I gave up Facebook for Lent this year. Actually I gave up social media in general, spurning my newly acquired Twitter account, and my Google+ as well (yes, I still hold out hope that more people will move there.) This wasn’t a new exercise for me. I also did it last year, and the year before that I gave up non-essential components of the internet, which was even more difficult.
This year, something was different. I had a slowly dawning realization that Facebook had changed into something that was NOT FUN. I’ve always been more of the lurking variety of user, using the site to keep track of what friends are doing and whatnot, but I found that I was just checking it impulsively, like it was a scab I had to keep picking at. Nothing new or interesting was popping into my feed. I wasn’t getting tagged in any photographs, or even using it to have conversations with friends. My Lenten breaks from social media allowed me to reconfigure a little, make my usage a little less repetitive, but the incessant desire to check was still there.
The thing was, I knew why I was checking it so impulsively. I was looking to Facebook for some sort of social interaction, the ‘social’ in ‘social media.’ Back when I was in undergrad, that made some sort of sense. My friends would be there, and people would regularly post pictures or make comments about things that affected our social group. In short it was interesting, relevant to my life, and there was meaningful interaction (mostly alcohol fueled).
Now, my notifications bar has never really glowed as red with updates as other peoples’ do—at least from what I’ve gleaned from looking over shoulders—but the days of social media where my Facebook experience actually matched up with my social life are over. The site has degenerated into, as far as I can see:
- an event planner (which it is good at)
- an email/IM system (which it is okay at) and
- a bad link aggregator (Seriously, I do not need to see the latest version of that photoshop meme. It wasn’t funny the first time, nor the two hundredth time).
On top of all this, as previously mentioned, I get no joy out of Facebook anymore. This seems very odd to me. I’m a computer person. I enjoy programming. The web seems like a place where an introvert, such as myself, should be able to do okay socially. It allows for the safety of relative anonymity, the time to formulate clever responses, and the reduction of awkward things like body language to mere emoticons. Yet I feel like a social media failure.
Before I get into the reasons why I think this is the case, I’m going to preface the remainder of this blog post by stating that this is all based on my own personal experiences and the few conversations I’ve had with people about this sort of thing. If you love Facebook, and social media in general, well bully for you! But the thing is that your internet experience isn’t like other people’s. We all like to assume that other people browse like us, but the internet is, in many ways, a deeply private affair. The way we interact with it is something we don’t share with other people very much, whether it’s the browser we use, the sites we regularly visit, or the tools we use for getting around.
So, let me begin.
Screaming at the Storm
It is human nature to filter information. Most of what we get from our own eyes gets weeded out by our brain before passing before the conscious mind, discarded as unimportant by a cortex that’s trying to do things like navigate the turnoff from the freeway. In this age of the internet we’re being bombarded with more information than we’ve ever had to deal with before: blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, email, and a zillion websites.
In a way, this is nothing really new. As a society, we’re had to slowly deal with a growing amount of information in our lives, from the first printed books, to the telegraph, telephone, and television. The internet and social media merely form the tip of the exponential curve. However, we’re only just now beginning to develop the means of dealing with this new tidal wave of information into our lives as everyone piles onto the internet. So how to deal? How to filter what all your friends (and family, coworkers, enemies) are posting and saying?
Some of the more technologically savvy or TED talk obsessed of you will probably know that Facebook and Google are already doing some of your filtering for you. With Facebook’s more recent modifications—allowing for Google+ like circles and modifying what you see of any individual friend’s postings—it’s given you additional controls over what you see. While I found these additions a pain at first, it did allow me to get my feed under control (after the filter change flooded it of course). For this I salute the Zuckerberg. However, there’s a negative aspect to filtering, that I don’t think Eli Pariser addresses.
I like using Facebook to have interactions. Preferably intellectual arguments, but I’ll settle for comments on good party photographs, no matter now compromising. The format is not the most ideal for the first example—Facebook comments don’t really lend themselves to windy discussion—but it’s still doable. I’ve noticed, however, that after my social group/Facebook alignment ceased, the most recent thing to go was that possibility for discussion. I would try posting interesting things, some which I thought might be controversial, in the hopes of sparking discussion, but all to no avail. So why post or contribute content if all I get, at best, is a few likes? The purpose of social media after all, should be social, to encourage interaction instead of mindless linkage and information consumption.
I would put this down to merely another change in the zeitgeist of my Facebook friend list, a side effect of people getting older and having less time to spend arguing on the Internets, but I think it’s more than that. I’ve posted content from my blog on Facebook a number of times in order to get people to look at it. It hasn’t generated much response, but my initial assessment was that people glanced at it, saw it as uninteresting, and moved on.
However I later had a conversation with a (real) friend of mine, whom I see often, in which I mentioned that she would know a certain detail about me (I always carry a pocket knife) if she ever read my blog. To which her reply was: ‘You have a blog?’
