Legend has it that it started with a focus group.
And, for once, legend has it right. It did, indeed, start with a focus group. The end, that is. That’s what started. The end started, as it was always going to, with a focus group in Secaucus, New Jersey.
It wasn’t even that Facebook did the focus group themselves. No, we can’t blame Mark for this. Well, we can, but that would be unfair. Maybe unfair is too strong. After all, there’s been a lot of talk about blame and the one thing most people can agree on was that Zuckerberg probably never meant to end the world.
I mean, just look how it affected Facebook’s stock. No-one would do that on purpose.
Except if they hated Facebook.
Which everyone does now.
But, I digress…
So, let’s talk about Lily. And let’s talk about Research Perception. Let’s talk about Jeff. Let’s talk about how this all got started.
Lily was participant 6 in focus group 54-46. She had been chosen at random. Well, as random as being Eddie from Research Perception’s wife’s little sister. She was indicative of a certain demographic. That demographic was “people available to do the focus group”.
The reason behind the focus group was a gradual, but steady, drop off in Facebook activity worldwide. This was alarming, but not to the general public or to general Facebook users who were generally glad to be “over Facebook” and were inevitably drifting towards newest online time wasting novelty. No, it was alarming to Facebook management, Facebook stockholders and, to a lesser extent, Facebook employees.
And so, a massive investigation was taking place into why this drop off was taking place. Yes, Facebook management was being proactive. Or at least they thought they were being proactive because they didn’t understand the meaning of the word, having abused it as a buzz word for so many years. What they were being was reactive. They’d got some news, now they were doing something about it. Reactive: behind the ball. Proactive: ahead of the ball. What was really amazing was that a business run by people of this intellectual calibre could be suffering any difficulties whatsoever. After all, these were people that thought in terms of infinite and on-going growth. How could there ever be problems with that?
But, moving on…
There was a Venn diagram and a Pie chart somewhere, probably in someone’s head, which pinpointed Secaucus, New Jersey as having the perfect demographic make-up for Facebook. Secaucus had, according to Wikipedia, 94.2 males for every 100 females age 18 and over. 7.6% of the population were below the poverty line. A former mayor had been convicted on corruption charges. This mixture of corruption, poverty and uneven distribution of the sexes was prime Facebook territory. But the focus group was made up of Eddie’s wife’s family and friends so it was mostly middle class people. Which meant that corruption was well represented, possibly too well represented. Poverty, as always, never got a look in. Those poor people should get themselves some proper PR.
So, Research Perception’s tailor-made focus group meeting rooms were 1) being fumigated and 2) fictional. The whole business was essentially run by Eddie from Eddie’s garage. A function room in the Meadowlands Plaza Hotel was chosen as an appropriate venue for the focus group to meet.
Eddie considered trying to make a few extra bucks by selling the data to Twitter. He decided against it. At least Facebook had money and revenue streams. All Twitter seemed to have was gamergaters threatening to rape and kill women. Eddie shuddered. It was like Mad Max, except that instead of oiled bondage punks there were lonely and insecure keyboard warriors roaming the online post-apocalyptic landscape.
So in they came to the function room of the Meadowlands Plaza Hotel. These brave few who would ultimately lead us to our destruction. How were they to know what their actions would lead to? Eddie had promised them free coffee and doughnuts. And while he did supply these, the coffee was almost undrinkable. Eddie billed a more expensive brand then he actually used. For Eddie, it was all about milking that cow for all it was worth.
Lily was late. Eddie already had the camera set up and was going into a pre-amble about why they were here, the kind of questions he was going to ask. All that shit that no-one could possibly give a fuck about. So he was annoyed when Lily arrived with both a bang and a whimper.
The bang was as she crashed in the door, already apologising for being late. The door swung wide, hit off the coffee table and swung back, hitting her in the arm. Hence the whimper.
Lily, ah Lily, lovely Lily of the valley as no-one called her. Everyone loved Lily. They really did. She was so funny, you couldn’t help but love her. Yes, everyone loved Lily. Except Lily, of course. Lily started the day by spitting at her own face in the mirror. She would then berate herself in no uncertain terms for being, well, possibly the worst example of humanity yet found.
If depression is, as they say, “anger turned inward” then Lily was, it’s fair to say, a bit depressed.
Or, to put it another way, her black dog was on her and savaging at her throat.
But it wasn’t Lily’s fault that Facebook ended the world, I don’t want you to get that idea. If it was anyone’s fault it was Jeff’s. Jeff didn’t spit in at his face in the mirror in the mornings. Jeff looked in the mirror and admired what he saw. Jeff loved shaving as it gave him some quality me time with his face. I mean… I tempted to say “Fuck Jeff” but he was a human being with hopes and dreams and loves. He just had a lot of self-regard, self-confidence and very little self-awareness.
Exactly the kind of person that was always going to end the world.
