The Internet, Social Media, and Us

I’ve spent the last few months reflecting on social media’s role in my life, and our lives. Facebook is the only platform I really use these days. I somehow managed to quit my Tumblr addiction cold turkey a few years ago, and I only use Twitter very occasionally if I want to follow something happening live (like election results). So for the most part, Facebook is where I exist on the internet, and the result is that Facebook has a frightening amount of power over my social life. This also means I’ll be writing primarily about Facebook, but much of what I write is also applicable to many other social media platforms.

There is a lot I want to write about this, so I’m making this a series of posts. In this first part, I’ll focus in on my own experience. Part 2 will broaden the scope to wider social implications. There may be other parts after that, such as my hopes for the future.

Consider this hypothetical: you wake up tomorrow and Facebook is gone. Absolutely everything. The website, apps, Facebook Messenger, and maybe even other platforms owned by Facebook such as Instagram and WhatsApp, all disappear without a trace. That morning when you wake up, how many people in your life can you contact? How many friendships do you have that have connections made outside of Facebook? What about if you also delete your secondary social media platform (for those who use Twitter a lot, for instance)? A few months ago, when I first considered this hypothetical situation, I would have seen my large social net go from over 600 to 18. That’s how many contacts I had in my phone. (I’ve made some changes that made those numbers a bit better, but my social life is still very Facebook dependent.) A few of them weren’t people I really know anymore, and one of them was my doctor’s office. I counted about 9 people in my contacts that I genuinely care about, at least a little. This hypothetical situation has been terrifying me over the last few months, because if Facebook disappeared tomorrow, virtually all of my social life would go with it. I’ve made some small changes though, such as demanding my friends to no longer use FB Messenger as our primary use of communication. I’ve been texting a lot more people recently (as in, SMS). Even though SMS technology feels ancient, doesn’t work well with emojis, has limitations with long messages, and sending pictures can be a headache, I’ve been really loving the feeling of having a more direct contact with my friends. Texting people has made me feel much more in control of my social life than FB Messenger did. If Facebook ever really does disappear, I’ll be thankful that I have my friends’ phone numbers.

Of course, this is just a hypothetical. There’s no way Facebook is going to go away tomorrow or anytime soon. I mean, they have 1.3 billion ACTIVE users DAILY (and 2 billion that log in at least monthly). My concern isn’t actually that Facebook is going to go away. On the contrary, I’m worried that Facebook is going to become only more present, gaining more and more power over the world and people’s social lives. I think this is absolutely what most of us expect in the future, and Mark Zuckerberg’s goals for Facebook include 5 billion people using the platform by 2030. Consider another hypothetical: Facebook doesn’t like something you post, because maybe it just doesn’t suit their advertiser’s needs for the platform. Maybe it was genuinely abusive, or maybe it was flagged as spam. Regardless of the reasons, you’re unable to access some parts of Facebook, probably temporarily, or maybe your account is disabled altogether (which seems to be rare, but it does happen.) You might be unable to use Messenger as well, limited your social circle to contacts you have outside of Facebook. How much control have you given to Facebook in the event that they disable your account?

The other concern I have is how Facebook and the people on it expect myself and others to always be available throughout the platform. Recently, when I was on a break from Facebook, I let myself go on momentarily to check updates to an event I was about to go to. I found, in the comments of a post on the Facebook event, a friend who tagged me to confirm plans for carpooling. Had I not thought to log in, I would have completely missed that, because my friend assumed that typing @Quinn was a way they could get in contact with me. It’s not (or not always). I have Facebook notifications blocked on my phone because I found them unhealthy (and the app was ignoring my attempts to manage which types of notifications I got.) The only way I was going to see that my friend was talking to me was if I logged in and either found it in my sea of notifications or stumbled upon it. Thankfully, I did end up stumbling upon it, because I thought it would be good to check the event page before going to it.

This way that people assume I’m going to be in that space adds to a fear of missing out (FOMO) that many people have written about. I worry that when I am absent from the space, people are going to be speaking to me directly and I won’t be hearing them. I’m also worried about missing important updates from friends that weren’t directly to me, including dire news, like that a friend has been hospitalized, or has died.  It means that I’m encouraged to have my Facebook notifications as a concern in the back of my head, which causes me to obsessively check my notifications in case somebody has some sort of crucial information for me.

