Mark Weinstein is a privacy advocate and the founder of MeWe, a social networking platform with no ads, no personal data collection, and no newsfeed manipulation. In 2022, Weinstein left MeWe, which has 20 million users, and is currently writing a book on social media and democracy.
We speak with him about the evolution of surveillance capitalism, the challenges of decentralization, and getting back to the roots of social networking.
What drove you to launch MeWe, a privacy-focused social network?
I’m one of the early founders of social media. In the ’90s, I built a couple of the first ones, superfamily.com and superfriends.com, which PC Magazine listed in its top 100 sites for three years in a row. This was when no one even knew the phrase social network.
Social media was invented so we could all stay connected with the people we love, our friends and family, co-workers, and like-minded people you might want to connect with around the world. It wasn’t about “How can I get my data to big, giant monopoly companies so that they can manipulate me?” It was really altruistic and very idealistic. And we didn’t figure out how to monetize at the beginning. This was Web1; they called it the new economy, and the new economy was to get your eyeballs, get as many users as you could. This is what investors encouraged. We’d all figure out monetization later.
Social media was invented so we could all stay connected with the people we love, our friends and family, co-workers, and like-minded people you might want to connect with around the world. It was really altruistic and very idealistic.
Web2 is the era of surveillance capitalism, and Mark Zuckerberg really was the leader in cracking the nut: it’s all about data. And he said as much in a 2010 interview, where he said privacy is the social norm of the past. I was watching when he said that. I wasn’t involved in social media anymore but thought, Oh my god, I have to get back in. This is not what social media was built for. Mark Zuckerberg can’t decide for the world to fatten his wallet and that privacy is dead.
Are you seeing increased awareness about surveillance capitalism? Are younger social media users savvier about privacy, or is privacy indeed not a social norm for them?
There certainly is a hugely increased awareness of citizens around the world about surveillance capitalism and manipulation. Countless surveys show results that indicate the vast majority of younger and older users are aware and concerned—creeped out. Unfortunately, what there isn’t huge awareness of is how bots, trolls and other disruptors have permeated all of our online social experiences, funded by operatives intent on manipulating our votes, our opinions, and causing disharmony in democracies. They’re all over Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok.
Among teen users, there is a split. There’s a group, let’s call them the Instagram-TikTok crowd of youth, which loves just posting and being attached to their posts. This is actually the problem. Once they start to see social media as a road to stardom and start to monetize their online experiences, they get off track of what they actually might want to do as a profession. Companies like TikTok are making them believe that they should be social media stars, completely disrupting the intellectual capital of America. But the other side is, there are plenty of youth that are really now creeped out by this public persona stuff, and they’re very careful.
Companies like TikTok are making teens believe that they should be social media stars, completely disrupting the intellectual capital of America.
MeWe is being decentralized using Web3 technologies like blockchain. This method ensures users have full control of their data rather than a single company. What are the challenges of decentralization?
I’ve left MeWe, but expect that MeWe will continue to have a presence in the Web2 model, which is centralized social networking, and as they’ve announced, MeWe will have a presence in Web3, giving users the option of a decentralized platform.
Decentralization is complicated. Web3 technologies don’t function very well in delivering with lightning speed trillions of content and data posting packets that need to be moving simultaneously for hundreds of millions of users. Centralized networking works really well because you can build massive scale with a very efficient hosting system and you can process an almost infinite amount of data in nanoseconds. Web3 hasn’t proven that it can do anything like that. It’s best for simple applications.
There is also the question of privacy. There’s a lot of mythology around Web3 and decentralization and privacy. You’re connected to your posts in Web3; it’s been documented. You can have a good degree of privacy, but even in Web3, you won’t have anonymity. There is a way to track back and see who actually made that post.
Moderation in Web3 is also interesting. There’s the idea of using rewards in the form of crypto for moderation. It can be effective, on a small scale with crypto enthusiasts, but it has pitfalls aplenty. For example, if a Web3 social media platform is an echo chamber of hate, violence, prejudice, bullying, then the moderation model doesn’t work because everybody is in it for the same thing. This type of monetization schematic for moderation is akin to giving someone a dollar if they say something you like. It cheapens human interaction, and I don’t think the world is ready to adopt it at any level of real scale.
So decentralization is not the key to building a privacy-focused social network?
What would you say to people who claim to be not too bothered by the creep factor of Facebook’s data collection—especially people who have an account but don’t use it much anymore?
First of all, if you have Facebook on your phone or on your computer, then Facebook is monitoring everything you do—whatever apps you use, whatever searches you do, whatever purchases you make, whoever you’re connected to, whatever you’re interested in—so they are creating a data packet on you. Also, by the way, even if you’re not using it. It’s well documented that Facebook is tracking non-users around the web too and aggregating data packets on them, and then through third party apps targeting them with their apps and advertisers. So listen, the creep factor is huge.
Here’s a stunning example. If you’re on WhatsApp and think you’re private, give it up folks. Meta owns WhatsApp and is aggregating everything about you except the content of the conversation. They know who you’re talking to, they know where you are located and where the other person is, they know everything about your usage. And because of that, they also know what other apps you’re participating in and where you’re going around the web and your geolocation. Then there is Instagram; over there you are just data to be sold down the river, data to be targeted if you’re using any Meta product. So get off, find alternatives. Find the good guys, find companies that are ethical, find B corps [companies certified to have high standards regarding social and environmental impact], find companies that are conscious capitalist companies.
I’m a pure capitalist, a free market guy, an entrepreneur. The capitalism I believe in is the ethical kind. The classic “serve and delight your customer and they’ll be loyal to you”—it’s a reciprocal relationship based on service, trust, and respect. But companies that don’t have your back—get away from them. With MeWe, you’re the customer to serve and delight. At Facebook, you’re the product to sell, target, and manipulate. You’re the product that they sell to their customers. Facebook’s customers are their advertisers and marketers, anybody who will pay them to target you.
The capitalism I believe in is the ethical kind. The classic “serve and delight your customer and they’ll be loyal to you”—it’s a reciprocal relationship based on service, trust, and respect.
What do you see happening with surveillance capitalism going forward? What will Facebook be doing in, say, 10 years?
The outcome of the antitrust lawsuit against Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission is going to factor into the future of what Facebook does and becomes. I’m also a participant in that—I’ve been subpoenaed by both Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission, because Facebook massively interfered with MeWe. It’s my understanding that Facebook has massively interfered with virtually every social network that ever attempted to compete with it.
Facebook 10 years from now—that requires a pretty big crystal ball. This surveillance capitalist business model that Facebook perpetrated on the world is going to shift. Decentralization is happening, but Facebook is not going to let the decentralized marketplace exist without them somehow getting involved and participating. They’re too big. They are the 1,000-pound gorilla and so they’ll figure out a way in. Facebook will attempt to modify and adjust.
But as they’ve always done, they will probably not tell the truth about what they’re doing with data, because Facebook is not a personal social network or a social network, really; they’re a marketing company masquerading as a social network. And so, their whole game is, “How do I get data from you so that I can target and manipulate your thoughts, your opinions and your purchase decisions?” And that will always be their M.O. Ten years from now, it’ll be however they crack the nut on how to continue to be that marketing and advertising company that sells access to you to the highest bidder.
Protect your privacy with the best VPN
30-day money-back guarantee