Even if it was Jeff who came up with the plan, it was Lily who prompted the idea. She wasn’t even being serious. She was just being funny. Y’know, satirical. But there are always those who will look at the satire and think “You know what? There’s actually an idea in there”.
Jeff was one of those people.
Jeff had being flicking through the focus group report from Research Perception. It was full of graphs and projections and pull quotes in large bold fonts. It was one of these pull quotes that lit the tinder on Jeff’s imagination.
The quote said, “I mean, who has time for a life?”
The quote was from participant 6 in focus group 54-46 and it sent him scrambling (I use this term in a metaphorical rather than literal sense. His scrambling involved him hurriedly looking for a link to the video file and clicking impatiently on it) for the full focus group video.
At first he guffawed at the fat girl as she barged into the focus group halfway through the pre-amble. Then he felt awkward for dismissing her as a fat girl when he realised how attractive he found her. Then he heard her talking and he fell in love.
Poor Jeff. He was one of those die-hards who clung to the belief that women weren’t funny when, in fact, the real issue was that Jeff had very little in the way of a sense of humour. In this way, he was always primed to take what was obviously a kind of sardonic comment on modern life at face value.
“I mean,” said Lily, “who has time for a life?”
Some of the other focus group participants giggled and the audaciousness of her statement. Eddie, though, played it straight. The cameras were on him. He had to look as if he was taking this seriously, even if the subjects didn’t.
“And what do you mean by that?” asked Eddie, hoping for something that didn’t sound like she was taking the complete piss.
“I mean, you’re always trying to project an image on Facebook. Of, like, someone who has a better life than you have. You want to have a timeline full of parties and gigs and friends when your real life is more likely to be full of work, TV and take out. Take concerts, for instance. It’s, like, kinda like when you buy tickets for a concert and then the ticket site wants to post the fact that you’ve bought the tickets onto your wall. That’s kinda lame. You just want to post picture of you at the gig to your wall. You want to show everyone what a great time, what a great life, you’re having. You don’t want to go ‘Oh look I bought some tickets to Bon Jovi’, you want to go ‘Look! Here’s me partying with Bon Jovi’.
“But really, most of the time, you are just too tired for all that partying. And when are you going to find the time to do it anyway? And have you seen the price of concert tickets these days? I mean, why can’t Facebook just say I went to the gig and post some pictures of me there? Why can’t it just say I’m having a great time and leave me out of it?”
Most of the other participants were laughing now. Eddie wasn’t. He made a sour face and said, “Thanks for your participation, Lill” while making a mental note to never, ever, ask her to participate in one of his focus groups again.
But for Jeff it was like the scales had fallen from his eyes and he was seeing a new kind of reality. He was seeing things as they truly, really were. I guess her words chimed with him, with his pre-conceptions. After all, Jeff never felt he had time for a life. He spent all his time in work, scaling the corporate ladder. It felt to him like life is what other people had.
Every so often he would be struck by a strange sense of shame and disappointment that he was missing out on this mythical existence that better version of Jeff was having.
“Why can’t it just say I’m having a great time and leave me out of it?”
That was the name of Jeff’s presentation. And it was the crux of the plan. The plan that ended the world.
Just to reiterate, it wasn’t a plan to end the world, no. Jeff wasn’t like some Bond villain or anything.
No, it was a plan to take the people out of Facebook.
That wasn’t what they said the plan was, but that’s definitely what the upshot of Jeff’s proposal suggested.
“Automatically generated content,” said Jeff and around the room everyone looked dumbfounded. On the PowerPoint presentation slide on behind him was a picture of Jeff at a concert. But this was no badly lit snap of someone at the back of the crowd while a tiny band plays in the extreme distance. No, Jeff was at the front and Jon Bon Jovi was singing right behind him. It was an awesome photo… if you’re a Jon Bon Jovi fan. Which no-one is anymore.
There’s no time for music in this post-apocalyptic hinterland in which we eke out our meagre existence.
There’s no time for anything but survival. That and considering how it all came to this: how Facebook ended the world.
It wasn’t, in fairness to Jeff, a bad idea. It really was removing a variable out of the Facebook equation. That variable, of course, being people. If users weren’t generating content then other users got bored. Worse still, other users got bored unless other users were generating interesting content. And bored users did not return to Facebook frequently. And, to be honest, most users were, for some reason, obsessed with posting pictures of their meals. No one wants to look at that.
And so, reasoned Jeff, why not take the important task of generating content out of the hands of those that are, let’s be honest here, frankly unqualified and unsuited to the task in the first place.
It would be a whole new era for Facebook. All they really need from the users is a couple of photos so they know what they looked like, a couple of “likes” on various topics and the Facebook algorithms could take over from there. It was, Jeff confided, something their software engineers had been dying to do for years. Removing the unpredictable human element would make the whole thing run a lot smoother.
There was rapturous applause and an instant promotion for Jeff. He had vision. He had thought outside the box. And now he was rewarded. They knew, and Jeff knew too, that all it took was one good idea, one great project to push you up into the management stratosphere. That’s where Jeff was going: all the way to the top.
