I Would Prefer That Facebook Not Own Buddhism
The Internet became a less open place this last decade. There were plenty of long-standing, very common open standards available (such as https, DNS, SMTP, etc.), but, alas, the setting-up of such services (like web sites, and email accounts) which use these open standards, was something which was still too hard to “self-host” by most Buddhist Organizations.
To outsource these things (to consultants), and have them fully set up and maintained, could easily cost upwards of $10,000 CAN. Sure, some monastic with a lot of time on their hands can slowly learn everything, then do it for free, but then their meditation practice will suffer. The result will also likely look quite amateurish. Plus, they’ll eventually move on to some other monastery, and it’s unlikely that any replacement maintainer will feel motivated to painstakingly understand how everything was set up.
There are somewhat simplified web hosting services to host your own website for free, but there are compromises, like having a domain name which isn’t very impressive, or needing to show ads on your website. The end result might not look home-made and hacked-together, but it does look sort of “cheap”.
To fully self-host, it’s inexpensive enough to register a domain name, and pay for some monthly web hosting plan (allowing full administrative control, as is the case with a VPS). After that point, however, connecting all the dots gets so hard to understand (selecting and installing an interconnected patchwork of various web servers, databases, content management systems, etc), that most Buddhist organizations just took the path of least resistance: WhatsApp for messaging, free Gmail accounts for email, and a Facebook page to act as a semblance of a website. By choosing Facebook, you get the networking effect of being in a high-visibility place where about 70% of humanity are already surfing around on a daily basis, many of them addictively.
Over the last decade, most Buddhist organizations plunged headfirst into the Brave New World of Big Data, just like every other online lemming, pretty much. They placed their trust completely in the hands of Big Data.
This is an ugly situation. Consider how Facebook owns WhatsApp. Wow, are there ever vast hordes of Buddhists dancing on the palm of Facebook’s hand. Monks and nuns included. The addictiveness built into the platform doesn’t seem to phase them, apparently (despite the injunction of Buddhism to advocate the ending of all addiction and obsession, let alone the injunction for monastics to practice seclusion). Facebook makes their money off ads, selling anything and everything about their users to advertisers. Same with Google. They can also change their policies whenever they want, knowing that virtually nobody will have the willpower to leave, even if the terms become too onerous.
Buddhism has never been beholden to any corporation before, and I don’t see why we should start now. Laziness is no excuse for not doing it right. Think of all the sociological gymnastics and back flips and bending over backwards which monks and nuns already do to follow the Vinaya. This is just yet one more area which requires a higher-than-normal level of effort, compared to average laypeople.
A basic, decent website that is readable on a smartphone (as well as paid, hosted email anywhere except the likes of Big Data giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc.) isn’t asking for the moon. Please dispense with the free accounts altogether, Venerable brothers and sisters. They are a Faustian bargain, every time.
If there are any laypeople who know how to host a decent website, and an email domain, then please help the monasteries you know and care about to get their acts together, without being reliant on the likes of Facebook and Google, to have a basic online presence. Monasteries need your ongoing support to have some online dignity. The costs should be neither free (as in, “Faustian”), nor astronomical (as in, hiring consultants). Yes, there is a middle ground between these two extremes, and Buddhism exhorts us to find just such a middle ground.
And no, please do not develop Android and iOS apps specific to these monasteries, as that is a step backwards from open standards. The exception to this is the so-called “Progressive Web App” (a famous example being suttacentral.net), where a website appears to be an app, but is actually still technically a website.
If laypeople need to raise some modest, not-unreasonable sum of money, to pay for email accounts with a service like Fastmail (using one’s own custom domain), for example, then that’s the cost of decency and dignity, which is well worth paying, I say.
And as to instant messaging, Signal is pretty much just as good as WhatsApp, and doesn’t ruthlessly spy on you and sell you out. Yes, you can prefer it to WhatsApp (and “fall back” on WhatsApp, whenever a contact isn’t using Signal yet). Of course you want to wail and moan and roll your eyes that everyone has their favorite chat app, so why yet another switch to an app like Signal? Look, please don’t be offended, but it’s actually the case that you aren’t qualified to choose a chat app on your own. Security experts are.
It’s sort of like how your cat would never choose to take a bath, but damn it, it needs to, and you eventually just have to shove it into the tub. You would do well to just trust the security experts and quit grumbling.