“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Like me, friend me, tag me, send me an invite. Regardless of stock prices and valuation, while the talks of tech 2.0 bubbles reached a fever pitch with the most anticipated IPO in history, one has to surrender that the ubiquity and wide-spread usage of Facebook has made it a phenomenon with no precedent. It’s a worldwide communication system, an endless photo depository and a friendly birthday reminder all rolled into one. We’ve leapt wholeheartedly into a social world accelerating at a blistering pace where, in Mark Zuckerberg’s own words, Facebook’s “…strategy… is to make everything social…” and we’ve yet to have a chance to catch out collective breath. If we could then we would be able to look at the program and social phenomenon from a more critical angle and address a few key questions.
Does increasing Facebook usage shape our habits? Is it driven by healthy motivations and goals? What is its effect on our life outside of the online social sphere? And perhaps more importantly, what could it ultimately lead to: a Zuckerberg Pollyanna of inter-person connections, or something entirely different?
Facebook the tool is useful; this doesn’t need to be argued. Increased social connectivity is one of the most exciting developments that have come from our standing on the shoulders of Web 1.0. The exponential rate of increase in speed of communication around the world has been an amazing help in numerous areas, from simple overseas communication with family to a rise in the importance of grassroots movements which now have a regular voice that can reach more people than simple leaflets and protests. There are definite benefits to free and open communication, and this is especially honorable goal with examples such as social media’s leverage in helping with the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. However, there is Facebook the tool that is social connectivity online, and then there is Facebook the system that feeds off of our insecurities while gradually shaping our habits and behaviours, driven by business needs rather than consumer needs. One is net-positive for users, one is not. Facebook is currently flirting the line between the two as it takes the step from a small dorm-room idea for connecting friends, to a public company answering shareholders’ and analysts’ questions in earnings calls. In this gradual shift we need to be aware of how we are drawn to the program, what effect it is having on our relationships and motivations, and who are the actual beneficiaries driving its growth.
1. Facebook defined is a tool to connect friends and family by way of a centralized personal online database. Moving beyond phonebooks into an age of numerous phone numbers, email addresses, and websites, this is an extremely useful database to have.
Facebook is no longer just the ‘phonebook of the internet’ though as it has grown to be driven by other motivations. Its user interface, no longer facilitating easy contact with peoples’ closest connections and based on simplicity, has become cluttered with apps, windows and sponsored updates; widgets and tools; games and gadgets; posts and pictures. A result of Facebook’s hacker culture dedicated to the concept of “done is better than perfect” we are exposed to less of a plan in terms of total user usability. If the driving motivation of a program is simplifying connections amongst contacts, ease of use should be paramount in the development process. However, as Mark Zuckerberg sums up the core ethos behind programming the site in the Facebook IPO documentation, "hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once." This original goal has led to a focus that has drifted away from simplifying the user experience for connectivity towards inundating the masses with updates that are driven by a desperate need to keep users on the site.
The focus? Increasing individual time spent perusing their page. The unforeseen consequence of being a listed company and answering to shareholders means that Facebook now has to concentrate on a new main goal of revenue, more specifically ad revenues, and even more specifically, amount of ads placed in front of its users. The aim of all improvements, changes and upgrades to the site are there to increase the bottom line. Users, traffic, click-throughs. The recent attempt to open access to children under thirteen as user-growth wanes is another example of this. The development of the site is being focused on how best to draw new and current users, keep them there longer, and have them click on more ads. Herein lies the most concerning issue at the heart of Facebook usage, which currently accounts for 1 in every 7 minutes spent online. What is driving us to the site?
There is a reason why we check our newsfeed and look up our Facebook messages while standing in line that can innocently be described as habit, but needs to be understood. The way that our brains process rewards many times involves neurotransmitters and chemicals in our brain, such as dopamine. Many aspects of habit forming and goals stem from reward systems in the brain driven by chemicals like this. Depending on whether an action is positive or hurtful, our brain can release little triggers to steer us in the direction of that which we find pleasurable, which ideally can help in survival. Habituation stems from external goals but also these signals from our body that have us wanting to repeat whatever has been giving us a positive signal.
“In certain areas of the brain when dopamine is released it gives one the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. These feelings of satisfaction become desired, and the person will grow a desire for the satisfaction. To satisfy that desire the person will repeat behaviors that cause the release of dopamine.”
