This week, Facebook got its own “Times Up” moment. Amid accusations that the social media giant had allowed the data of 150 million users to be surreptitiously exploited by Cambridge Analytica, many have woken up to the mass data trading that has made tech titans, like Mark Zuckerberg, among the richest men in the world.
The sudden emergence of a #deletefacebook campaign, with widespread clamour for advertisers to abandon Facebook, unfortunately shows up our generation’s long-held naivety about social media. Since Facebook came to the UK in 2005, very few of us stopped to question how this compulsive social platform could be free and yet one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Now, it’s like the denouement of a whodunnit, where the clues were so obvious all along. Of course all the information we were being encouraged to offer up about our personal lives would become a priceless commodity. Our jobs, our holidays, our personal movements, our homes, our likes and dislikes, our political inclinations, our hopes and nightmares….all of these gave companies and consultancies an unprecedented chance to micro-target users based on “psychographics”.
But judging by the current backlash, it seems only a minority of us understood, let alone accepted, the scale and depth of this personal exchange. But there is so much more to this story.
The more relaxed free marketers among us argue that we have consented. As worldly adults, we know full well that free access meant open season for advertisers. How bad can that be? We’re not forced to buy products.
But even if you accept that we gave informed consent (and I’m not sure 14 year olds signing up for the first time know what that even means), many of us have casually surrendered our entire identities to a private company that we barely know.
For instance, are you aware that Facebook was only initially available in Oxbridge, as it had only been open to Ivy League students in the U.S? I was one of the first to use Facebook back in 2006, when it was a small-scale, internal communication tool that felt more like a prototype of WhatsApp.
There were no status updates – just groups and writing on people’s walls (a mixture of student silliness and genuinely affectionate, friendly exchanges). Oh, and photos put up for our personal amusement, kept within our tight-knit group. So we thought.
Had we known in a decade that the whole world would be using Facebook, and everything we had ever done would be kept for digital posterity, we would have been horrified. Had we known that Facebook would chop and change its privacy settings, so that our personal lives could be unwittingly exposed to professional contacts, new acquaintances, or any passing Peeping Tom, we might not have been so trusting, so innocently yielding to something we only ever thought would be helpful, fun and between friends.
And the university connection is also important for another reason. Facebook started as a Harvard beast, and it remains a Harvard beast today. The most ruthlessly ambitious graduates from Ivy League Universities are not only managing Facebook – they’re being lectured as undergraduates on how to make this technology as addictive as possible. The more indispensable their creation is the more powerful and lucrative it will be.
Every redesign, every tweak, every new feature, is designed to make you use Facebook more. The red-coloured notifications we now see on our phone trigger an alarm reaction every single time in our minds. The drag function introduced to news feeds is modelled on gambling machines that invite you to pull levers for potential rewards.
Had I known the world’s fiercest intellects were working on reshaping my neural pathways so that I become psychologically dependent on social media, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it.
When Mark Zuckerberg talked about a “breach of trust” this week, I don’t think he even knows what these words mean anymore. For his business has been nothing but a gigantic breach of trust, a mass social experiment under the guise of a benevolent service, leaving us in thrall to a private company with secretive, opaque processes, all at an unknown cost to our mental health, dignity, democracy and basic social fabric.
Over time, I have realised how Facebook is using our natural (indeed primal) need to connect, to communicate and socially cohere against us. The constant inducement to express one’s feelings to others is too much to resist, even for the most self-disciplined person. Without even realising it, social media brings out the very worst in us all. Special pleading, outrage, sarcasm, loss of perspective, the need to always be right and prove others wrong…it makes us insecure, angry, paranoid, attention-seeking, self-obsessed narcissists with delusions of grandeur who pretend not to care about what others think when actually, it’s all we can think about.
Debate, civilised conversation, even blogging (or rather thoughtful writing) is the antidote to the disturbed behaviour so many of us exhibit on social media. This blog is my creative outlet, my own small attempt to restore nuance, balance and decent judgement to an online world that no longer reflects “reality” in any way, shape or form.
Many of us can no longer tell where our social media persona ends and our real character begins. John Updike once said: “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” Surely this is even more the case with social media. The behaviour that Facebook rewards through the possibility of viral fame and mass “likes” starts seeping into IRL. We are quick to anger and vitriol. We start to self-censor, double-down on our views and flock to the places where we can remain gloriously unchallenged. We either take over spaces, both digitally and physically (like campuses) and colonise them with “truths” that can’t be disputed or we take our non-compliant views underground, into closed-off groups where they comfortably mutate into outright resentment and prejudice.
Facebook’s real crime is to turn our public discourse into one of extremism, tribalism and over-simplification of complex issues. Got something rational to say? Don’t bother. It will either be ignored, shouted down or trend way below emotive soundbites and slogans.
Last night’s Question Time on BBC 1, with an audience of under-30s in Leeds, demonstrated a surprising range of political sympathies that belies the prevailing sentiments found online. One young chap, in the two minutes allotted him, articulated certain views that those in the metro bubble would not think possible. Whether you agreed with his views on Brexit or not, I was struck by his assertion that his entire peer group (aged under 25) voted to Leave and how dismayed he was at the media’s one-dimensional portrayal of his generation. Another young lady calmly argued why she felt the country had voted in a fair and far-sighted way. The fact that both came from ethic minority backgrounds was just another confirmation of a truer diversity in this country – the extraordinary pluralism of thoughts and experiences in the UK today, which cannot be conveniently tied to background, gender, race or sexual orientation. Contrary to the social media advocates, this variegated picture just doesn’t register in the shouty slipstreams of social media.
Much of this also applies to Twitter, which has also morphed over time from useful tool to professional and personal minefield. I literally don’t recognise some of the things I have tweeted over the years, which were so far removed from the person I really am. I deeply regret how Twitter subtly removes the mystique and privacy we should all enjoy as complex human beings with rich and ever-evolving inner lives.
I took action last year and deleted my Facebook account. Aborted attempts to come off Facebook previously resulted in swift capitulation and going back to what I call the “timeline trance”.
But not this time. I don’t miss it on any level.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Being constantly reduced to a state of mere reaction and consumption by the timeline trance left me a tad stupefied, if I’m honest. When that prop is removed, frankly you have to actually start dealing with your emotional problems and dilemmas.
I also took a “Twitterbattical” whereupon I muted everyone I followed and handed my password over to someone else. I spent three months off the platform, only gradually going back on with several, cautious provisos. I block those who escalate their conversations with me or are wind-up merchants. I now tweet next-to-nothing about my personal views, keep tweets about my life outside work extremely limited, stick to my area of expertise (aka young people and their finances) and try to stay out of all heated conversations. And my feed remains (mostly) muted.
I resent the fact that I have to be on Twitter. I am a self-employed journalist and blogger who has to keep people reliably and routinely up-to-date with my professional output, and nothing can match Twitter for providing this service. As with all jobs, you have to accept the downsides. But whereas I accepted I could never re-establish true control of my Facebook behaviour and privacy, I did feel a radical repositioning of Twitter in my life was possible and desirable.
Once I took action, my life improved immeasurably. My creativity, assertiveness, resilience, self-reliance, confidence, focus and happiness shot up within a matter of weeks. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the last six months have been the best of my career. Looking back, I am both amazed that I achieved as much as I did whilst being in thrall to social media but also intrigued at how much more productive I could have been without it.
No matter. I can never go back to how things were. And neither can Facebook users after the revelations this week.
The question is…what are ya gonna do about it?