PARIS SCIENCES & LETTRES (PSL)
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The meaning of Facebook

Facebook heralds the advent of a society that mirrors what the social network claims to promote. Not a society of democratic exchange, where people interact within a virtual agora by opposing arguments, but a society divided by antagonism and defiance, one that is partitioned in isolated bubbles; not a society of free sharing of information but of commercial exploitation of the data we deliver each time we visit Facebook. Should we turn away from this social network and all those who promote its paradigm?

19
April 2017
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lire en français
Executive resume

Facebook heralds the advent of a society that mirrors what the social network claims to promote. Not a society of democratic exchange, where people interact within a virtual agora by opposing arguments, but a society divided by antagonism and defiance, one that is partitioned in isolated bubbles; not a society of free sharing of information but of commercial exploitation of the data we deliver each time we visit Facebook. Why should we turn away from this social network and all those who promote its paradigm? Because the proliferation of images encourages negative feelings, jealousy and intellectual harassment; because it distracts us from thinking in depth and it fragments our lives; because it spreads and strengthens the logic of ratings that leads to a superficial redefinition of the value of intellectual products and individuals; because it reinforces our preconceptions instead of confronting us to opposing arguments. The network invented by Mark Zuckerberg, who could very well run for president at the next US elections, poses a significant democratic threat.

In the epilogue of his book dedicated to the creation and exponential growth of Facebook, David Kirkpatrick reports an interesting story. On the road back from a car travel in California with his wife and children, one of his friends braked in front of man, head bowed, lost in thought, completely still in the middle of a pedestrian crossing. Despite his own fatigue and the restlessness of his children at the back of the car, the driver was intrigued and decided to respect the stranger’s meditation. So he waited for the man to get back to his senses and cross the road. When that moment finally arrived, the driver recognized the stranger: it was Mark Zuckerberg, the famous billionaire and founder of Facebook.

The image Kirkpatrick uses to take leave of his reader is far from innocent. It transforms Mark Zuckerberg into a genius who is made of the stuff of legend. Once upon a time, Newton sat under a tree; John Nash entered a Princeton bar... and Zuckerberg froze in the middle of a walkway! What we need to ask ourselves is why this person deserves so much gratitude and admiration. Even if David Kirkpatrick depicts Zuckerberg as a genius and visionary with brilliant intuitions and a disregard for conventions, his book leaves the reader with mixed feelings: the author promised the tale of a revolutionary invention but he ends up telling the story of an unparalleled enrichment. In the plethora of deals and meetings with investment funds, in the vertigo of ever-rising numbers (users, collected data and advertising revenues), what exactly is this great gift that Zuckerberg has offered to mankind? Aside from heaps of money for himself and his shareholders, what did he really produce? Where is the brilliant idea that turns this creator into a great man and his work into a useful creation for his fellow contemporaries? And are the real benefits of his social network enough to offset its cognitive and social damage?

I have asked these questions to my friend Derek, an academic who dedicates his research to the impact of new technologies. His answer came without hesitation: “Facebook ? It only creates jealousy and angst.” My question was particularly timely: he had just unsubscribed from the famous social network after eight years of daily attendance. “I can’t think of one single positive thing this website ever gave me.” Quite the opposite: he often felt jealous when browsing the social network. Derek told me about a colleague who spent half his time on Facebook boasting about his professional achievements: prestigious publications, overseas conferences, media interviews, “he always found an opportunity to self-congratulate himself and make me feel an incompetent!” As for his own angst, he blames his compulsive use of the social network. “There’s always something new on Facebook: a new status, a new publication.”

I decided to play the devil’s advocate, so I repeated the usual arguments about the usefulness of social media and asked him if he was not afraid to miss any important information: “When I want to know about the latest news, I read the New York Times.” What about going out with friends? “They have my number. If they want to go out for a bowling, they can call me.” No, there was really nothing he regretted: quite the contrary, now that he had unsubscribed, he estimated he had recovered over one hour a day. How did he spend it? “Walking with my daughter, cuddling my wife... daydreaming alone in the office.” I often asked him what triggered his rejection of social networks: what exactly led him to revolt against this voluntary servitude? “I came across a TEDTalk by Cal Newport: Quit Social Media. I was convinced, so I followed his advice: I unsubscribed from Facebook and other media – Twitter, Academia, LinkedIn – that same evening.” So he sent me the link and I listened to the conference.

Fragmentation of attention and mind

Cal Newport is the author of a book called Deep Work and it is precisely in the name of this so-called “deep work” that he advocates for quitting social networks. What is deep work? The development of a type of thinking that requires long periods of sustained attention. According to Cal Newport, what is the major defect of social networks? They induce the fragmentation of attention and mind. Newport compares them to slot machines that we permanently carry in our pocket. Indeed, there is something similar between the mesmerizing effects of whirling numbers on casino clients and the magnetism induced by the proliferation of images on Facebook. Articles that we carelessly read but that our mind fails to process, videos that we never chose to play, pictures of a former lover that we suddenly find more attractive then at the time of our break-up: all of these images form part of a world of appearances that is painful to let go and to which we are tempted to go back a hundred times “only for a minute.” Altogether, these distractions have a dramatic impact on attention. They accustom the mind to seek relief from a momentary interruption: “One minute break and I’ll be back to work!”  Each time closer, these interludes end up turning into a need and by fragmenting our thinking time, our mind forgets how to perform tasks without breaks.

