Lambasting Facebook is in vogue. It’s dangerous for our children. It’s making us all lonely. It's even“ripping our society apart.” Pundits, scientists and even former Facebook executives have all tried to explain the detriments of the site, but we each have personal experience that suggests otherwise. Like telling a Trump supporter that they voted against their own economic self-interest, we only dig in our heels when told Facebook might actually be a cause society’s current problems.
We all have heard these arguments against Facebook before, but there are now 2.13 billion of us saying “Well, of course! But not for me.” Almost one third of the world’s population is on Facebook. Two in three users check the site every day. These metrics do include you.
But maybe the don’t describe you. Maybe you have a firm distinction of the world online and off. I certainly thought I did. I have gone without Facebook for four months now. With each passing week, I am seeing more ways in which the site continues to influence, preempt, and circumscribe my life.
After returning to campus from a semester in Washington DC, I was surprised by how little my friends told me about their respective semesters off-campus. Though they had spent the past half-year in Indonesia, New Zealand, Cuba, and Morocco, I heard maybe one or two stories from their time abroad. I came to realize those conversations had already happened — in the form of photos shared, comments exchanged, and likes received. Another online construction substituting for the real thing. Unfortunately, this phenomenon reaches beyond interpersonal relationships. New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, in a macabre half-joke, once called Facebook’s News Feed “the most influential source of information in the history of civilization.” Dark humor is funny because it re-frames uncomfortable truths.
The internet has codified an age in which there is too much information for us to process. There are 440 million actively maintained blogs, not to mention 500 million tweets per day. Rather than spending all day scouring the web for the best content to consume, we instead have to rely on shortcuts. Maybe we put our trust in a name, like The New York Times or Sean Hannity. Another option is an algorithm. The Reuters Digital News Report for 2017 found that 64% of people under 35 had their news selected by an algorithm, while only 34% had the stories they read chosen by an editor.
I do not think algorithms are inherently bad. They are powerful tools that can expedite repetitive processes and augment difficult human decision making. But make no mistake —the algorithm that decides what you see on Facebook is optimized for one goal alone—to ensure you click on whatever is put in front of you. To that end, Facebook has become remarkably effective. Revenue generated per user climbed 27% in 2017. Executives have even started warning investors that they are running out of room in which to show you ads. Does Facebook rob you of free will? No. But I believe Facebook has enabled — to degrees previously unseen—an unwitting passivity in how we see both ourselves and the world around us.
For instance, say you’ve taken online transgressions a little too seriously before. A friend forgetting your Birthday post got under your skin. Maybe you’d admit to fishing for likes—posting that picture of yourself falling over the beach chair while still managing to look adorable “Whoops! I’m just so clumsy! :)” Maybe you’ve “filtered” that horrible spring break trip with the one good sunset picture (Hefe filter, of course).
What’s the big deal? We all know Facebook is not an accurate representation of real life. We can analyze the online realm skeptically. After all, we are well versed in using Facebook to hide our true selves from the broader world. I’d like to pose a question: what if we are using Facebook to hide the true world from ourselves? The site often gets panned for inducing the imposter syndrome—the idea that when we constantly compare our internal conceptions of ourselves to the highly-manicured online profiles of our friends, we cannot help but feel inferior.
Catalina Toma, an Assistant Professor at The University of Wisconsin Madison, found that the opposite is true as well—when sad, we turn to our own profiles to make ourselves happy. Toma found that after only five minutes of scrolling through our profile, we experienced a significant boost in self- esteem.
I can understand the feelings of exclusion, “the FOMO”, induced by our friends pristine profiles. Though we can logically assume that their profiles are not accurate representations of their lives, it is easy to forget that we are looking through the online veneer. But we know that our own profiles are not real. And yet they are still where we turn for affirmation—not our close relationships, own accomplishments, or interest and passions. Can we only take comfort in the conception of ourselves we constructed for everyone else?
In 2017, Facebook changed their mission statement to “giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” I’ll concede that Facebook increases the quantity of people we can hold in our orbit at any given time. Claims beyond that do not square with how we have seen the site utilized so far.Scrolling through Facebook exasperates a kind of voyeurism in which we gaze upon a world, assembled by programmers to exploit confirmation bias and statistically weighted to ensure we keep coming back. We resign to expressing our autonomy in “likes” and 12-word-comments and hide in a self-conception that, while technically made by us, actually belongs to everyone else. Yet we stay on. We should be asking more questions—the place to start is ourselves.