The following is an updated version of a piece originally posted three years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Whatever charms social media, and Facebook in particular, once held — as novel, simple modes of communication, as harmless entertainment or klutzy advertising — those charms have been eclipsed by the social dysfunction they engender, the debasement of community that they rely upon for their existence.
Let me explain. I’m not a Luddite. If anything, I’m the classic early adopter, always overly enthused –to the point of gullibility– about the latest technological innovation, medical advance, scientific discovery, or gadget. My entire professional career has been spent facing a computer screen, starting with Vydec machines back in the ‘70s (visualize a dedicated word processor the size of a Mini Cooper). I’ve witnessed first-hand the successive leaps in ease and speed that computers have bestowed on office work since the very beginnings of enterprise IT. I generally prefer to read e-books over print books. Streaming video on the newest, biggest flat-screen TV? Bring it. And yes, I have an iPhone and at least two iPads at last count.
But I’m repeatedly forced to one ineluctable conclusion: Facebook sucks.
Am I being an elitist neanderthal in thinking that our vaunted free-market system ought to heap staggering riches on greater achievements than this? Am I missing the point? Or is the social media emperor really buck naked?
Social media ride the same one-trick advertising pony as 1950s television, but the modes of advertising they employ are a lot more insidious and invasive. Time was, the folks on Madison Avenue had to rely on their wits and worldliness to imagine what the public wanted and how to sell it to them. You knew when you were being sold; it was pretty obvious when the show ended and the commercial began. Now it’s all about data mining and dressing up ads as though they were news from your friends: we have no idea what patterns in our posts and tweets and emails and web searches are being discerned with Google’s or Twitter’s or Facebook’s algorithms, or what information about us is being sold as a result.
But who cares about privacy? Privacy is so 20th century. You can’t live in the modern world and hope to prevent the next ISIS attack if you care about privacy. Cyber-stalkings, identity theft and political rants are the price we pay for the “like” button. No, social media’s real failings are not about the loss of privacy, though that is real. They have to do with the debasement of interpersonal communication and civility.
Why are we attracted to Facebook? For two primary reasons: everyone else seems to be on it, and it’s free. Of course, everyone else is on it because it’s free. If you had to pay money to use it, Facebook would vanish overnight.
What utility does Facebook have? It’s a method of communicating with a large group of people quickly and easily. That sounds good, until you realize that this means they can all simultaneously communicate with you as well, without your having the slightest ability to prioritize what you want to hear or from whom, short of shutting them out entirely. In this respect it is a seriously devolved version of email.
The result is, let’s face it, cacophony of the very lowest order, a 24-hour-a-day, multi-lingual town hall meeting with a microphone for every attendee, no moderator, and no agenda. On Facebook, every moron has his or her say, on equal footing with the best and the brightest among us. This was brought home to me during the last presidential campaign, when my FB page became a wailing wall of mostly right-wing diatribe and salacious political half-truths. As a method of communication, it’s at best inefficient and mainly a waste of time. Remind me to de-friend myself before this November’s election.
Is Facebook a good place for individuals and small businesses to advertise? Clearly not. Whatever you post – a photo for a dog adoption or a notice of your next poetry reading — is buried under the avalanche of further posts, likes, tags, pokes, pet videos, and suspiciously out-of-date profile photos. The only constant is the stream of paid advertisements down the margin, which spookily mirror what’s flowing along in the avalanche, and smell of shill.
In a word, it’s trivial. In a sense this is no criticism, as Facebook was designed for a trivial purpose, and only recently has assumed the mantle of a socially significant corporate juggernaut run by the kind of celebrity executive who can presume to tell other working women to “lean in.” Facebook, Twitter, and the rest represent high-tech in the service of the silly; like using microwave transmissions from space to light a high school prom. In another era, we wrote letters and manifestos. Now we get tweets from Donald Trump.
But the true evil of Facebook and its ilk is that they rely on the fathomless depths of our collective narcissism for their daily fodder. Facebook and Twitter are all about self-promotion. Where else but on Facebook would anyone feel at liberty tell everyone they know, and then some, where they’re having an espresso at that very moment, how beautiful the beach looks as they gaze out from their vacation villa, or what their little Caitlyn is wearing to school today? Why on earth do we think anyone cares? More to the point, why on earth do we think this is any less boorish than bragging about yourself at a dinner party? Only because Facebook, Twitter and their ilk legitimize this sort of bullying self-absorption, this electronic envy-bombing, which is the exact opposite of community.
One could reasonably argue that the self-referential, self-aggrandizing Facebook culture has made the presidential candidacies of raving egomaniacs like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz not only possible, but inevitable. Narcissism is no longer a pathology; it’s a profession.
If their pernicious impact on public discourse weren’t enough, social media are also responsible for a huge loss of economic productivity, offsetting many of the gains in office productivity that computers allowed. I am old enough to remember when the head of the IT department in our company announced that, henceforth, the Internet would be available to all employees on their desktop computers. I wrote back to him (we already had email) that only for a small fraction of our workers (say, those who worked in research or corporate compliance) could Internet access have any imaginable utility in their jobs; for the rest (including me), it was like putting TVs on all their desks and hoping for the best. (Needless to say, my warnings were ignored.) Who can possibly calculate the number of hours during an average workday spent not on the business of the company paying our salaries, but on buying stuff from online retailers and dicking around on Facebook? American productivity is probably a third less than what it would have become without the addition of this universal time-sink.
What is the future of social media? Trivial, time-sucking enablers of our most narcissistic tendencies, offered for free because no one would pay for them, dependent entirely on advertising for their commercial value, most will eventually collapse of their own weight, when the chorus of narcissist bleatings becomes overwhelming, the resulting noise becomes tiresome, alternatives arise, and the eyeballs depart. The arc of technology is long, but it bends toward real utility, and the current forms of social media don’t provide it any more than a bag of Cheetos provides real nourishment.
What would be genuinely useful would be a form of communication as intensely personal and secure as the handwritten letter sealed with wax. Someday, perhaps, I will be able to zap a message across town to my wife – and only my wife — with just a thought, and hear her reply in my head without even the interposition of my data-trolling iPhone. My message might be trivial, but at least it will be private. I’d be willing to pay for it, and advertising would have to happen elsewhere.
Meanwhile, just say no. Stifle the impulse to post your next vacation photo or political rant or drunken party selfie. The future lies not in ever more clever platforms for narcissism, but in eliminating boundaries to truly mutual communication, and in salvaging the personal from the social.