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I don’t have a Facebook profile.  People ask me why I don’t?  After all, it seems, this puts me in the minority among users of the Internet worldwide.  Answering this question’s made me consider my relationship with social media, and social media’s relationship with our society.  

A more personal post than most, therefore, this week, leading to some general observations about Facebook and the future.

Do I have a profile?

In fact, what I’ve just said is not quite true.  A few years ago, I wanted to attend a conference on ICT4D.  The organisers decided to send out information on it only over Facebook.  Email, apparently, was too old-fashioned, inconvenient, uncool.  Facebook was the up-and-coming new-kid-on-the-block and, to those conference organisers, it looked like the in-way for it to reach insiders.

So, in order to find out where I’d have to go to register, I’d to sign up to Facebook.  And Facebook, in return, has sent me weekly notices since then of all those that would like to be my online friends.  I vaguely resent this and ignore these notices, but I’ve not been tempted to join the Facebook crowd.  And people ask me "why"?

Why don’t I have a profile?

It’s not that I don’t see the point.  I’m sure I’m missing out on opportunities that I might find useful or enjoyable.  Re-engaging with old friends, bonding with new acquaintances, sharing the joys and the misfortunes of a wider network, knowing who’s now in relationships with whom, adding my three’penn’orth of comment to the emerging zeitgeist on net neutrality or the lastest Star Wars movie.

And I’m not, I should say, as Facebook refusenik, making a point about its harvesting of data.  Sure, I’m not keen on being profiled so that I can be directed towards the Skoda dealers and Kraftwerk-related merchandise that I’d not otherwise encounter.  But, let’s face it, web services that I do use are also doing that, not least the BBC.  I accept it, get on with it, and try not to be seduced by books that I don’t need and holidays I can’t afford.

So why, really, don’t I have a profile?

Three reasons, I think, and they lead on to observations on how social networks may be changing social interactions.

First, I’ve not bought into Facebook’s redefining acquaintanceships as friendships.  In my world, which was formed before the Internet, friendships were forged by shared experience, defined by quality not quantity.  I recognise here that I may well be losing out: that Facebook could intensify existing friendships, not just extensify their number.  Perhaps I should give it a go before Facebook declines (as I suspect it will, as LinkedIn is declining, as MySpace and Friends Reunited did before it).  Perhaps I will.

Second, I don’t buy into multitasking.  I watch friends and family members share their time between their online timeline and, say, television programmes.  The temptation to keep up with one screen’s a constant distraction from the other.  I know I personally can’t focus on two things at once and gain enough from either; and I suspect that they can’t either.  I’d rather understand one thing in depth than be distracted by diverse competing thoughts.  

And third, I don’t like being told what I will like.  In fact – worse from the perspective of our algorithm-laden advertising-driven online platforms – I prefer to be surprised and challenged.  I prefer to listen to music that is unfamiliar, rather than some online recommendation that sounds just like what I’ve just heard.  I’d rather read a different view on net neutrality or the latest Star Wars movie than have my prejudices reinforced.

So what?

So, I ask myself, am I so different here from other people?  Or am I simply wary of the ways in which Facebook and its peers would direct my interaction with the world in ways that work for them rather than ways that work for me?  

I understand the attractions of the platform world, but sometimes it reminds of a notorious cigarette advert on TV in the 1950s.  “You’re never alone with a Strand,” was its message; and you’re never alone with Facebook either.  Ultimately, though, that advert’s image of a solitary smoker failed because what it offered was too shallow an experience.  

And the bigger picture?

What’s prompted me to think about this is a series of recent articles about the future direction for Facebook and its peers.

Last year (unlike some others), I welcomed Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to think through Facebook’s role within society – not because I agreed with him (in many ways, I didn’t) but because I thought it was high time Big Tech thought more about its role, and that we should welcome its attempt to do so.  Since then, Facebook and Big Tech firms have run into more controversy.  There’s a choice of themes here.  I’ll take three.

First, fashion

The first’s user fatigue.  When people take up media platforms (especially the young) they’re stating cultural identities.  Early users like to be seen as being in the forefront, digital adepts.  When platforms become mainstream, they lose their allure for those who want to be admired because they’re fashion leaders.

Facebook’s been losing its allure.  It’s dominant today because it’s been adopted by their parents rather than millennials.  It’s no longer platform of first choice for teenagers, or (more so again) the generation that will follow them.   Zuckerberg’s desire to reshape its role reflects anxiety that it cannot be department store and boutique both.

Second, loss of innocence

Its second problem’s that it’s losing public trust.  People no longer buy the digital optimism that’s driven online services.  

Social networks have enabled greater interaction which has been immensely valuable to many – I may be a refusenik, but it’s clear to me that’s true – but they’ve also been channels for abuse, fake news, hate speech.  

Three years ago, platforms like Facebook denied that they’d become ‘filter bubbles’, reinforcing prejudices and reducing the diversity of views experienced by users.  Now, they recognise the problem and its impact on political polarisation.  

Users are much more conscious that they’re being manipulated, commodified, addicted by design.  In recent surveys, they’ve sometimes put the negatives of platforms ahead of positives. 

Third, loss of confidence

You can see the impact of this in loss of confidence – or at least reduced confidence – on the part of those who’re running social media.  Sean Parker, an early key Facebook investor/leader, says that he’s now ‘something of a conscientious objector’ to platforms he’s compared with hackers exploiting users’ psychological vulnerabilities.  Tim Cook, Apple chief executive, has said he’d rather keep his nephews off social networks; Steve Jobs, his predecessor, kept his kids away from iPads. 

Or here’s Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook vice-president for user growth: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created,” he says, “are destroying how society works.  No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth…. This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other."

These people used to think they had the answer.  Now, they understand they have a problem.

Where next?

Facebook itself has been rethinking where it goes as a result.  It’s reoriented users’ feeds away from news content, which it has problems validating (but might have greater advertising value) towards more personal posts.  And it’s come up with a new way to define the value that it thinks it adds:

“In general,” it now says, “when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information – reading, but not interacting with people – they report feeling worse afterward."  On the other hand, “actively interacting with people – especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions – is linked to improvements in wellbeing.” 

That may sound a little too convenient (Facebook will make more money if its users post more posts).  

An implication, though, is that a change may well be on its way.  Facebook revolutionised the Internet a decade or so ago.  It made social media, rather than the Web, the central service for very many users.  The Internet’s now changing radically again.  In ten years’ time, what Facebook does today could look as old fashioned as does email.  Its adaptation will be crucial to its future: will it be a leader in the next generation too, or will it go the way of MySpace?

Next week: the Internet and jurisdiction.

Image: No Facebook, via Wikimedia Commons

Read also: Marking Mark’s card. A comment on Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto and Making his Mark. Why we should read Mark Zuckerberg
David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.