I joined Facebook in 2004, when it was open only to students at a handful of colleges. Its purpose was as straightforward as it was self-absorbed: to share cute photos of yourself, and see cute photos of your classmates.
Facebook rapidly became much more than that. People “friended” family members, old classmates, long-lost loves. I’m still “friends” with people I met years ago while traveling; I scroll through my list of Facebook friends and don’t recognize half of them, sometimes because our lives intersected only briefly, or because they are women with new married names, their old identities abandoned.
People who share a particular affinity, identity or political view can connect in solidarity or for advocacy. Owners of vegan cats have a group home on Facebook, as do adherents of atheist dialectical materialist revolutionary Trotskyist communism.
But those seemingly limitless opportunities for connection and information come with troubling, sometimes disastrous side effects. If Facebook is where you get your news and information, for example, you are being led down an algorithmic path that rewards extremism and partisanship, not accuracy.
If Facebook is how you peer into the lives of people you only tangentially know, you’re getting a distorted, manipulated-to-look-better view of them — and that could make you feel pretty low.
(In a statement during Monday’s quarterly earning’s call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the current wave of criticism around the news reports: “Good faith criticism helps us get better, but my view is that we are seeing a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” he said. “The reality is that we have an open culture that encourages discussion and research on our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific just to us.”)
It’s not inherently bad to use social media. But each of us should understand the costs and the benefits and make decisions about how we spend our time with as much intention as possible– admittedly a difficult thing to do when the brightest minds of my generation have been hard at work trying to keep all of us on their platforms for as much time as possible.
The ills wrought by Facebook, and those we haven’t yet uncovered about so many other social media platforms, aren’t fixable by individual choices alone. These companies, Facebook in particular, have enormous power over what we see, what’s hidden from view, and how we communicate. All of that shapes how each of us views the world and what we believe — and even how we behave.
With stakes that high, the lack of transparency and oversight is unconscionable and dangerous. These companies need to face reasonable regulation to keep them from driving and magnifying some of our worst human impulses.
If one thing is clear, though, it’s that there is no silver bullet fix to the disasters social media companies have wrought — there’s no perfect set of individual decisions, and there’s not a potential regulatory policy that is without its own pitfalls.
Perhaps the scariest fact in all of this is that we still don’t know the scope of the harm caused by moving so much of our lives online, particularly to young people who have never known a world in which it was otherwise.
It is easy to convince ourselves that these extremely powerful companies are not actually shaping our opinions and experiences. It is easier still to be entertained into inertness. At the very least, the public deserves a clear understanding of how these products work — including how they work us.