Part of the problem here is the conflation of what social media platforms and our communication devices do for us. They are simultaneously our source of news, entertainment, and friendship. As Ian Leslie wrote, “Things that aren’t important to a person are bound up with things that are very important: the machine on which you play games and read celebrity gossip is the one on which you’ll find out if your daughter has fallen ill. So you can’t turn it off or leave it behind. Besides, you might miss a magic moment on Instagram.” Computers and smart phones have replaced both our telephones and televisions. Indeed, it seems to be the basic concept of social media, the fading of the line between media consumption and our social lives. The social media feed where I see friends post memes and celebrities post selfies is the same one I see friends post about getting married or needing emotional support. It’s incredibly difficult, essentially impossible, to engage with one without the other.

Over the last year and a bit, I’ve been practicing a secular/areligious Sabbath every week, Friday night to Saturday night. The “rules” I give myself have shifted every so often, but one that remains fairly static is that I don’t go on social media. I just need to turn off the noise for the day. But on the other hand, part of what I want for my Sabbath is to engage with the love in my life, and being off social media and away from my phone can make that hard. Part of me wants to straight up just turn my phone off for 24 hours, but another part wants my Sabbath to be a time I hang out with friends, for which I probably need my phone to be on. And when I go to social events on Saturday, sometimes I need to check the Facebook event, so I often can’t stay completely away from social media either. I want to find a balance, and I slowly am, but it’s hard. I can’t just turn all phone notifications off, because I want my friends to be able to call/text me. But keeping notifications on means opening up my Sabbath to my phone telling me I have an email it thinks is important, or anything else an app decides it wants to send me a notification for. Definitely not conducive to “turning off the noise”. (I can set up my Do Not Disturb settings to allow for phone calls and texts from contacts, but I also use those settings in other parts of my life, such as keeping my phone relatively silent at school. There are probably ways to micromanage it, but I’ve yet to figure out how to tweak the settings just right.) Our channels of communication have become so intertwined with all aspects of our lives, that we can no longer use them the way we actually want to.

Another discomfort I have with social media mediated friendships is with content curation algorithms, otherwise known simply as The Algorithm(s). In order to maximize how long we stick to the platform, and thus how much ad revenue the platform gets, most social media shows us what an AI thinks will keep us engaged and interested the longest. This isn’t necessarily a top-down ranking of the most interesting topics, but a weaving of the lighthearted with the heavy, the personal and the political, and a mixture of text, picture and video. Most of us want all of these things, and never too much of one thing in a row. We might think that the main reason (or justification for why) we go on Facebook is to see important life updates from friends, but most of us also stick around longer for the memes and arguments.

But, on Facebook, these algorithms aren’t just deciding what content we engage with. Facebook also actively deciding for us who our friends are. Now, I don’t mean to say that Facebook has some kind of ultimate control over who we interact with, and we do have options to tell Facebook to show certain friends’ content first, for instance. But for the majority of our feed, Facebook makes its own decisions, and if somebody’s content doesn’t show up very often, you’re going to have less chances to connect with and develop friendships with that person. Friendships absolutely can develop this way, through seeing each other’s content on the newsfeed and consequently interacting with each other. Another way that Facebook decides who we’re friends with is when we get the option to select friends for things like tagging, event invitations, etc. I invite you right now to go look at your friends list. Can you find any way to order your friends alphabetically? If there’s a way, I can’t find it. A while ago I went through my list to select people to be on a smaller friends list, which meant that those at the top of my list had a better chance of making the cut.

All of these things considered, my issue overall is ultimately just the lack of control I feel. I want more control over who my friends are and the conversations I have. But social media platforms make it hard to control these aspects of our lives, because one of social media’s main features is that we no longer have to, or get to, make difficult decisions about how to shape our social lives. We’re automating our friendships, and as an extension, relinquishing control over the love in our life. Sherry Turkle, in their TED talk from 2012, talked about the primary function of social media to give us “automatic listeners”. When we have something to talk about, or just need somebody to talk to, social media makes it so that we don’t actually have to decide who to talk to, because we get to talk to all our friends at once. Turkle’s argument is that people tend to use technology in places where we feel most vulnerable, and many of us feel vulnerable to the fear of loneliness, awkwardness, and the risk of rejection when reaching out to talk with or hang out with people. The always-available Facebook newsfeed soothes that fear. Social media makes some of the complications of social life more smooth, but that control over our lives has to be something we’re far more hesitant to offer up, because AI makes mistakes, and we can’t rely on it to make such personal, and ethical, decisions. As Turkle says, “Most important, we all really need to listen to each other, including to the boring bits. Because it’s when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.”

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