Facebook, the Indifference Factory

Facebook is in mild trouble. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and more than forty states have accused it of illegally squashing competition; Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s founders, argues in a scathing opinion piece that it should be broken up. Facebook has been faulted not only for eliminating competition, but for intruding on users’ privacy and spreading fake news, some of which is intended to incite violence. (This should give “growth mindset” cheerleaders at least some pause.)

Above and beyond all of this, Facebook is a factory of indifference. Its newsfeed, likes, and “friends” put pressure on you to read stuff you don’t really care about, “like” things you might actually love or might not care for much at all (the range of emojis doesn’t do much here), and put up with dizzying interruptions, so that you lose track of whatever it was you originally came to read. It socializes and publicizes friendships; even plans for get-togethers end up in comments on posts, for everyone to see. You have some control over privacy, but often it isn’t worth the bother to go through the steps to exert it.

To care about things in life, you need privacy, and you need levels. You don’t share everything with everyone; you don’t share everything right away. Conversations are individual and selective, not for public display except for special cases, such as interviews. You need time to respond to things, without pressure to give an instant reaction. Facebook pushes against all of this. What Orwell says in Nineteen Eighty-Four about the loss of tragedy applies here. There can be no tragedy (or great joy, or anything important) when there is no privacy. I don’t just mean the privacy of data (which is what people usually bring up), but also the privacy of personal life, thoughts, and reactions.

A heart-sinking pettiness takes over; you have to be a little rude to shake it off. I often feel like a spoil-sport. I post photos that I take here in Szolnok and elsewhere, post links to my blog and other things, and forward links from other people. But I rarely get involved in Facebook discussions and games. When invited to “like” pages, I rarely do, unless I really want to see the updates. I get messages from strangers and near-strangers that I leave unanswered, often because they contain attachments that I don’t want to click, or because I just don’t want to chat.

Facebook is all about activity, constant activity. There’s a recurring chain letter that goes, more or less, “I get discouraged by the superficiality that I find here. Most people on Facebook don’t read each other’s posts; they just skim them, like them, and move on. So I am going to conduct an experiment. I want to find out, for my own peace of mind, who actually cares enough to read this post to the end. If you do read it, please leave a one-word comment below, then copy this post and repost it verbatim on your own timeline. The word should have something to do with your relationship with me. Do not leave a comment without reposting, since that would ruin the experiment.” This kind of post tricks people into thinking that they have to prove their sincerity and readership by reposting. In reposting, they are not saying anything of their own; they are just duplicating someone else’s words, without saying so outright. The message comes down to an ultimatum; if you’re genuine, and you really read my posts, you can prove it by following these steps; if you don’t follow these steps, I may deduce that you don’t read them and don’t really care about me.

A subtler version is “Post 10 photos of books that have had an impact on your life, with no explanation” (or something similar with films, songs, etc.) Each time you post one, you are supposed to nominate someone to start a list. Now, granted, sometimes these can be interesting (and fun too), but if I were nominated, I wouldn’t do it–simply because I don’t want to be pressured to list things and to nominate ten more people. Now, some may say that this has nothing to do with Facebook, but rather with users and the various games they come up with. But these games happen to benefit Facebook by escalating activity. I suspect that some of them originated with Facebook staff and that they accompany hundreds of other ways of manipulating people into depending more on the platform.

There’s a flattening of communication–a pressure to treat everyone dimly as your friend, to play games you don’t want to play, and to let go of thoughts and posts within seconds. The worst part of it is that if you really do take something seriously (or humorously), you are reduced to the same gestures you’d give anything else–a “like,” a “love,” maybe a brief comment.

This does not reflect on Facebook users as people. There are people on Facebook whom I truly like and love, whose posts I enjoy (even chain-letter posts), and whose greetings I know are genuine. The pain lies in having to mix all of this up with so much stuff. Advertisements, updates, posts, comments that I didn’t ask for and have to sludge through anyway. Reading a book, reading anything that doesn’t blink and convulse and broadcast its popularity and split into vanishing bits, has become a revelation and relief.

Facebook needs to be broken up–not just because it is a massive, ever-growing monopoly, not just because it exerts undue influence on people’s sense of reality, but because it mass-manufactures indifference, dresses it up in cheery forms, and tricks people into embracing it (a paradoxical metaphor). No one has to speak, feel, or think this way.

I took the photo yesterday. It has nothing to do with the post, but with a bit of a stretch, one could connect it somehow.

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