Liking Facebook

May 5, 2014
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FacebookLikeThere is no dearth of complaining about Facebook’s dark side. I won’t rehearse all the criticisms already running through your mind, or filling up this Wikipedia entry. To pick up on one current concern, last week Facebook unveiled new anonymity protection in third-party apps, which sounds nice except that you still won’t ever be anonymous to Facebook while sharing whatever you might feel secure sharing anonymously with other companies. This is merely one moment of tension between Facebook’s ambitions and its user’s needs and rights. Next week, next month, or next year there will be another and another. So let’s stipulate that in some important ways, Facebook (though not only Facebook) threatens us by exploiting our data. Conceding this, I want to affirm how much I like Facebook, and want to praise some of the network’s benefits. It’s mainly because I get something good from Facebook that I wish it would do better.

So what’s good is, first of all, that Facebook connects us meaningfully to one another. It allows for people to keep in touch even when they are no longer seeing each other face to face. It gives us ways of overcoming isolation and loneliness. It gives shy people an outlet that might be more comfortable than communication in person. Its asynchronicity makes it possible to be in touch without being synced on one schedule. All this in a world where people live far from friends and family and have too little time for leisure.

Facebook is gratifying to the active, sharing user who gets positive feedback even from minor notes about everyday life. Like Twitter and many other forms of social media, one of basic functions of the network is to reassert our identity and existence. One subtext and function of many messages is, here I am speaking, this is me. When someone clicks “like” they are affirming you, recognizing you, giving you a wink or pat on the arm. The thumbs up like button icon is a token of the body, and clicking on it is a gesture of affection. There is no question we experience the gratification of likes and comments affectively. We know, as well, that like doesn’t mean you like it. I don’t like it that my friend’s mother is sick, that my friend’s pet died, that my friend is recovering from addiction in a rehab facility. But I am touching my friends when I click like and they are touched.

Facebook is also a creative endeavor. Its ordinary uses are writing, photography, video, and sharing links. Facebook users are vernacular artists making and sharing objects of meaning for their community. Of course much of what one finds in the news feed is ordinary and banal. It can be obnoxious or trivial. Some of it is more pictures of babies or exclamations over a football team’s loss or win than you like to see. But this is life in all of its mystery and boredom and frustration and glory. And it is only against the backdrop of life’s quotidian rhythms that the dramatic Facebook status updates have their impact. Births and deaths, triumphant PhD dissertation defenses and new jobs, collective upheavals over elections and disasters, make Facebook into a magnet for our attention and feeling. Facebook’s literary, visual, and affective impacts are expressions of the traumas and pleasures of life, making them not just into documents of reality but artefacts in communal rites of passage.

Like everyone else, I have misgivings about investing too much of myself in this web space which, ultimately, will serve corporate interests ahead of the people’s. I care about privacy, about the unforgiving permanence of online culture, about context collapse when everyone from your whole life span converge at once in your social networks. I’m also annoyed by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which chooses for me to see some items and not others. Perhaps the social web would have been better if we had all just gotten our own blogs and RSS readers. We can’t do it over, though. One reason Facebook is succeeding as a mass medium and blogs and RSS readers didn’t is that users found Facebook easier and more secure. They felt comfortable in its environment. Now the people are on Facebook, and if you want to be with them online, that is where you go. You can, theoretically, opt out. You can refuse social media, or can be a Twitter snob. You can lament that as soon as Facebook let in users outside of the early college-only restrictions, it lost its mojo. Probably true. But it gained something aside from the scale that leads to economic success. It became society, and you can’t really opt out of that.

As with many new technologies, the identity of an ideal user is central to the cultural status and widely shared meanings that define the object. When the ideal Facebook user was young and upscale (Harvard, then college), Facebook had cachet. Now that your mom, your aunts and uncles, your grammar school teachers and parents’ friends are liking your status and leaving comments, it’s not so cool any more. But note my choice of “you” in these characterizations. Who is this imaginary person? The assumption is that a normative user is young, and that older folks are marked as different if not unwelcome. The age and gender connotations of Facebook’s waning cool are hardly surprising. Fashions of all kinds tend to rise up from youth culture, while the kids move on when their elders catch wind of emerging trends. But if Facebook is to endure as a social hub of value, a force for community and sociability, we will need to think of it inclusively and not be tempted to put it down it on the basis of a distaste associated with technologies used by moms and aunts. We need to see it in a more egalitarian fashion, and recognize the value in this.

What’s good about Facebook, finally, is that it gives us, all of us, a place to give and receive of ourselves, and that we have taken it up in this way. (A network with better architecture and policies will not ultimately be better if the people don’t take it up). My wish for social media’s future is that we will keep on extracting this value from Facebook, or something like it, without the dark side of the digital overcoming us.

Michael Z. Newman is on Facebook and Twitter.


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