Checking Intuitions – Is Facebook As Bad As We Think?

Last week, I published a long, rambley set of thoughts about my relationship to Facebook.  The following night, I sat down with a group of friends to discuss a taped forum discussion published by the CBC.  If you have never looked into CBC’s programming, particularly their show Ideas, and their daily program The Current, I highly recommend them.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/screened-off-the-dangers-of-an-insular-web-1.3937638

It’s always good to check your intuitions and opinions against what others think, because sometimes its possible that your biases blind you to alternative considerations.

Now, what I’m about to write about is entirely unverified and does not serve as an argument on any side of this debate.  This post is not meant to deliver any definitive answers on the topic of whether Facebook (or the modern internet) is less democratized, more problematic, or having a polarizing effect on how people think.  What I wish to capture is how my mind expanded a bit when I listened to how others viewed the podcast topic and their reactions to it.

Going into the meeting, I felt that I aligned with the views discussed in the program.  I feel that people are polarizing in the online echo-chamber communities and that the internet, or specifically products created for the web, are designed to be attractive and modify behaviour to increase engagement.  Shallow content and emotional shortcuts are easily bypassing critical thought and our ability to maintain our attention is being eroded.

There were two counter thoughts brought up at the meeting that significantly shook my opinion.  Again, I pose these as items to consider, not definitive rebuttals to the original claims.

Rose-Coloured Nostalgia

The first assumption challenge by one friend was that the understanding and explanation of how the internet is currently, and how the internet “used to be,” do not adequately reflect reality.  In the first instance, the speakers on the program are only speaking to a mainstream understanding of social media.  They use Facebook as the default conversation piece because it is the highest trafficked site, however their descriptions do not account for all uses of the net, nor all demographic engagements.  In fact, Facebook-use is in decline among younger internet uses (“old people got on Facebook and ruined it”).

But in the second instance, my friend (whom is a few years older than I am) disagrees with the assumption that the internet in the late-90’s and early 2000’s was more democratized.  On a purely surface level, sure, it was more democratized because there were less corporate products.  But at the same time, the internet was more closed off to the mass market because no one knew how to use the internet.  Without the advent of streamlined user-interfaces, most people lacked the technical skills to adequately use the internet beyond services provided by internet providers (the Yahoo’s, the AOL’s, etc.).

I realized that my understanding and buy-in for the arguments is predicated on an understanding of the internet that I have no direct experience of.  I only started using the web in 1998, compliments of AOL and the many coasters they sent to our house.  Other than chat rooms and Slingo, my recollection of the net pre-2000 is pretty spotty.  I have nothing that informs my opinion on the matter, and it’s entirely possible that I’m agreeing with a characterization of the web that is out of line with reality.

Deep Data

Another excellent criticism that another friend raised is that Facebook isn’t necessarily forcing people into echo-chambers, nor are people necessarily becoming more radical in their views.  In fact, we don’t really know what’s happening relative to the pre-2000’s.  For the first time in history, we are able to collect massive amounts of data on the reading habits of people online.  Until recently, understanding where people seek out content, how they share, what they share, what they click through, etc, was not possible to the degree we are seeing now.  It’s bad for us to see the limited data and fit a worldview to it.  Quite simply, we don’t know if Facebook is changing anything, or if we are just able to glimpse into the minds of others for the first time.

But, you may say, “I’ve been on Facebook since the mid-2000’s and I’ve noticed a shift in my news feed.”  Yes, that’s true.  It’s also true that algorithms are more sophisticated now to curate your news feed.  The only thing missing from that consideration is that the sample size for you has changed.  If Facebook’s size had remained constant, we could potentially make an inference to how Facebook has impacted people.  Instead, Facebook has gone from being the domain of college students (a typically liberal-leaning demographic) to high school students (remember when we thought that was a mistake, and these kids shouldn’t be on the network) to when our parents joined Facebook (ugh! They ruined Facebook!).  Consider an alternative perspective – our experience of other people on Facebook was initially biased, and then regressed back to the mean once the user pool expanded to include non-university users (which is a fairly homogeneous class of people, all things considered).

Closing Thoughts

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what’s right, but I suppose that’s a good thing.  Recognizing that my own views and opinions should be treated as suspect is a valuable insight to have.  It requires a level of self-awareness that usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion in today’s media.  Instead, everyone seems to speak from a position of authority that I feel as though I lack in my internal monologue.  Maybe my friends are correct, and that the think-pieces about the dangers of walled-gardens and the role that social media has on our ability to think critically is all smoke and little fire.  To be fair, where there is smoke, there is usually fire, so there is *something* there that needs to be discussed.

I appreciate the insight my friends brought to the table.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the answers they gave above are wholly connected to their fields of expertise.  The first friend has a PhD in criminology and has studied deviance online.  The second friend works in marketing for a major Canadian food company.  Their experiences are helpful to provide alternative viewpoints to my own, and if it is true that you are the average of the 5 people you most commonly associate with, it’s a pretty powerful example to me of the value in a diversity (plurality) of thought.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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