This is not yet another “Digital Detox” article. I’ve been trying to define what it is about Facebook that has turned so dysfunctional, and I think I finally understand it.
In short, the medium causes the message.
We’ve been hearing a lot about “Fake News” lately. It’s just another variant of propaganda. This isn’t new; people have been lying for purpose since forever. What’s new about Facebook and other social media, is not the veracity of any given message. The phenomenon of “Fake News” is a symptom. It is a clear indication of how the platform is NATURALLY misused. Facebook, 2017 edition, is a vice.
When I signed up for Facebook about 8 years ago, I was already late to the party. I’d put it off for a while, relatively speaking. But when I started, it was essentially an RSS feed from your family and friends. Your friend is doing something, and they post a picture. Your friend was eating something, you shake your head, ask why anyone cares, and move on. And in a few days, you post your food.
And that’s how it all began. It’s pretty innocent stuff. It was a social network. It was your social, and their network.
Then, Google decided to drop Reader. That RSS feed that kept your social media separate from the news was no more. Now, you had one news feed, and it was Facebook. The void started to be filled by shares of news articles. Usually, they were good and legitimate sources. In the 2012 election, you’d see a lot more about the Presidential election, and the Obama team used it masterfully as a tool to win reelection.
After this happened, everyone took notice. No level of politics was off limits, and the full spectrum descended upon Facebook. The fringes had the most to gain, particularly with limited spending. The land rush was on, and Facebook got rich. To ensure they got richer quickly, Facebook also started filtering feeds. The news they thought you liked, none of the news they thought you hated, and opinions that sounded as close to what they thought you were as often as possible.
Early on, people worried about the effect. They turned out to be very, very correct. The main problem is that people can “attach validity” to stories by sharing them. Whether they mean it as an endorsement or not, sharing items breaks down the filter between an organisation, or a trusting friend passing something along. In the real world, if someone shares news, it likely will mean a lot to both parties. Receiving news from an off-brand organisation often comes with skepticism. However, if you get a dodgy story from a trusted friend, you read it. This is the social skepticism wedge Facebook solved, and is now earning billions of dollars.
So where does this leave us all? It’s like alcohol. It’s ok to have a glass of wine, but the young will binge on beer and shots. The addicted will cave whenever presented, and justify its overuse. The vendors will rake in the money, and the ad dollars will flow, just like the dopamine. We are presented with a rush when we have our “contribution” liked – even if we’re just re-sharing something. The conversations get weird.
So for me, I go back to the social “compact” of when I originally started. Back then, “in the good ol’ days”, it was about the people I cared about, not politics. It wasn’t about that family member that posted propaganda dressed up like political activism, but rather their new haircut. I will avoid the politics within Facebook – even those I agree with – as much as possible. I can’t leave altogether; I would simply lose contact with too many friends and family. But I will use Facebook for what it was, not what it has become. It’s the best situation I have left, and until Facebook itself starts to be replaced by non-centralised social networks that avoid politics, I’ll traverse carefully. No more arguing with people I essentially agree with, and no more assisting movements and resharing if it’s important. Just the friends and family stuff.
If you can’t do that, Facebook, what are you then?