Internet communication has become an integral part of our lives today. Whether it is email, online news, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat or some other service I’ve never heard of, I imagine that you don’t know more than a handful of people who aren’t using some internet service to send or receive information. Even many people well into their 80s are at least using email to some extent. In this article, I want to examine “social media”. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll mostly focus on Facebook. That is the largest social media platform, one of the largest companies in the world, and the service with which I’m most familiar. I have to give the disclaimer that I’m still on Facebook, and haven’t quite decided what to do about that. I’ll be presenting lots of evidence in this article of why Facebook is terrible, but also exploring why I think Social media and what Facebook purports to offer (and to some extent does) is so valuable. So, let’s begin.
Why are there over 1 billion people on Facebook?
I was a moderately early adopter of Facebook, picking it up in my later high school years at the suggestion of a friend (who was in college). I believe they had just lifted the .edu email address requirement when I joined. I was a fairly avid Facebook user for several years, and really enjoyed it. I took pretty full advantage of the features as a college student. I loved the fact that Facebook let me maintain a really great contact list of people I met in a variety of social contexts. I loved that I could use it to organize events. I thought it was great. Several years ago, for a variety of reasons (not particularly related to privacy) I became disillusioned with posting and commenting on Facebook, and became almost entirely a passive user. I’ve probably not posted 100 times in the last 4 years, however I do spend a lot of time reading things on Facebook, or finding links through Facebook. So, my story aside, what does Facebook offer that makes it so popular:
-Connectivity. It’s a giant, self-updating address book/messaging client/communication tool. It’s a great way to maintain the ability to stay in touch with people – even if you don’t actually do so.
-Awareness: Facebook offers the ability to (in theory) keep everyone up to date on your kids, engagements, marriages, divorces, moves, etc. etc. whether or not all the people you want to know about things really see the things you want them to is not necessarily a certainty, but the possibility exists.
-Low risk Content creation: There are plenty of sites out there that allow you to join and self publish thoughts and ideas. Medium, YouTube, WordPress, etc. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of YouTube, most of the them are fairly professional. Having a wordpress blog so you can write a couple sentences every other month – no matter how profound – is a bit of a waste (I could be speaking from experience here), and more importantly, is a bit intimidating. With FACEBOOK you can have a profile and occasionally put out some profound post/note/video/meme without having to churn out tons of content on a regularly basis. Or you can churn out un-profound content that you and your friends just enjoy, and it’s easily accessible.
-An online commons: Facebook has taken up a mountainous share of the traffic that used to go to forums and sale sites (like craigslist). I don’t have hard data to prove this, but just looking at the things I’m involved with, I see this happening. While I’d argue that it’s actually a TERRIBLE platform for replacing forums, and has only recently become decent for selling stuff – and then only if you use the app, by virtue of being so big, it’s absorbing more and more of that traffic.
-It’s ubiquitous: Facebook has become so big, and so common, and so tied in to other sites, that it provides an easy, well known interface and a common login. Want to sign up for a new service? Just login with Facebook no need to remember another password! Curious about a new business, or a hobby, or anything else? There’s probably a Facebook page for it.
–It’s an easy way to kill time. What do people do when they’re bored in a line, or at work, or anywhere else? Browse social media. It’s a never ending buffet of information designed to be just stimulating enough that it keeps you engaged, without making you think too hard.
With the exception of the last one, I think that all of these things are not inherently bad, and are mostly good things. I know of many great things that have been done within Facebook groups, or benefits people have had by the connectivity that Facebook provides. My point is not that the concept of Social Media is bad, simply that the current implementation is dangerous.
Why is FB (and other social media) so bad/dangerous?
Hopefully I’ve shown that there are valid reasons for having Social Media, and that it does (or could do) valuable things for society. In addition to that, even if you or I were to argue that all Social Media is pure evil and the whole concept should be done away with, that genie is out of the bottle and will almost certainly never go fully back in. So I think it’s valuable to look at what’s wrong with Social Media as we know it, and imagine how we could make it better. I’d like to present three big issues with current platforms. I’ll accuse Facebook, but my criticisms hold true for other companies as well (especially Google)
Proprietary and Centralized
This article on Technology Review is a fascinating story from a journalist who spent 6 years in prison between 2008-14. He argues that the internet (via social media) has moved from “the world of books” to the “world of TV”. Primarily it’s the centralization and proprietary nature of social media that causes these issues. Facebook controls how your page looks. You have little choice besides what photo you display and which fields you fill in or leave blank. There is no room for creative design on Facebook. They control what you see. You can make suggestions and requests, but in the end their algorithms are what determine what scrolls across your newsfeed. According to Quincy Larson ¼ of all time on the internet is on Facebook. Think about that. Same font. Same layout. Same algorithms, same choices. The amount of creativity that’s missing there is astounding! Because Facebook owns all that, they get to change it whenever they want.