Whereas this trigger is necessary in natural scenarios, such as searching for food or for reproduction, the misallocation of the chemical can lead to unhealthy habits or addiction in worst cases. Interestingly, it’s when we put this repetitive training of our brain in the context of our hyper-connected world that some concerning thoughts appear.
“Part of what makes the Internet and its messages so attractive to your dopamine systems is that it’s unpredictable. Dopamine is stimulated by uncertainty; not knowing everything. So, when we get an alert on our phone, we’re unsure. It could be anything, a text, e-mail, a reply on Twitter or a Facebook message, we don’t know until we check it out nor do we know who’s it from or what it’s about.”
The trigger becomes the knowledge that there is a little tidbit of information waiting for us, a small present that has some mystery to it. Driven by emotion and stimulation, we are tempted to open it and get a rush. One can look at this in relation to surfing the internet, or even surfing channels. We get stimulation from seeing what’s next and what could potentially surprise us. However, once we click one link, the satisfaction is temporary and gone and leads us to look for another message/channel/website. The goal mechanism driven by our brain is helpful in keeping us alive in the wilderness while adapting to our environment, but its unfortunately not that great at helping us differentiate between pleasure now (open unread message) and creating goals for pleasure in the future (spend less time surfing so that you can study).
An alternate definition of Facebook then, can be a tool that is being updated to increase the efficiency of its ability to stimulate our inherent needs (releasing dopamine with the checking of new messages and updates/comments on our photos) while only giving us temporary satisfaction or gain from our actions (what is the actual benefit of 3 people liking an updated status). In some ways innocent, this becomes more interesting when placed side by side with the following questionnaire.
With regards to Facebook, are you showing 3 of the following 7 factors? Tolerance increase, Withdrawal, Difficulty controlling use, Negative consequences, Neglecting or postponing activities, Spending significant amount of time or emotional energy, Desire to cut down?
This is a textbook questionnaire for addiction and perhaps an explanation for why after having said that we’d just check a few updates, we can sometimes look up from a computer at 3 am, only to find ourselves viewing photos from a friend of our old boss’s girlfriend. One can see the theme of immediate gratification and short term rewards, coupled with delayed negative effects and long term costs of an increasing habit.
This may sound extreme but people need to be aware of what inherently drives their actions in order to see how it affects their day-to-day life. There is a constant impulsion in the back of one’s brain that drives them to continue doing actions that will release certain beneficial chemicals at the right time. While something as innocent as checking messages and status updates is but a step above checking emails regularly, we are increasing the efficiency and the regularity of this type of update. The stream of information feeding us this information is increase and flooding our reward mechanism, while the underlying benefits of this sort of feed are decreasing. One needs to be aware of what drives this ‘need’, especially when the ongoing goal for the company that is Facebook is to increase time spent on-site, clicks occuring on the site, and retention of eyeballs looking at ads. This is a concept that is going to be more efficiently used by marketers as it becomes more understood. Understanding by users is the key to moderation and control.
2. While this dopamine trigger is being manipulated and flooded by our activity, it is our inherent psychological desires that drive many of our actions to use and be on the website. Socially, we all want to be popular. Socially, we can all admit that no one has actual 100% self-confidence. The world is a messy place and we crave comfort, connection and acknowledgement like no other species. This, in and of itself, is nothing new or overly horrible, it’s just the nature of life. What happens when we put these needs and emotions into overdrive in a scenario where a new connection is a simple click away? What happens when we augment the frequency with which these emotions are felt, perhaps most importantly during our developing (teen) years?
“People are themselves on Facebook,” says current Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. This isn’t really the case as studies have shown that contrary to what marketing professionals and Facebook ad hopefuls believe we are not 100% honest online. The problem is that we use our online persona to do what we’ve done socially in real life, but to the millionth degree: put on a happy face. We want to be accepted! And noticed! So we advertise our best selves in the hopes that others will see us as fun, social and popular individuals. This constant focus on creating our ‘best selves” online has been seen to lead to increased depression and low-self esteem as we’ve created an ever-looping megaphone for an augmented version of the classic scenario of Keeping up with the Jones’.
Why would we be ourselves online after all? If you’re at a party with friends, you want them to know about the amazing trip that you took to Rio, the great job that you just started, and the $800 credenza that you moved into your new condo. This is more important to talk about than the shitty hotel that you stayed at while in Rio, your insecurities with your new role at work, and the fact that the credenza is really worth $50 and you bought it second hand from your sister’s neighbour.