And there’s the essential problem in that question. Even if we filter the information we receive from social media to a manageable level, we don’t have control over the social media controls of other people, so even people close to us can filter us out by accident or simply lose track of our occasional contribution in the information storm.
I see really only two ways to actually get people to notice my odd post or scribble. One would be to post incessantly, like some people I know. However this simply contributes to the information storm problem, a party room conversation issue where everyone yells to try and be heard over everyone else, so that everyone ends up yelling and no one hears much of what anybody says. The other method would be to directly tag people, which feels a very heavy-handed solution, especially if you want more than a handful of people to read what you’ve posted.
The general impression I now have when I try to share anything on Facebook is that I’m trying to shout over the sound of a great storm and no one can hear me. I’ve tried fighting against this, by looking for articles or clever things to say that would cut through all the hubbub, so people might actually comment on what I post, or even just ‘like’ it, but it’s inevitably a waste of time and effort online. If no one cares, then why feed the great machine?
As a final note on this point,, one of the more interesting takes I’ve seen on the problem of information overload is the idea the problem isn’t the excess of information, but our over-consumption of it. Hence, the idea of the information diet. While I find this analysis persuasive, I don’t think it’s really a solution here, because my ability to communicate with other people, which should be a cornerstone of social media is compromised by other people’s information diets.
The Aging of a Network User (or Why I Used to Be Like My Sister)
I have a younger sister (high school age) which has given me an interesting perspective on why my Facebook experience has changed. From what I’ve noticed of her activity, it’s very similar to what mine used to be, back in the Halcyon days when the site was the domain of university students. Her Facebook experience augments her real world social interactions. Conversations are conducted both on and offline, events are photographed, uploaded, and then commented on at length. In short, things that used to happen in my social circle, but no longer do at any appreciable level.
What I think is happening, is that my social network has aged. My social group has become less cohesive and more privacy concerned as we’ve grown up (sort of) and graduated from university. With more people working and not as geographically or socially concentrated, Facebook becomes that place to show interesting things we find on the web, aka an aggregator. We essentially cease to become content creators or commentators, and become simply link sharers and readers. Which is completely fine; it’s just that there are places specifically designed for that sort of thing, like Reddit. I mean if we want to escape from the dark forces of introspection, there’s really nothing like the internet. I just don’t care most of what people post, even with filters on. Damn Photoshop memes.
I imagine that my sister and her friends are going to go through a similar transition as they leave the little bubbles afforded to them by education and start worrying about what potential employers might think of their party photographs. Assuming that Facebook is around that long, of course. [I’m not predicting the imminent demise of the giant of social media, but the internet is a fast and cruel place. Remember Netscape? Myspace?] It would be interesting to watch how that generation handles things, but unfortunately, that’s outside my article scope. I will note that the other important difference between my sister and myself is that she’s more extroverted/sociable than I am, as that leads into my next point.
I’m introverted. If people at parties had labels above their heads, mine would read: ‘the quiet guy in the corner who doesn’t say anything.’ The internet and other geeky stuff often suits the introverted as they may control—slowly and at their own leisure—the degree and nature of their interaction with other individuals, groups, and ideas, behind a safe veil of anonymity if they so choose. But social media isn’t for the introverted. It’s for the extroverted.
Let’s take that basic idea of the internet that makes it a whirling wild west of crazy people—anonymity. Nothing makes people act like they’re in Lord of the Flies like anonymity. Just glance at a comment board anywhere.
Social media takes that anonymity away. People know who you are when you post under your Facebook status. Your identity is directly tied to that account in a way that it isn’t to your email or whatever moniker you used on forums or chatrooms you may have been active on back in the day. Other social media sites display this hard established identity, but none are so directly tied to who you are as your Facebook account is. That’s why employers check it in order to judge your characters, news reporters trawl it for portraits if you should die in a tragic accident, and why some people are pushing for it to get used as a universal identity everywhere on the internet.
Now, I’m not saying this is a Bad Thing. In some ways it’s good. Being tied to your identity makes you less likely act like a crazy person on the internet and forces you to act in a more civilized manner because there are consequences to your comments. However, if you’re an introvert, then being yourself means not saying much. I can’t speak for other people, but with the added effect of being drowned out by the filter bubble, this just encourages me to say nothing, to lurk instead of contribute. In which case, my Facebook becomes a very lonely and passive experience, a non-social social media experience. For people who are extroverted, this isn’t a problem. They initiate interactions with their friends effortlessly, while I am reluctant to start conversations, even with close friends, as they never start conversations with me.
