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.

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,


Signal and Noise – Facebook, We Need to Talk

Continuing the emergent theme of January for this blog, I thought this post could discuss some of the thoughts that have been mulling around in my head for the last few months.  Once again, in the spirit of pulling back and simplifying, I’ll briefly comment on some thoughts I’ve had about Facebook (specifically) and social media (generally).

This won’t be a think piece about the problems with the various platforms, their social responsibility, the degree to which they are or are not responsible for the behaviours of their users, etc.  There are many great articles written on those topics that have spun out as a consequence of the American Presidential election late last year.  I have nothing new or clever to add to that conversation.

Instead, I want to focus on my relationship with social media – how it has affected me and my behaviour.  You, my dear reader, may or may not agree with my attitude towards social media.  That’s ok.  I’m not speaking to any sort of norms here.  I don’t think people should adopt my views if they don’t want to.  Your relationship with social media is wholly bound up in a different set of lived experiences which is not guaranteed to overlap with mine in any meaningful sense.  I will be describing my experiences here.

Birthday 2015

In 2015, I set a challenge for myself to cut back on my Facebook use.  I felt that I was spending far too much time endlessly and mindlessly scrolling through Facebook.  This challenge was motivated by a desire to be more productive in my life.  I wanted to consume less and produce more; I felt this was important for me to grow as a person.  Facebook was a constant and daily consumption habit where I binged on updates from my network of friends and family.  It was less about a sense of fear of missing out and more about seeking updates to what people were doing and things they found interesting.

So, on my birthday in 2015, I deleted the app off my phone.  The experiment wasn’t very successful as I logged into Facebook using my phones Chrome browser (I had legitimate reasons to need onto the site initially since my job at the bar uses a Facebook group for scheduling shifts).  When I didn’t log off from the browser, I essentially was left with Facebook on my phone.

It took until around September of 2016 to wise up to my usage, and I deleted the Chrome app from my phone.  For the last 4 months of 2016, I abided by the spirit of the original challenge and things were good.

Birthday 2016

Every year at the outset of my birthday, on the stroke of midnight, I deactivate my Facebook account for 24-hours.  I do this for a number of reasons.  It allows me to be more present in the day.  It allows room to reflect and introspect.  I don’t have a constant deluge of notifications from people wishing me a happy birthday (especially from people who only message me once a year because Facebook tells them it’s my birthday).  And it removes a mindless activity so that I can do more productive things with my birthday, such as exercising and volunteering.

This year was no exception on that front.  What was unique was that my birthday was buttressed against several days of travel and time with family.  For the better part of  the next five days,  I was busy with family and Christmas, and was never near a computer with enough time or the desire to check Facebook.  I realized only after my family expressed concern that I had possibly unfriended them (and my fiancee joking that she was no longer engaged to someone on Facebook) that I finally logged back in.

Upon logging back in, I realized that I hadn’t really missed the experience.  The first few days did have me missing Facebook in moments of boredom, but otherwise I hadn’t really missed using the service.  I was actually a little sad that I was giving in and returning to the service because it became a game to see how long I could go without using Facebook.

I also realized that I felt happier in my ignorance.  Well, that’s not true because I still followed the news and read articles; I kept up with current events.  But in not paying attention to the micro-updates in peoples lives and in unverified news, a weight had lifted from my psyche.

Signal and Noise

When I reflected on these thoughts, I realized that I should maintain some element of distance from using Facebook going forward and disengage.  My rationale has changed a little bit since 2015.  I still seek to favour production over consumption, but since the election, using Facebook has become, for a lack of a better expression, less fun.  Through a combination of fake news, false information on memes, politicization, activism, expressed attitudes and values I disagree with on many levels, and uninteresting updates, I don’t enjoy using Facebook like I once had.

What I realized is that the signal-to-noise ratio had skewed too far in the noise direction.  I personally don’t find Facebook all that useful outside of some very limited cases.  I was having a hard time filtering out all the distractions.  There are a number of reasons for this that, if I genuinely sought to address, I could fix.  I could start hiding posts, or reporting fake news.  I could unfriend people I don’t associate with, or I could hide posts and stop following updates from people in my network.  I could curate the experience to better suit my tastes.

There are two big reasons why I don’t follow this route.  First, I’m conscious of trying to avoid setting up an echo chamber that reflects back only things I agree with.  I value diversity of opinion, even if I disagree with it.  What I’m seeing on Facebook is not opposing viewpoints expressing themselves constructively.  This may make me a bad person, an abuser of my privilege, or a bad ally, but I don’t find value in only associating with people who narrowly share my values and beliefs.  It’s especially bad when I agree with the cause, I agree with the conclusions, but I disagree with the message or argument presented.  I value setting aside individual differences for common purposes.  I value good, sound arguments.  I value constructive input and critiques.  I value testing assumptions and arguments to ensure the burrs are smoothed out.  A consequence is that this does end up challenging my beliefs less; on that front, I acknowledge the consequence of my action.  I don’t have an adequate response to this and I need more time to reflect on it.

But the second reason why I don’t follow this route is that I don’t feel invested in the desire to fix the experience I have on the platform.  Instead, I’m much happier to step back from the noise and seek other areas of my life where I can boost the signal of things that matter to me.  I can focus on paying for news that I value (I recently purchased a subscription to The Economist, and a subscription for The New Yorker was gifted to me for Christmas).  I prioritize time with friends and family.  Being present with them is more important than cursory updates.  And I have the time to satisfy my desire to be constructive – making things, collaborating with friends, and learning.

To me, Facebook is an endless well of distraction.  Are there useful things on there?  Sure.  Are there important things on the platform?  Absolutely!  The activism and awareness campaigns that have popped up in the last year are a testament to how the platform can be useful to getting the conversation going for a mainstream audience.  I would never want to take that away from the experiences of others.  What I have a personal issue with is what the behaviour represents about me.  Facebook is a crutch I use to distract and occupy myself when I’m bored or procrastinating.  I seek out the notifications and the feedback.  I seek out validation and approval.

Facebook is built specifically to take advantage of this biological system in our brains.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s addictive, but I will say that the site is engineered to get people to frequently come back to the platform multiple times per day through posts, notifications and suggestions.  It leverages my desire for novelty and new content is frequently just a refresh away.

The same can be said for other platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.  I suppose where my bias shows is I’m less critical of Instagram because I can curate my experience better around my interests and hobbies.  On top of that, I find the experience purer on Instagram because I use it to share things I do and find interesting in my everyday life.  These are things that I experience and these are things I make.  It’s constructive, rather than consumptive.

Moving forward, I’m seeking to engage less with social media.  I don’t hate or think Facebook to be evil.  It’s a tool like any other.  My goal is to scale back my use and be more mindful.  I want to signal-boost the important things and tip the scales away from consumption into something more constructive.

Produce, not consume.

Stay Awesome,