Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to rely too much on metaphors to understand the internet, lest you accidentally call it “a series of tubes” and become a running joke on The Daily Show before dying in a plane crash. But any time people set up a generally-useful conceptual rule—don’t assume everything on the internet has analogues in the physical world!—grifters will start poking around the edges trying to get in. And as The Daily Show demonstrates in this sketch—an honest-to-God pre-filmed sketch, not a correspondent segment—Facebook is using our blurry understanding of the digital world to get away with behavior we’d all condemn if they ran a brick-and-mortar business like a neighborhood bar. The bar isn’t all that precise a Facebook equivalent, but trying to find the perfect metaphor misses the larger point: Regardless of the business you’d use to answer the question, “If Facebook were a place, what kind of place would it be?” the correct answer is “Terrible!”
It’s interesting to compare this to the similar “How to Live a Facebook-Free Life” sketch that Conan O’Brien aired during Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony. In that sketch, a man went around the real world doing the things people do on Facebook, calling up old high school classmates out of the blue, hollering political views through a megaphone, and so on. In both cases, the comedy comes from the same place: If you look past the series of tubes and think about what you’re actually using the internet to accomplish, online behavior is unconscionably horrible. But in the Conan version, the problem is essentially that humanity is garbage: we want to broadcast our bad political opinions to the world and we’ll do it with or without Facebook. There’s no equivalent to the Roy Wood Jr. character from The Daily Show’s version, a sort-of-likable barman who makes a killing playing to his customer’s worst instincts. So to get a complete picture of the Facebook situation, it’s necessary to combine both sketches: It’s true, that, as Conan alleges, humans are basically garbage, but it’s also true that humans who get rich off the fact that humans are basically garbage are the most garbagey garbage that ever garbaged. Please enjoy the small-but-significant dopamine rush you will experience by sharing a link on Facebook to this article about a comedy sketch about Facebook, as, just under the surface, your personal information is gathered and sold by everyone involved in every stage of this transaction. Or maybe just walk down the street and get a drink. Don’t give the bartender your name.