Let’s not kid ourselves, we do this in real life as well, however, the frequency with which this happens has never been this high and this constant. “Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But not all the time, not every morning, before we even pour a cup of coffee.” There are issues that come from the misunderstood correlation that young teens are drawing when they assume that 90% of their ‘friends’ are having ‘more fun’ than they are having. They should understand that this doesn’t mean that everyone is having a perfect life and that you are the only one with problems.
But we are seeing more and more that this really is the case in studies about self-esteem and online personas. For example in a survey by the Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, researchers found that 51% of respondents said that Facebook made them feel more conscious about their weight. Currently, the effect of having regular photos online for others to see and evolving total self-presentation concepts like Timeline have made for a “camera ready” mentality in public, we find ourselves worried more about how we will appear at any given instant. Our concern increases once a camera is out and we curate daily to make sure that what does end up online is what makes us look our best. What makes us look our best has the inherent drawback of making us secretly acknowledge that our “best” online is not who we truly are, we know that we’re putting on a face and teens take this as an indication that they are not meeting society’s standards. People are now spending “…more time thinking about what’s wrong with their bodies, less time…on the positive realm and engaging in life in meaningful and fulfilling ways,” says Dr. Steven Crawford. This becomes a feedback loop that feeds on itself and can develop the kinds of insecurities that lead to drug, alcohol and depression because we unwittingly end up comparing our insides (how we feel in reality) to other people’s outsides (what they publish for others to see), while perpetuating the cycle ourselves.
“Attention is power. If your self esteem is based on how you look, then Facebook is a great place to advertise that,” says Dr. Stefanone, who looks at the social psychology of new media use. A recent study of his involved 311 university students and their sources of self-esteem. He showed that users with an abundance of flattering photos, a large number of friends, and those guilty of promiscuous friending were tied to narcissistic attributes. He wrote that “this is consistent with celebrity status … celebrities have massive, abstract audiences that observe them.” We want to be seen by other and as we search for those 15 minutes of fame, there is a draw to increase the breadth of our ‘fans’ so that we can extend our time in the spotlight. People can complain about having friends on Facebook that they don’t really know, but a feeling of being recognized by more and more people can give us a temporary belief that we matter. Much like a famous celebrity who would be devastated if their fanbase disappeared, we can desire this contact with a large anonymous group even if we don’t directly correspond with many of them. William Deresiewicz agrees that this craving is real when he writes in an article entitled The End of Solitude: “This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected…This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves – by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.”
Deresiewicz goes on to say that the problem isn’t only what we’re seeking, but also what is being forgotten. A growing unhealthy comparison of peers with a constant desire to be seen takes away from an increasingly forgotten concept: being along. It’s almost not surprising at all, though also oft ignored, that we are afraid of being alone in today’s world of ‘constant connectivity’. “Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude,” Deresiewicz says. “[They] have never heard of it, can't imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology … seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others”.
While we grow ever more involved in each others lives, we begin to lose the spaces that used to remain between us. Spending time alone is almost looked down upon while we chase more contact with others. All the while we find ourselves comparing ourselves to each other with our online personas as we do in real life, but in a way that is more constant and more potent. This need to show ourselves to others drives our motivations to present online, but also reinforces many negative beliefs that develop in young teens.
3. If we have rescinded this need to be alone for regular connection, if we’re constantly in touch with friends who are posting information about their amazing lives, and if we are moving towards constant connection, this should at least in theory help to grow our relationships as a whole. The more we look at the workings of a system like Facebook this isn’t true, it seems we are trading away depth of connections for breadth.
Let’s take one of Face book’s simplest tools as an example. While in the ongoing development of relationships online one might think that the addition of a tool like a regular birthday reminder is nothing but beneficial, the process adds more information about friends but does nothing for depth. There doesn’t exist the same emotional connection between yourself and a friend when he picks out your birthday message on his wall from a group of 50 other generic ‘happy birthdays’ if there is knowledge that the posting was automatic. On seeing this list of birthday wall posts, one has to come to a conclusion that if there were someone here who actually cares about this birthday, they would send me an actual or take the time to make a quick call if it really mattered to them. Who of this group actually cares enough about this relationship to do something beyond a reactionary click and whose message was not triggered simply as a reaction to an automatic reminder on their page?
