I don’t hate social media.
Staying in touch with friends is nice, and low effort sites like Facebook are quite good for that.
Or at least they used to be.
I started using Facebook to play games — word games, specifically, but long distance board games in general. I might not even have made an account at the time if Scrabble wasn’t mired in intercontinental rights issues.
And it was fun: I kept my Legally Distinct Word Game skills fresh, and I stayed in touch with people I liked.
That continued as I reestablished contact with schoolmates and folks from other parts of my life over the years: I got to say hello to people I liked but without the considerable effort of a phone call or letter — frequent glancing contact rather than infrequent (or, more likely, absent) deep contact. This really is the genius of social networks.
And as a social network I have no issue at all with Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+ *, or any of them. You are interacting with people, you are being notified about things that people you know are doing or saying.
Honestly, I don’t even mind advertising, not really. I don’t enjoy it, and autoplay video ads with sound can die in a fire**, but I understand the need for it. Hyperefficient server farms don’t run for free.
Where I start to have trouble is with algorithmic feeds, and with forced engagement.
A Brief Digression About Time Management
I’ve tried lots of systems to manage my time and the things that I want to fill it with. The structure I am using now, Three Things, is more robust than anything else I’ve used.
Previous efforts have floundered either because they were too complex (ie there was too much overhead to maintain) or too overwhelming (ie they made explicit the existential dread that I experience when I think about how much there is for me to do). The best of these failed systems were paper-based but in trying to capture my world I ended up flooding my inbox, which triggered the existential dread.
But the worst system for me was the Palm Pilot, because not only did it make terrifyingly manifest how many things I had to do, but it automatically carried incomplete tasks forward.
That automation meant that I did not need to dig into my lists to make them: the huge lists were created for me. It also meant that I didn’t remember to look at the list. And a todo list you’re not looking at is a waste of everybody’s time.
Automation and Attention
I love automation of work. If I can write a short program to perform a task then I can repeat that work in an error-free way indefinitely.
Automation which shortcuts attention seems profoundly flawed, however. It’s too easy to lose connection with the work you’re doing or the life you’re trying to lead. That’s the problem I have with an algorithmic feed — what you see is not decided by simple rules that you can navigate (eg newest first) but by unscrutinisable knowledge systems whose rules no one understands.
Even the word “algorithm” is a misnomer here, because an algorithm is a repeatable, explicable set of steps to perform a task. The neural networks trained to show us what will keep us on the site for longest are not explicable, and they are only repeatable inasmuch as the same training inputs can be fed to them.
Algorithmic feeds are an answer to a question that users of the site were not asking, and they are too easily manipulated and subverted. I’ve heard people complain that friends thought they were dead because they hadn’t posted on Facebook in so long, when they had been posting every day but those posts weren’t being shown in the friend’s feed.
For users it is better to keep the rules simple, and have searches and filters to let people find the content they want.
Make It So
Facebook’s users are not its customers. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers and the consumers of user data.
The job of Facebook is to keep you on the site as long as possible to show you ads and gather information about you. You might have just gone in to check on your reading group page, but Facebook will show you things in your feed that will distract you from that task. If you like reading, maybe you will want to see ads for reading glasses. Or maybe you’re in your seventies: perhaps your hearing is failing? Perhaps you’re susceptible to right wing media?
That post from your old schoolfriend yesterday — you liked it, but you didn’t comment. You commented on that media story about the whales causing global warming, though. Maybe we’ll show you more of that instead of your schoolfriend’s post from today; you spent more time with the whale story, after all.
And so many of the posts you see aren’t lovely stories from your friends, or jokes, or things they’ve actually said: they’re bad memes, or reposted nonsense about how it’s the chemtrails really, or miserably derivative surveys.
I like the people I am friends with, but I want to interact with them as friends not as media repeaters.
Calling Facebook just a social network now is wrong; even the term social media is a little behind. Facebook is a digital media platform with a social component.
In other words it’s not the concept that’s a problem, it’s the automation. Having a site to send messages amongst your social group is fine — laudable, even — but having an algorithm choosing who your friends are (ie whose posts you see) is not.
[*] what a missed opportunity Google+ was!
[**] those intrusive video ads are the explicit reason I installed an ad blocker.