Facebook brings out the worst in people. Here's nine reasons why it's ruining the internet
One of the less remarked-upon aspects the referendum campaign was the constant suffixing of points with “according to a video on Facebook” or “a post on Facebook says”. In fact, over the last two weeks, I started to mentally append “on Facebook” to every rather shallow argument or talking point that was pushed my way.
The ubiquity of Facebook in this debate should not have come as a surprise. 60 percent of Brits have Facebook accounts – and the company recently reported that, globally, its 1.65 billion active users spend an average of 60 minutes a day on the site.
All this got me thinking about the effect Facebook has had on our public discourse. And you quickly realise that, without putting too fine a point on it, Facebook has had a terrible effect on the level of discourse in the UK. It bears quite a bit of of the blame for the soundbite-laden, fact free shouting match that much of modern politics has become.
Worse still, it has ruined the Internet. It has taken a network which was once a freewheeling, intellectually-focussed place for the exchange of information and views and turned it something resembling the future that was imagined for TV in the early 90s. Facebook dominates the online sphere, dumbs down debate, smothers other media companies and brings out the worst in people. So, without further ado, here are nine ways Facebook has ruined the Internet.
1. Walled Gardens
Think back to the early days of the internet. Companies like AOL tried to keep you in their little private patches of the online world (called ‘walled gardens’), where they could dictate what content you saw. Understandably consumers didn’t want this and soon opted for the much wider web which was free and even anarchic.
However, Facebook and other big social networks have now begun to recreate walled gardens where much of what you see, you see on their terms. Mobile devices have greatly accelerated this trend. For companies like Facebook, the trouble with PC browsers such as Chrome is that you can always navigate away to another site. But when you’re in Facebook’s mobile app, that’s where you tend to stay. For many people now, Facebook is the internet.
2. Dumbing Down
Blogs – remember those? Back in 2006 someone might send you a link to a blog post which ran to 800 words and actually made you think a bit, perhaps even changed your opinion. Before then, you might absent-mindedly pick up a paper copy of The Economist, come across articles you weren't looking for, and read on with interest. Either way, your horizons were broadened.
But now you have your Facebook news feed. It’s a series of soundbites, videos and one-liners like “Take Back Control.” Even when it does link to longer articles, you probably don’t read them. Instead, you skim the headline and the first the paragraph. Both of these are designed to grab your attention and little more. Then you make a snap judgement, having read the least intelligent five percent of the article. You like it or repost it and move on to next piece of informational junk food.
Have you learned anything new? I think you know the answer.
Every now and then – and often after someone has threatened me online or been unbelievably abusive (see point five) – I try and engage meaningfully with Facebook’s privacy settings. I like to think I’m not an entirely stupid person, but have you tried to change the privacy settings? It’s like trying to work out the meaning of that fine-print paragraph that hides six pages into your mobile phone insurance terms. It’s baffling, incomprehensible and eventually you give up.
I don’t worry so much about privacy settings on other sites, but Facebook knows more about me than my mum. In ten years time, it will be able to build a robot that can impersonate me.
4. It’s An Echo Chamber
We’ve already seen that the early internet encouraged deeper and more nuanced thinking about issues than Facebook does. But it also exposed you to a far greater range of opinions and information. The trouble with social media, according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that people tend to congregate in communities of interest (such as their Facebook friends). There, instead of having their views challenged, they wind up having their prejudices reinforced. Everyone agrees with everyone else, dissenting viewpoints are marginalised and and misinformation, as long as it hews to the group’s views, is spread.
I am sure one of the reasons the UK is so politically polarised these days is the amount of time people spend furiously agreeing with others much like themselves on Facebook.
5. Everything’s Black and White and Red All Over
Social media and smartphones have made it child’s play to respond to other people online but they also create something called “disinhibition”. That is, you wouldn’t laugh at someone whose child had died if they were standing there in front you, but you might do it online because you don’t see it as quite real. And then someone else might join in – and before you know it you’re having a conservation that would get you thrown out of any pub on earth.
Of course, Facebook is hardly alone in this: Twitter and some newspaper comments sections are also notorious for it. But that doesn’t make it any better. What’s more, Facebook’s take on what constitutes unacceptable content often seems very self-serving to me – and trying to contact the company about abusive posts is as difficult as understanding their privacy settings.
6. It’s a Stalker’s Dream
Want to know what that ex-girlfriend is up to? Or the new bloke at work? Or just some random stranger whose name you know? Facebook’s here for you. And yes, I know that you can change the privacy settings and block people. But the mere existence of the social network makes it far easier to stalk than it should be.
If you wanted to stalk someone online back in 2006, you really had to put the legwork in.
7. Losing Touch With People is OK ...
In fact, I’d say it’s healthy. People move away, they drift apart and their lives change. And yet, it’s surprisingly hard to cut that last, virtual link with someone you haven’t seen in a decade, who moved to Arizona and who became a born again Christian. So he’s still in your timeline and you still read his posts because there’s still that ghost of an obligation.
Really, this the social equivalent of those sponsored links about how badly 10 celebrities have aged. It is value-free information that wastes your time and fills your brain. He doesn’t care about you and you don’t care about him. In the good old days, to find out what this person was up to you’d have needed to send them an email. And guess what, you never did.
8. ... But Not Seeing Your Real Friends Isn’t
Spending time on Facebook gives you a social-esque experience. It makes you feel like you’ve been hanging out with your friends. But you haven’t – and there is no substitute for spending time together, drinking and laughing and talking. In the way that Facebook boosts the worth of people you never see and no longer care about, it also devalues the people you should see and do care about.
Time spent glued to Facebook is time you don’t spend fully living. Is there anything more depressing than going to a gorgeous hotel in Italy or India, only to see everyone around the pool, ignoring their partners and mates because they’re glued to Facebook on their phones, having shallow, empty conversations they could have anywhere in the world.
9. Intelligent People Don’t Spend Much Time on Facebook
It may be a bit damning to call Facebook “the Internet for Thick People” but the really intelligent people I know are conspicuously absent from the site. Why? Presumably because they don’t want to fill their heads with soundbites, reactionary comments and value-free information. It’s funny: when the internet first appeared, it was where you went to find the cleverest people. But as social media extends its dominance, the really bright people are finding better things to do.