OPINION: We Should Be Asking More Questions of Facebook

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: “I use Facebook, and I’m fine!” 

It’s hard to see how Facebook might actually be a cause to society’s current problems because in admitting that fact, we also have to implicate ourselves. It’s easier to ignore Facebook’s obvious shortcomings, giving ourselves a free ride in the process.

But there are now 2.13 billion people on Facebook, almost one third of the world’s population. Two in three users check the site every day. The aggregate of each of us turning a blind eye to Facebook’s flaws quickly becomes willful negligence on a global scale. This assertion includes you and me.

Maybe you have a firm distinction of the world online and off. I certainly thought I did, so much so that I went without Facebook, while working in Washington D.C. last semester. After returning to campus, 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 only one or two stories from their times abroad. I came to realize those conversations had already happened, in the form of photos shared, comments exchanged, and likes received: an online construction substituting for the real thing.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon reaches well 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 reframes 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.

Perhaps 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 percent of people under 35 had their news selected by an algorithm, while only 34 percent 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 that you “engage” with whatever is put in front of you.

To that end, Facebook has become remarkably effective. Revenue generated per user climbed 27 percent in 2017. Executives have even started warning investors that they are running out of room in which to show us ads.

Facebook’s economic model was prescient of the digital age, one where we ourselves — our interests, habits, and patterns of behavior — became the product. The payoff made a college dropout one of the wealthiest people in the world in little over a decade. Unfortunately, as the recent headlines about Cambridge Analytica have exposed, we are only beginning to reconcile the consequences of this new form of business.

To add insult to injury, I struggle to see what users receive in return: free access to a service riddled with flaws. The platform has enabled, to degrees previously unseen, an unwitting passivity in how we see both ourselves and the world around us.

It is clear that Facebook is not an accurate representation of real life. We all know the site induces 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. We can logically deduce that our friends’ profiles are not real, but when peering through the online veneer, this is easy to forget.

Catalina Toma, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discovered something I find even more troubling. Toma found that after only five minutes of scrolling through Facebook profiles, people often experienced a significant boost in self-esteem.

We know that our own profiles are not real. Yet, they are where we turn for affirmation — not our close relationships, accomplishments, interests, or passions — to make ourselves happy. It is as if we only take comfort in the conception of ourselves, constructed for everyone else. We cannot claim that our online/offline distinction is as clear-cut as we want to believe.

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 that 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, belongs to everyone else.

We now know that opportunists are actively exploiting the site to delegitimize political systems across the world. Yet, we stay on. We should be asking more questions, but the place to start is within ourselves.

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