The People Who Eat Shit for a Living

Spending time with the contractors who scour Facebook's brain toilet

I can't remember my first piece of hate mail. I can't remember my first death threat, and I can't remember the first time I saw someone murdered on social media. I can't remember when all of those things first traveled the small distances between being terrifying, to being common, to being something wrapped up in a quip just archly funny enough to preserve anyone listening from having to confront it as anything requiring help, to being something that felt gauche to keep mentioning.

There is no easy or unalloyed sensation to experiencing any of these things the first time. If they provoked a uniform reaction across people and the emotional spectrum, then it would be different, but single responses to random stimuli is the sort of thing only afforded drooling dogs near ringing bells. A bell possesses no menace in and of itself; dogs don't spend a lot of time questioning the motives of their reactions, and in any event, there is no shame in being hungry. 

There is the blunt horror, of course, of wondering if you're in danger—or of witnessing someone pass from mortal danger to never being in danger of anything again. There is the frisson of seeing something you know should or generally does not happen, yet does anyway—the "It Happened To Me" Penthouse Letter, with the big death instead of the little one. There's some relief that the thing you knew would eventually happen finally did and is over. If nothing else, you have something to mention at a party you were anticipating being dull at, in between fielding “what’s up?” questions with previously unused variations of, “I’m still severely underemployed.” Eventually, you stop mentioning it.

Toward the middle of the 2016 election, the effacing quip I'd settled on, whenever the subject of online violence came up and someone asked me what it was like for journalists, became a riff on this: "Usually, they pick the black slur or the Jewish slur or the homosexual slur, and once they commit to one of those it determines whether they tell you you'll swing from the trees, burn in the ovens or get dragged to death behind cars." It got pithier the savvier the audience got.

But, again, eventually you stop mentioning it. Anything you talk about all the time threatens to become dull, even if you’re talking about a self-refreshing cycle that presents you with nearly illimitable personal malice. With enough repetition, a genuine human horrorscape sounds as tedious as someone landscaping their yard. Railing at Twitter or Facebook’s unresponsiveness sinks to a level just as banal as griping about a contractor. The repetition takes the focus off the horrifying thing and passes it onto you: The anxiety stops being the existentially fraught exchange between, “Some people have suggested that it would be better if I were dead; I disagree,” and starts being the sense that this is the thing with which you can’t stop boring people or appealing to their diminishing reserves of novel concern and sympathy. Give it enough time, and you start to feel like you’re the problem.

It doesn’t help that this inevitably and unequally happens to everyone. On a basic social-justice scale, being a white man harping on online violence—next to women and people of color who you know endure orders of magnitude worse treatment—feels like whining about the lack of seating on a segregated bus filled with expectant mothers. (Who the fuck, after all, are you?) On a basic novelty scale, the ubiquity of such violence drives down your sense of urgency; the horror of this happened, through sheer numbers, slouches into shit happens and the undermining suspicion that shit is happening to everyone around you right now and, if they aren’t rending their garments about it or even gently asking for help, maybe neither should you.

If you work for Facebook, this shit happens every day. Today, The Verge published an article by Casey Newton describing the lives of Facebook comment moderators, and easily the worst thing about it is that it sounds exactly as hideous as you thought it would. People making marginally better than the minimum wage sit in the internet’s version of call centers all day, subjecting themselves to relentless streams of violence against individuals, races, genders and objective reality.

They wilt under the pressure of undiluted propaganda and begin to doubt the facts of the September 11 attacks and the earth’s spherical nature. They get baked as fuck to cope with jacking their face into a brain sewer and having to click through it as fast as possible to meet production targets. They internalize constant racism and try to transmute it into tacky jokes to cope. They sleep with guns at bedside. They fuck in the stairwells and the break rooms to find a refuge of positive, flesh-and-blood contact.

It’s obvious before the article ends that this will never stop, because it was obvious before you even started reading that this will never stop. Endless unaccountable darkness, no matter how fundamentally unwanted, is inherent to the shape of the current internet; if it were a country, it’s the Netherlands, and racism, misogyny and violence is as ominous and certain as the tides.

We can pause while reading the article and visit the horrors of late capitalism. We can see how these people deserve easily double the break time, lower production quotas and a handful of extra on-site therapists. We can look at Facebook’s $6.9 billion quarterly profits and talk about how just half of its annual takeaway could pay for 275,000 more employees to do this job, at a higher rate of $50,000 per year, where the extra disposable income pays for extra coping. We could do lots of other futile shit, too, like tell the president he’d look better with a normal haircut. Like him, Facebook doesn’t care, and, like him, they are under the illusion that their combover looks good.

Facebook’s mission—such as it exists in a scope broader than an emotional version of fire, which is to consume all that can be consumed—is to draw the functional aspects of the internet completely within itself, until you never need to cross a border to experience anything in a realm it cannot monetize. To them, it’s a virtuous cycle: The more of the internet it can “safely” convey to you, the less you leave; the more you’re there, the more incentive your friends and family have to stay there too; the more you see them, the less apt you are to leave. The future is the AOL startup page, and you are welcome.

There are a lot of things Facebook could do to create this safe haven. They could require some form of real-world identification to sign up and permanently ban repeat or severe offenders. They could decentralize moderation and allow users to choose their own guardians and find an equilibrium after a free-for-all in which communities war over reasonable standards. (It works elsewhere.) Facebook could charge $5 per account and wipe out half the shit they’ve brought into the world, from Macedonian troll farms to boys taking a gap year before college to see if they can start racial holy war.

But doing any of the above means removing a significant population of accounts—real or otherwise—that make the clicks go, and any such action is actively hostile both to the business model of ever expanding activity and exploitable humanity and to the greater aspiration of trapping more of the world safely within the gates. The fewer people let in the door means less of the internet they bring with them, and empowering people to moderate their own experiences risks empowering them with the ability to make Facebook smaller, both in terms of what it absorbs and in terms of what powers it unilaterally controls. “We will eventually develop artificial intelligence, and then everything will be fine” becomes a reasonable solution to a set of problems when you have decided that your business model is unalterable and thus the genesis and perpetuation of all of your problems is too.

Call it the Shit Happens paradigm, if you want, but it is what Facebook’s settled on. All of the good parts of the internet shall be its domain, and all the bad parts are inevitable and insoluble, and the only way to square those two conditions is to make the problem not yours and not the shareholders’ but someone else’s, elsewhere. Just to be on the safe side, they’ll sign NDAs, so you’ll never run the risk of hearing them at a party sharing even more of the pain that you’re already in about a platform you already incipiently loathe, all on your behalf.

Shit happens, and it will continue to happen, and someone whose face they would prefer that you never see will just have to eat it. For every murder you don’t witness, they’ll witness three. If they can forget what the first one looked like, maybe, with time, they can learn to forget all of the rest.

This post-human scumbag again. Photo by Maurizio Pesce, Flickr creative commons.