For Profit, Publicly traded corporations own Social Media
Let me state up front that I’m very much a capitalist, very much in favor of for profit businesses. That said, I think there are enormous issues with the financial and capital structures of our society (speaking specifically of the U.S., but most developed nations have very, very similar systems). That could be many hours of discussion in and of itself, and I hope to post some material helping to explain my views of money sometime soon. All that aside, the nature of our system is that a company like Facebook (or Google) MUST grow year over year, or they go out of business. They MUST make money for their shareholders or they go out of business. On top of this, the way the internet has developed (in no small part thanks to Google) is mostly ad based revenue. All of this combines to create platforms where the behavior that is incentivized is anything that causes the user to let the platform spend more time trying to sell them stuff. That’s it. That’s the golden ticket. A company that could, with 95% accuracy give you a menu of options for increasing your sales (i.e., $10 of ads = $1000 of sales +/- %50) would rule the internet. This is not how advertising companies explain it of course. Google’s CEO will never stand up and say “our goal is to be able to control where you spend your money” but, if you follow the true goals of advertising through, that’s what it is.
To be fair to those who use advertising, I think it’s important to explain that I see small scale and large scale advertising as different AND that the advertiser and the advertising platform have different motives. A small business that is advertising is trying to let people know that they exist and what they’re capable of. I think this is good and important, and fundamentally different from giant companies advertising their product. Beverage companies typify this for me. I would be pretty shocked if you could find me an American who’s not familiar with Budweiser or Pepsi, but both companies spent millions of dollars to have their products advertised in the 2017 Super Bowl. Of course, Pepsi wasn’t advertising soda, but rather their revolutionary, game changing, inconceivably new bottled water. The second point, that advertisers are different than advertising companies is equally important. If you start a new business, or even if you run an existing business, hopefully you truly believe that your product does something that makes people’s lives better and you want to help improve their lives. I don’t have a ton of faith that this is the case of huge global corporations, but I think there’s a tinge of it in a fairly large number of products. Advertising companies’ goal is to make the lives of their customers better by selling their stuff. There is little inherent incentive to make the user’s life better for a company like Facebook. They only need you to be engaged with their platform, not benefiting from it.
All of this is to say that I think that any service where more than one out of 6 human beings on the planet is a user should have a different structure than the current US corporation. I’m not sure that structure exists. There are not for profits, B-corps, Co-ops and others that have good aspects, but may or may not be right for all applications. Quincy Larson again has a great article on this. The bottom line is, our social structures are not set up for things like Facebook and Amazon, and so they’ve been able to leverage that and turn into behemoth organizations with an outsized influence on our society.
The Unending quest for attention actually harms your productivity and ability to do real work and have real relationships.
The next issue that concerns me is the effect that using Social Media (as it exists now) has on our humanity. There has been a fair amount of work done exploring the effect that social media has on our attention span, ability to focus, social interactions, etc. etc. See here, here, and here for some of my favorite articles.
On the one hand, many dismiss these concerns and say that society is changing and you’re an old stick in the mud if you don’t get with the times. Look at what’s been accomplished by social media, and the things it’s enabled (think of the Arab Spring uprisings, political discourse in the US, affinity groups you may be part of, etc.). On the other hand, many who are opposed to social media argue that it’s a terrible thing that should be completely done away with. I think that both sides are missing something. The key is that social media today does not primarily exist as a service to users, it exists to promote advertising. If Mark Zuckerberg had to choose between changing Facebook so that people used it half as much but got twice the utility out of it, or used it twice as much but got half the utility, the profitable choice for him to make would be to increase utilization whatever the cost. (re-read the section above if this is confusing) This is due to the structure of social media not the nature of it. Facebook has been optimized to keep you scrolling mindlessly. Just do a search for mindless scrolling and see what you get. Even as I’ve been typing this, I’ve been tempted several times to just stop and browse. It’s a mental break, or a time suck, however you look at it. This is far from unique to Facebook. I think there are issues with reddit, twitter, blogs, Instagram, etc. However, Facebook has by far done the best job of capturing billions of hours of human attention every week.
