness, while at other times, like last Friday, Facebook has done the reverse.

We don’t know what social media’s strategic or organizational strategy will be going forward. The Facebook Co-Chairs have made some changes in a bid to address its PR and technology woes. But it is hard to tell how seriously they take their current crisis. We don’t really know which things can still be done in order to restore Facebook’s reputation and which are too late. It was nice to play a small part in helping Facebook’s critics and users realize that it had a long way to go before repairing their pain.

Outsiders may wonder why we put the best writers first. We had a couple of moments of unease about whether we were doing the right thing. But ultimately we realized that, given our limits in terms of relevance, we weren’t in a position to change what was happening. The true value of Project Z — as we saw it — was in taking the question of Facebook seriously in order to offer constructive constructive ideas and actually doing something about them.

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