Too bad there would be nothing left when he got there.
And so Jeff’s plan for auto-generated data was rolled out onto an unsuspecting world.
It was a huge success.
People’s timeline’s were suddenly filled with the kind of lives they always wished they had. Once they had given their credit card details to Facebook, suddenly they were appearing at the premieres of movies, at the hottest gigs by the hottest new band, pre-paid meals in the hippest restaurants (pictures of food did not disappear from the timelines) along with auto-generated ejaculations of joy about how much of a great time they were having.
Jeff would look at these timelines and weep. Look what a utopia he had created. Look at the joy he had spread.
However, there was a small, nagging downside to all this. I mean, who has time for a life? Especially this kind of life? And while Facebook would inform its users that it had auto-purchased tickets or whatever, their actual use of these tickets or restaurant bookings was, in actuality, very low.
Rock stars found themselves playing to empty sold-out stadiums. Fully booked restaurants were without patrons. But still the paper utopia marched on. It just seemed like everyone was having such a great time.
Eventually the rock stars stopped showing up and they chefs stopped preparing meals. After all, if they were getting paid anyway, what was the point?
This phenomena, known as “The Facebook Economy” snowballed quicker than anybody could have imagined. Of course, on paper, everything looked great. There was a boom in the live music industry; seemingly repairing the damage done by years of illegal downloads. There was a similar boom in restaurants, cinema. The credit card companies were loving it.
But what of the people, what of the human cost? These people were working nine to five trying to pay off massive credit card debts for events they had never gone to. So what did they do? Did they close their Facebook accounts? Did they fuck! What, do you think they wanted to live the rest of their lives as social pariahs? What kind of monster are you?
No, they migrated to the new booming restaurant and entertainment sectors and got paid for effectively doing nothing. And so, much like Facebook itself, this “Facebook Economy” managed to close the loop and remove people from the equation. I like to think of this as a pure form of capitalism, free from the messy lives that often clog up its perfect functioning.
But even that, that wasn’t enough to end the world.
No. It was a “synergistic exercise in brand diversification” that really put the nail in humanity’s coffin. It took the form of a deal with the monolithic online retailer, Amazon. They had noticed Facebook’s success with creating the perfect aspirational system. Or, from Amazon’s point of the view, the almost perfect aspirational system.
Y’see, in Amazon’s view, what was missing was things. People’s timeline’s were filled now with them doing stuff, but Amazon didn’t deal in “doing stuff”. They dealt in things. And if things could be incorporated in the Facebook Economy, well… think of the markets it could open up.
It also might stop the exodus of cheap labour to the entertainment industry.
The introduction of “Facebook Things” was seen as a milestone in the tech world, a giant leap forward. And, in many ways, it was. It was just one of those leaps that humanity couldn’t keep with and so they were left floundering in the dirt wonder what the fuck had just happened. It wasn’t a good look for humanity.
Facebook Things took the existing loop of the Facebook Economy and lassoed a whole vast hive of activity. But from now on, instead of making stuff and selling it, Facebook algorithms would order the things that people didn’t want and the manufacturers didn’t bother making.
People stayed inside, trapped in their houses. After all, if they went outside, someone might ask them about an event they’d been to or a thing they’d bought. It was all happening at such a rapid pace that it was impossible to keep up with even your own timeline.
When the bubble burst, it burst hard. Amazon drones swept the sky, delivering imagined purchases for products that only existed as the barest concepts. An idea for a product could contain more benefits and features than a real product ever could. But the people, ah the people. Trapped in their homes with nothing to do… they just withered away and died.
As humanity was always wont to do.
The bubble burst with a bang, but humanity had already died without as much as a whimper.
Not all of them of course. There were, unbelievably, some people who weren’t on Facebook. But these ragged few, these lonely souls, ah, it would have been better for them if they had died, rather than see the horror of the world in the end times.
The economies continued, bereft of mankind. In fact, without the interference of humanity, you could say that they ran better than ever. People were paid for jobs they didn’t go to. Their wages paid for products they didn’t order. The stock market continued computerised trading. Empty stock exchanges displayed graphs for no-one to look at. But whereas these graphs would have previously shown jagged lines, they were beginning to flat line as the heartbeat of humanity gave out.
Jeff was one of the last to survive. He roamed the barren landscapes, the empty streets. He was on the lookout for one thing, one person. He didn’t know her name. All he knew was that she had attended focus group 54-46 in Secaucus, New Jersey.
If he could just find her, if he could just reach her, maybe everything would be alright… he told himself.
Of course, everything did turn out alright. Not for humanity, no. But for nearly every other species on earth humanity’s downfall was their boon. Not the domesticated animals. They were mostly fucked. But the other ones, the wild ones. Without humanity hunting them or culling them or covering their habitats in concrete, they not just survived, they flourished.
So, I guess this story does have a happy ending.
Depending, of course, on your point of view.