The lack of social cues on Facebook also messes with my head, especially with comment exchanges or non-messenger conversations. I find they end very abruptly, when one person is just tired of the exchange, and that’s that. However, I over-think the ending. Did that exchange end because it was played out, or because the other person thought whatever I said was weird/strange and decided to just end the conversation? Despite my generally anti-social outlook, I like conversations to have some sort of end to them, even if it’s ‘got to go, ttyl.’ I’m not just introverted; I’m over analytical. I’m going to assume the worst when our exchange ends, especially if I say something weird and strange, which is often.
Essentially this boils down to me having not that many conversations by means of Facebook, and the ones I do have I over analyze, because I can’t get a grip on why the other person is acting the way they are. Perhaps this will all be solved when we get universal video conferencing, but I doubt it.
You’re DOING IT WRONG
I’m going to take a brief pause here, to counter some people’s remarks that will likely take the form of YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. My counter is simple. If any technology requires a user making large changes to their personal behaviour that would make them become uncomfortable (extroversion, putting immense amounts of effort into getting feedback, etc.) then that technology is not worth it, at least for the user in question. If Facebook wants to keep me as a regular user, it has to tailor its functionality to meet my needs, instead of me tailoring my needs to fit Facebook’s design. While a number of the factors that I think are responsible for me not enjoying Facebook—such as network aging and filter control—are not directly in Zuckerburg’s hands, the general states do arise from the information architecture that Facebook has created and so are not likely to change.
Internet Architecture and Why It Matters
There are two more things I’d like to touch on before I conclude, that actually made me think seriously about this topic on more than a personal level. Both of them have to do with the architecture of the internet and the structures we create there, such as social media. Those architectures shape how we interact with the internet and how we interact with each other. With the internet increasingly permeating and influencing our society, they are, in turn, influencing and shaping us. Therefore it’s important that we make good architectures and choose good structures with which to use and interact.
Many people think that Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship because books get burned. It actually isn’t (or at least wasn’t intended as such). The book is essentially a diatribe against the mind-numbing effects of television, which in the book’s universe leads us to dumbing down things into shorter and shorter sound-bites and intense images, until the ideas in books start to scare people unaccustomed to having their comfortable views challenged—hence the burning. In our modern age of information overload, Bradbury’s vision is perhaps even more relevant than it was in the age of far fewer channels. Indeed, he has said something about us having ‘too many internets.’
However television didn’t destroy us, so perhaps we’ll get a handle on these Internets as well. I think the important thing to remember is that any technology is not a good in and of itself. It’s also probably best to think of the internet as providing an augmented reality instead of a virtual one. Social media, such as Facebook, is most successful where it augments our real world experiences, whether that’s increasing our online interaction with our real world friends or becoming Foursquare Mayor of the local coffee shop. The anonymous virtual realities we’ve built, such as Second Life, tend to be a little on the sleazy side and not as popular (Seriously, don’t go there. You might get digital herpes).
All technology takes the form of a prosthetic; it allows us to do things we couldn’t do before, or makes the things we can do easier. When we have to question technology, is if our dependence on, or the use of , that prosthetic endangers us or hampers our ability to do the very thing we’re trying to do. Cell phones allow us to talk to whoever we want, whenever we want, but if everyone is bringing their smart phone to a party and spending more time on them than talking to the real people around them, then something isn’t quite right.
For me, Facebook as social prosthetic isn’t really that helpful. I can get most of the functionality I want out of it elsewhere. What I want Facebook to do for me (provide an easy, online social experience) isn’t possible without drastically changing my behavior or who I am. It’s a case of social media that distracts without providing anything really meaningful in my life, in the end only making me feel lonely and disconnected from people.
Now what Facebook (unpleasantly) is still useful for is keeping a directory of people you know, and (unfortunately) my social group still uses it occasionally, so giving it up completely is a difficulty. So I won’t be deleting my account or anything so drastic, but instead drastically reduce my time on it.
Evidently there are people out there who are fairly decent at ignoring Facebook and getting on with their lives. I see their accounts like the ruins of empty cities, cleaned of walls or personal photos. They are mainly people I perceive as having lives of the non-introverted variety, but perhaps I can imitate them in my own small way, reduce my presence here to a footnote, cutting away pictures and walls till I am but a shadow of myself. I shall fade, and go into the west.
I don’t think I’ll be giving up Facebook for Lent anymore, because I don’t aim to be here more than once a week if I can help it. I’ll use that time I would have spent hitting the refresh button in other ways. I will write, code, go for long walks, and maybe even talk to real people. Little old introverted me prefers the company of flesh and blood.
At the end of the day, I think we have to decide on what we want from social media. So I have to ask: are you on Facebook because you enjoy it and think it’s a good system? Or are you here simply because of inertia, because everyone else is? Remember that while the internet may not be a democracy, you are essentially voting by the spending of your electronic time, by your membership and the content you surrender to the great internet titans. What do you want your social media to look like?