Looking at this same theme from another perspective, the first reactions to the thought of quitting a system like Facebook are: “I won’t know about my friends having babies” or “my friends engagements will pass me by”. Now if this has become a regular feature of Facebook, the announcement of babies and engagements online, what has become of the actual act and the desire to announce it? Its become less predicated on letting our closest friends hear of our life event, and has become more of a throw-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks message. The process is becoming more automated and mechanistic. Is the importance of an engagement announcement in the actual announcement itself, or the inherent connection that you have with one of the participants which makes you excited for the fact that they have just been engaged to a person that they want to spend the rest of their lives with? There is a difference between clicking a thumbs up on an engagement post online vs. finding out about an engagement and being genuinely excited and contacting your friend directly to congratulate them. The concept that is missing is the intent. We have become a reactive populace when it comes to others lives and we have become a spamming populace when it comes to announcing developments in our own lives. Instead of focusing our biggest news: birthdays, babies, engagements, and working to let those that matter to us know about these developments, we instead look to get on the megahorn and spam our info to see what sticks, to see what bounces back. We see who reacts to our information blast and reap the dopamine rewards from the amount of reactions: likes, clicks and comments that come with it. We are becoming more enamored with the act of announcing than with the actual essence of the announcement itself (simply think of someone seeing an event, or having something big happen and being unable to hold their excitement about the prospect of being able to post it on Facebook).
William Deresiewicz wrote a complimentary article entitled Faux Friendship that ties into these ideas, this time focusing on the notion of friendship. He contends that it would be improper to label a depository of names as your friends if it’s simply a collection that you’re developing. He believes that true connections are different and compares the cataloguing of friends to a collection rather than a connection:
“There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they're not in the same place, or, rather, they're not my friends. They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.”
He goes on to mention that reaching out and touching someone meant having a conversation once. Now it has devolved to “broadcasting a stream of consciousness…to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping someone, anyone will confirm our existence by answering back.” In keeping with today’s technology jargon: “We address ourselves not to a circle, but a cloud.”
We’ve seen many times people bringing up the most personal details on each others’ Facebook walls, as if the interplay of a two person conversation made in public is somehow a broadcasted inside joke. But Deresiewicz seems almost dejected by this notion, continuing that perhaps he should “…surrender the idea that the value of friendship lies precisely in the space that privacy creates.” Maybe solitude exists to help us with connections, two people sharing ideas and thoughts outside of the public sphere could be serving a deeper purpose. Deresiewicz goes on: “There’s something faintly obscene about performing that intimacy in front of everyone you know, as if its real purpose were to show what a deep person you are.” Once again, hidden behind the actual message of a deep connection with a friend, we are seeing an increase in the satisfaction of posting the message instead of from its actual content. There is this familiar pull of our desire to not only communicate with someone, but to present ourselves to the world while we are doing it.
We are brought back to the concept of how one actually defines friendship. Deresiewicz concludes his piece with a quick thought about what true friendship could potentially be described as. Upon opining that social networking has lowered our understanding of intimacy and is reducing relationships to mere snippets of information posted online, he concludes that:
“…when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one's emotional generosity, that one's moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they've done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative.”
However dour he may be in his belief that there are many problems stemming from relying more and more on online systems to sustain our relationships, Deresiewicz’s view are paralleled by Stephen March’s. In his article, entitled Is Facebook Making Us Lonely he touches on similar themes, first, in a quote by Jaron Lanier who grows concerned that we are beginning to “…design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and [worries] about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.” The focus is this idea which has been accepted without question and has been Mark Zuckerberg’s belief for years, that increasing the frequency of information shared should lead to deeper relationships. However, Lanier continues that “the idea that a web site could deliver a more friendly, interconnected world is bogus. The depth of one’s social network outside of Facebook is what determines the depth of ones social network on Facebook, not the other way around.”
Perhaps most frighteningly, the understanding of the ideas of authenticity, regular information and frequency will first be explored by the current miners of all of our information: social media marketers. With the growth of social media, companies are scrambling to be personal, to connect with their clients on a in a more authentic fashion. Much like a birthday message is a better relationship builder when the sender has authentic intention behind it, the best marketing messages are the ones that aren’t spammed but show intention and the true nature of a company looking to connect and help. For example, this could be when there is an actual direct connection between a small company’s CEO and a client to help with a complaint. We can see how the connection doesn’t occur when it is spammed megaphone-style in the form of a tweet from a company PR twitter feed, looking to connect with the general population on a vague idea. A start-up whose CEO emails a client in response to a personal complaint raises trust and connection with a company. The CEO of Hotdog Co. having PR professionals post ‘delicious summer dog highlights’ on the company twitter feed is seen as just another ad. Similarly, someone messaging a small group of friends directly to let them know that they are engaged breeds a deeper connection than a status update posted to 400 friends regarding something that was done last weekend. In both cases, the development that happens with trying to reach out to peers, being selective, seeing the reciprocity, creates deeper bonds and relationships as we end up seeing who is dependable, who actually want to let us know and believes we would be interested, and who is curious in our lives. We become less of a billboard for our lives and more of a connected player.
