A Facebook friend of mine posted an interesting request recently, “Give me two reasons to stay on Facebook and also give me two reasons to leave Facebook.”
Now, my friend’s post prompted quite a number of thoughtful responses from people who obviously took time to consider the request carefully. Many of them pointed to really good reasons to stay on Facebook.
With its large number of users and the fact that many (though certainly not all) of our friends and family are on the platform, it is a convenient and reasonably reliable tool for communications. Let’s be honest, Facebook is convenient, generally easy to use, and has integrated itself into the social fabric of our existence.
With our highly mobile culture and, in my friend’s case, a job that could have him moving completely across the country numerous times throughout his career, loosing all of these social contacts by changing to a platform with many fewer users is a daunting prospect. Very few of us live in the community in which we grew up, but we still maintain contacts and relationships.
Facebook also allows users to have access at a glance to what’s going on in the lives and thoughts of others. It’s an opportunity to connect and interact. As happens with in-person conversations, some people are better and more thoughtful conversationalists than others. Some people listen (read) more closely, others simply are waiting to tell you what’s on THEIR mind. But we are social creatures. We desire and crave interaction. While we are around other people in our flesh and blood life, the reality is we are not often around the SAME people on a regular basis which is needed to foster friendship and community.
But as with anything, there is not only the good, but the bad. Facebook in 2014 was caught doing social experiments that psychologically manipulate the emotions of over 600,000 users. In an era where society at large has stopped thinking and now makes decisions based on feelings, this should certainly concern us. Their algorithms are secret and since the 2016 election there are accusations of ‘Shadow Banning’ people and reducing their reach or “deplatforming” them outright if their speech doesn’t conform to the popular orthodoxy.
And of course, it isn’t only Facebook themselves doing the manipulation and controlling speech. Advertisers, bot networks, “Fake News,” and accounts run by foreign nations or their actors seeking to shape opinion and thought or inadvertently doing so to make a quick buck all are dangers of the platform that have come to light in recent months.
Add to this the privacy concerns and personal data security concerns with such a platform, being inundated with advertisements and tracked no matter where you happen to “travel” on the internet whether you are logged into Facebook or not and the concerns mount.
FACEBOOK IS A (Social) MEDIA TOOL
(AND IT’S GOOD AT IT!)
People talk about Facebook as “Social Media” and emphasize the adjective instead of the noun. Once it is realized that first and foremost, Facebook is a MEDIA platform, it becomes easier to see the issues that are causing so many to become discontent with the platform.
Facebook began as a platform that allowed anyone with an account to begin broadcasting pictures of cats, breakfast, and “selfies” as well as their thoughts, ideas, and feelings to the world. While there was the ability to comment and interact from the beginning, It was over 3 years before the “Like” button made it’s debut.
While Facebook seemed to have it’s beginnings as a platform for socialization, that wasn’t the reality. Yes, it makes a certain forms of social activity easier, but most of them are centered around you getting your message out to the masses. It was an early and accessible tool for “micro-blogging.” From 2004 – 2011, status update posts were limited to 500 characters, hardly enough to even begin a meaningful conversation. During that time, forums, email lists, and various interactive chat services as well as other electronic socialization tools were still the primary way people communicated online.
While other features have been added over time, the primary model of Facebook is to encourage its users to contribute media to them which they can mix with other media and present as a “feed” that is intended to be consumed. The purpose of this constant broadcasting of text and images onto the screen in front of you is to cause you to take an action that will bring them revenue (or, if you believe some of the conspiracy theorists, to alter your thinking and change your behavior accordingly).
It is this fact more than any other that leads most people to (sometimes reluctantly) agree with the assertion that for all it’s benefits, Facebook is a “time-waster.”
While many users interact, it is still an overwhelming minority of those who have “seen” a post who will “Like” or comment. Just consider how often you simply scroll through your news feed looking for something interesting enough to take the time to read or comment on. That isn’t by accident.
In their 14 year existence, Facebook has studied human behavior and learned how to manipulate our attention span and have perfected the art and science of addicting us to their platform to consume the media presented. This is why it’s so easy to get caught up looking at your feed just to “catch up” and find yourself looking up at the clock an hour later wondering where the time went.
Facebook knows their business. (And it is a business!) They make money by knowing what we want, what we’re interested in, and showing us just enough to keep us on the platform – all so they can show ads that will lead us to pay their advertisers who pay them to advertise on their platform. And they aren’t beyond selling directly to their users. Boosted posts and other incentives that exchange money or your attention to extend your “reach” and the size of your audience is how they make their money.
The “bait” that they use to get you connected is the promise of posts by your friends and family and others. But that’s not really the content they want you to consume. Yet, everything you publish, comment on, even linger and read is VERY helpful to build a psychological profile so that your newsfeed can be manipulated and tweaked so that you consume more media on their “social” platform.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
Realizing that Facebook is a MEDIA platform that uses your social connections and interactions as fodder to broadcast their advertising to you is a great help in navigating this question. The more thoughtful answers to my friend’s post point this out.
As social creatures, we want to have a window into the lives of those we care about. Facebook provides a means to do that. It is unlikely that any platform will be able to do it any better in the forseeable future.
As people living in this world, we also want to interact with and impact the thoughts and lives of others. Like the musician in the subway who takes joy in knowing that they have brightened someone’s day with music, having a “stage” or a large table in a busy place where others may happen by and overhear our rantings and ravings and discussions and engage with us is a good thing in a society built upon mutual understanding, tolerance, and an acknowledgement of our shared humanity.
Facebook provides an online space for these things to occur. And if you find it enjoyable to socially interact as you consume the media that others produce in this manner and/or you desire to socialize with others and provide media for them to consume, then Facebook is a good place to be.
But nobody wants this sort of thing to happen with every conversation or in every context. Most of our conversations do not happen in public with others overhearing, nor should they! There is a need to have conversations and interactions among a more close knit group of people. It allows us to seek out people who we trust but will also challenge our assertions and our presuppositions and keep us honest. We need to have safe places without the spectre of someone constantly eavesdropping and monitoring our words. We need places where our conversations won’t be scoured for key words and phrases and alter what we read and see and hear in order to customise our experience of life for us. And we need spaces free from the possibility of the next Billy Mays popping up in our face to peddle his latest “once in a lifetime special offer.”
But Facebook is not that space. Facebook was created and designed to facilitate our communication with a global audience. As originally designed, it was intended to democratize content production so that it was no longer in the hand of a few elite broadcasters. It’s aims and purposes were to be a global platform that placed everyone on an equal footing. It was designed as a MEDIA outlet that was socially accessible and interactive.
Once we understand this, it becomes easier to place Facebook in it’s proper place and decide what the appropriate role of the platform is in our life.
(In part 2, we will consider whether the social factors and tools of Facebook make it a place where productive work can be done.)