And of course, the vast privacy invasions of FACEBOOK
Now we get to the part that you might have thought I was going for all along: the way that Facebook constantly and consistently erodes your privacy. This is absolutely true, and again, ties back to the structure of social media and advertising. The more a company knows about you, the better they can predict what you’re thinking, what you’re going to do, and where you’ll spend your money. This means they can sell advertising for more money. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, as I’m guessing if you’ve made it this far you’re aware of this. A few good resources:
As those of us with concerns about data gathering and privacy invasion know, it is a double edged sword. Not only are there concerns about whoever is collecting your data (Facebook, Google, etc.) but there’s the concern of what others can do with that data (Governments, Criminals, etc.) The “Big Data” collected by social media is feeding back into politics, large corporations and other powerful entities in a way that I find very concerning. If you read no other links in this admittedly link heavy article, please read the first one of these.
While I could probably go on and on about concerns with social media and Facebook, I think it’s time to talk about solutions. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any magic bullets. I believe however, that by reading and thinking about this article and some of the things I’ve linked, you’ll begin to inoculate yourself against the issues. Adding more privacy and security into your life will help too. I hope to see the world move towards a better implementation of social media, but that will only happen when enough of us seek out and/or create it. Check out alternative social media options, learn about distributed infrastructure, federated systems, etc. One site that I’ve discovered which is very interesting, though I haven’t really done much with it is hubzilla.org. It appears to be most of what I want in a social media site. What exactly is it that I want, you might ask? I think that a worthy successor to Facebook would be an organization that works to serve as a platform for the development of sites, while allowing one common login to access them. WordPress.com is a little bit like this, but it’s blog oriented. In my dream world, this social network would allow you to log in, and navigate around the way that Facebook does, and would aggregate content the way Facebook does, but it would work more as a plugin/network that websites opted into at various levels. The only real value that Facebook brings at this point (in my opinion) is that it has so many users. It’s doing lots of things less well than other options. Forums are better at some things, email is better at some things, craigslist is better at some things, etc. But EVERYONE is on Facebook so it’s easy and convenient. I would love to see a platform that was basically non-profit (or low profit, like Craigslist) as outlined in this article and just working to make the internet better. This doesn’t mean that people can’t make money – lots of good money – off of it, just that it wouldn’t be a 500 billion dollar empire focused on growth. This platform would work to connect people and websites, while not controlling them. It would use Federated Protocols to build common language, but be built in a way that allows people to use the format that best suits their needs whether that be a forum, a sales page, a wiki, a blog or a vlog. Or another format that hasn’t been dreamed up yet. While I’m not a web developer, and I don’t know the technical details of this, I believe it could be done, and that it could be done in a way that respects users privacy and gives them control of their digital lives. I think that Facebook has prospered in part because it has presented simple options with little to no choice, and has been able to do a good job of putting out options that people can use and understand. It’s basically a simple and easy GUI for the internet, for those who are less technical. I hope as more digital natives come of age, that will be less attractive and perhaps we’ll build something that’s both user friendly, and also respects user’s privacy and diversity.
There are certainly some much greater thinkers than I considering these issues, my main goal in this (admittedly very long) post is to expose you to some of the thought provoking articles I’ve collected, and encourage you to look for new developments, and improvements to the social media landscape. Please pass along any good articles that you come across regarding this topic, I’d love to hear about them in the comments or via email.
Most of these are in the article, so if you followed all of those (you did, didn’t you?) then there’s not much new. These are organized and titled a little better though.
Some General interest stories on Social media, spying, facebook, etc.
Social Media has negative effects on your productivity, social life, etc. etc.
An older call to get off of Facebook that’s well worth the read.
The power of big data and algorithms
How the current internet economy is damaging the potential for the internet to be used for good
Solutions: These are some interviews, articles and other resources to help you think about making the world a better place.