This deeper style of connection comes at a price, and perhaps here lies another key driver and problem with Facebook. Constant connectivity gives us a listening ear and even a shoulder to cry on constantly, even if it is more superficial. The truth is that rather than building hundreds of shallow relationships and focusing on a small amount of deeper ones, a person must accept a more regular amount of time spent alone. As mentioned before, being alone should not be a bad thing. Deresiewicz compares the relationship between the concepts of solitude and loneliness, to the concepts of idleness and boredom. “That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude,” he says, “…which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company; it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom.”
By allowing us to avert the situation of being alone, Facebook has grown to give us increasing, constant and superficial contact with hundreds, instead of sporadic, fluctuating and deep contact with a handful. Alone time looks like a disappearing concept; not because we are consciously eliminating it, but because we are fleeing from it. Deresiewicz goes on to say that constant contact has led us to lose the benefits and key reasons for being alone in that we seem to have lost a “…sense of [our] own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden”. Who wants to keep things private in a world of celebrity and self-promotion? More importantly, we have lost our ability to step back, to sigh and enjoy a moment of solitude. If ideas like solitude have been eroded then it’s important to note which direction we are headed.
4. The need for a concept like frictionless sharing leads some to believe that the direction of social media towards even more openness and ‘sharing of everything’. Though far from just being a social tool, frictionless sharing is probably the best example of what the actual driver of Facebook innovation will continue to be: ads. The way that Mark Zuckerberg has presented frictionless sharing leads one to believe that it stems from a natural extrapolation of how a social network is growing, an inherent need. He mentions that: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people - and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time”. This is correct, if only that we have grown more open to letting strangers into our lives and into material that we are readily putting on the internet. Followed by the introduction of frictionless sharing which Zuckerberg says is “sharing that occurs without any additional effort required…” and where “no activity is too big or too small to share.” the next step up from social network connectivity is constant contact social networks. People know what you’re doing, where you are and what you’re thinking, at all times. It’s an all-encompassing concept, though one needs to ask whether it is needed or even beneficial.
The idea that comes to mind again is our need and desire to be seen by others, as well as the concept of individuals wanting their 15 minutes of fame in a world where celebrity and popularity are touted as all-important goals in life. This is a concept that we’ve seen develop as Livejournal opened millions of peoples’ inner thoughts to the public or as YouTube celebrities started filming more and more of their lives for others to follow. We are a step away from having celebrities and non-celebrities livefeeding their lives constantly with cameras on their heads from morning to night. Tune in for Kim Kardashian eating breakfast at 9am followed by a trip to the mall. When it comes to our desire to tune in and watch the minutiae of someone else’s life, or even to publish our own, we again see the craving for attention and fame.
Looking at such motivations, Boston University researchers presented a model to explain Facebook usage and their findings came down to two areas: the need for self-presentation and the need to belong. We will always need a community to support us and belong to, Facebook can potentially help to foster that, but we would be amiss to think that our need for self-presentation has not been kicked into overdrive with an ever-increasing flow of information shared online.
However, maybe frictionless sharing, is a concept that is already dead on arrival. We’ve already seen collapse in interest in making ‘opting out’ the norm for sharing. Whereas the Facebook team seems to think that this could be the next evolution in sharing, some seem to think that it isn’t quite the right move, including radio app Pandora’s CTO Tom Conrad. “There is a segment for sure that wants to really promiscuously share and wants to hear about everything that their friends are listening to," he was quoted as saying. "There is a really large percentage of the Pandora audience that actually aren't interested at all in what their friends are listening to. They don't want to spam their entire social network with things they're discovering." We can think of many situations that could be similar, such as a respected professor who would not want an article that he just read about Justin Bieber immediately being forwarded to his newsfeed alongside a few academic journals.
Right now, frictionless sharing appears like an idea being pushed onto a population where it is not needed. It appears to be the Facebook team putting the cart before the horse: the cart being Facebook’s need to grow now that it has to answer to questions about quarterly earnings, and the horse being its clients, the users. However, if we reassess who the actual clients of Facebook are, perhaps we can see a world where frictionless sharing is actually a great corporate move by the company. The idea doesn’t grow naturally from a need of the clients if we keep thinking of the users as the clients. However, it does come as a natural next step if we look at who the actually clients of Facebook are, the advertisers. If the company is driven by regular revenue reports and the need to increase its earnings growth, it has to increase the amount of people clicking on ads and time spent on the site. To do this, they have to grow the amount of information that they can collect about users and the amount of information being presented to them. Once again, a look at the priorities of the system: usability vs. keeping people on the site. A recent New York Times article highlighted some of these specific ideas stating that “Facebook executives say they don’t expect everyone in the country to sign up. Instead they are working on ways to keep current users on the site longer, which gives the company more chances to show them ads.” Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner, in the same New York Times article goes on to say “What does matter, is Facebook’s ability to keep its millions of current users entertained and coming back. They’re likely more worried about the novelty factor wearing off. That’s a continual problem that they’re solving, and there are no permanent solutions.” If we put it this way, the concept of frictionless sharing makes absolute sense as the next evolution for marketers in that it increases exponentially the amount of information about user habits that is pushed to Facebook’s clients and the amount of potential product information that is pushed towards users. “Disguising ads as your friends’ updates is being offered up as an antidote to the dismal click-through rates for traditional web advertising. Sponsored stories in your feed and sidebar ads based on your friends’ likes will become ubiquitous”. A world where everything we do and like is a marketer’s dream. Perhaps we won’t notice when more and more friends’ posts become ads, but then maybe that isn’t the next healthy and natural evolution of communication.
There are no allusions for one to assume that Facebook will just stop being used. Much like television at home, Facebook, or at least the concept of a Facebook-like website is here to stay as a tool. However, just like television is still omnipresent in houses, there have been movements and an understanding of the need to limit its usage, to turn off the ‘idiot box’, especially for the younger generation. In the case of Facebook it is important to become aware of how something as simple as regular checking of the newsfeed is potentially growing to hijack our reward systems. Or how regular creeping can lead to lower self-esteem as individuals fall into a constant loop of self-presentation and promotion. Once one is aware of what drives them to the site and what motivates them to creep on photos of friends of friends, and what leads to the strange disconnect of “I wanted to do that but now I just feel like I wasted the last three hours,” then one can be more conscious of using it only when it is actually needed.
Facebook’s ubiquity and accelerating leads should lead to some thought about how a sustained system that taps into peoples’ motivations like this will affect us in the future. We’ve had a test run of a similar system when televisions first came out but we now see a similar system evolving on a much more constant and potent level. What does a system like this do for a person’s ever-evolving goal-setting system or reward system? How does it affect our views of popularity and need for approval from others; this fine balance between our craving to belong and our actual self-confidence? Finally, how are relationships affected as we grow increasingly used to billboard style spam announcements of our lives vs. seeking and growing deeper and more personal connections with a small set of close friends?
The truth is that there are benefits from a tool that provides a centralized contact management and communication system over the internet, but Facebook has grown beyond that and become a cluttered distraction and opiate for the masses. Zuckerberg had a point when he said that the social norm is evolving when it comes to sharing information. We need to assess whether we are moving it in the right direction and what else is affected by this shift. While we never decided that the television would be something that should be banned from all houses because of how much of a time sink it was, we still grew to have a conversation about the importance of limiting the amount of time that children spend in front of the idiot box. Similarly, it’s important to talk about the effects that a system like Facebook has on young and older minds alike, and to look at consciously limiting our time in front of the new and improved social idiot box.
The focus of this piece is not to just bash Facebook, nor is should we be as idyllic as to assume that we could see a whole scale exodus from the website with people hitting the streets in Hare Krishna ecstasy, holding hands and growing their relationships with face to face contact. As is the problem with any proposed “self-betterment” information, the majority of people may agree with the assumption but presume that it is too simplistic. There will be the usual brushing off of “that’s not me, I can control it” or “that’s not really that bad”. Some will take a step back and reassess how their habits have changed, what they can do to rewire their reward systems for more useful goals, and potentially limit the amount of dopamine that they get from Facebook clicks. Sometimes simply knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing, and why we react to chemical, emotional and subconscious triggers allows us to better assess our choices and decisions and adjust them for the better.
I’m no Luddite and I didn’t expect to become the cranky old man yelling at kids from across the street about the good old days at the age of 28, but the forefront of Facebook discussions should move beyond IPO valuations, privacy issues and advertising revenue and towards the long lasting effects of a misallocated reward system on our self-esteem, motivations and relationships.
“Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose...”
― Neil Postman
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