Twice during his lecture, Cal Newport reminds his audience that any teenager knows how to use social networks. Employers will certainly not consider this widespread capability as a skill. In fact, it is more of a cognitive obstacle in the development of skills that enables individuals to distinguish themselves in the professional world. Therefore, Newport’s main objective is to demonstrate that social networks are barriers to professional success: he condemns them, basically, as a pastor who accuses lust or drinking of distracting the faithful from taking care of their salvation. As legitimate as it can be, this criticism only recognizes part of the risks posed by Facebook. Further analysis of the effects induced by social networks can and must be analyzed on other grounds: because they propagate a logic of ratings in all spheres of society; because they are source of ideological bubbles that pose significant danger to democracy.

The logic of ratings

I discovered an additional argument against Facebook in another conference in which Roland Gorki presents his own essay: La Fabrique des imposteurs (The Fabric of Impostors). Among other equally exciting and crucial issues, Roland Gori addresses the so-called “logic of ratings.” He shows that the criteria for value have been redefined as per the model of credit rating agencies: value is no longer based on intrinsic qualities but on a mathematically quantifiable impact. Facebook is a vital relay of this logic and its success has led a multitude of competing websites to resume its paradigm and thereby, to propagate the idea that “impact” is a legitimate evaluation criteria.

Any Facebook user knows this by experience: the number of “likes” shows the value of what I share, whether thought, image or video. Who hasn’t ever monitored the number of reactions collected by the renewal of their profile picture? OMG! I have ten, even twenty likes! Better, I even received a love!  Conversely, no reaction at all produces angst: the silence of the indifferent crowd scares me. It is, indeed, one the most striking expressions of the ratings logic as analyzed by Roland Gori: on social networks, the amount of reactions demonstrates the value of what I express. And contemporary conscience is increasingly shaped by this logic each time a new website borrows its rating system from Facebook.

Let’s examine three examples of this ubiquity: media, academic research and romantic relationships. Le Monde shows a ranking of articles published on their site according to the amount of shares on Facebook. In the comments section, readers could very well protest against its empty rhetoric, criticize its spelling or factual errors or claim they haven’t understood a word of what the journalist wrote. It doesn’t matter: the number of shares is what determines the ranking of the publication. And this quantitative impact doesn’t say anything about the intellectual absorption of the ideas defended by its author nor even the quality of the text.

Another example: Academia.edu, a website used by academics to create a profile and share their publications. This service combines several classification methods. First, each member’s page indicates the number of users who follow their work: it’s a popularity index comparable to the amount of “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter. In addition, each view of an article drives its author up in the platform ranking: Academia.edu indicates the percentile of its members by comparing the number of views of their papers over a period of thirty days. However, these different evaluation methods say nothing about the intrinsic value of intellectual products: an item can be viewed without being read; read without triggering the slightest idea; recommended casually to flatter a colleague ranking higher in the academic hierarchy. Hence, the logic of ratings that identifies value to a quantifiable reputation has pervaded  academia and its members boast the number of quotes as an objective evidence of their importance in the academic field.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in dating sites. On OkCupid, users send signs of mutual attraction by clicking on a star: the accumulation of stars demonstrate the “impact” of the user’s image and is yet another sign of the omnipresence of the ratings system: I see myself as an attractive person because I receive a deluge of golden stars; conversely, the lack of electronic notification shows how much people are indifferent to my image.

As if our very existence had no other purpose than being subjected to the evaluation of others. The virtual world is so much more than a parallel universe that we visit willingly, from time to time. It is acquiring a symbolic pre-eminence over what we (still) call reality because we are inclined to judge our own individual value based on our presence in this alternate reality: we delegate our personal esteem to the approval of the anonymous crowd we are members of and rely on. However, Facebook is not only the source of propagation and legitimation of a logic of ratings. It also locks us unduly inside ideological bubbles.

Ideological bubbles and democratic danger

Author of a book titled The Filter Bubble : What the Internet is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser shows how Facebook adapts the information delivered to its users based on preferences customized according to a permanent monitoring of their activities on the site. The social network uses an algorithm to recommend content based on all the content that has previously caught the attention of its members. Thus, a user whose liberal tendencies are inferred by the articles they share and their comments will see more publications that tend to support their own opinions. If among their contacts, some express differing views, the algorithm will avoid showing them because they are automatically classified as irrelevant information. This phenomenon remains undetectable to users but the same search on devices customized for other people will show the variety of results. Hence, without even knowing it, we are locked up in invisible, compartmentalized bubbles; these are all the more pernicious that they give us the illusion of an unanimity of opinions while only reflecting our own convictions.

By trusting Facebook’s promotional discourse, we are wrongly ignoring the plain truth: even if the social network presents itself as a “service” – in other words, as an ideologically neutral communication tool – it is still a commercial firm whose primary purpose is to generate profit. Hence, in order to retain customers and acquire new ones, the social network has no interest in exposing political opinions that are contrary to their users’ own views: instead, it will strive to strengthen the validity of its users’ own worldview and offer them not only a hypnotic experience, but a rewarding one.

The last American presidential election saw an unprecedented polarization of political opinions: a survey from June 2016 showed that half of them, whether Democrats or Republican, were “frightened” by members of the opposite party. Facebook bears a clear responsibility in this increasingly deep political divide: according to a 2016 study, 44% of the US population turns to Facebook for information and spends an average of fifty minutes per day on the social network. Thus, Facebook has largely contributed to the polarization of political views by enclosing individuals in sealed communities instead of exposing them to opposing arguments, not to speak of its role in the emergence and dissemination of fake news. These have provided additional arguments to millions of people, increasingly convinced of what they already believed. California has begun dreaming of secession and protests more than any other US state against Mr. Trump’s presidency. An yet, the ideologues of the Valley paved the way for his inauguration to the same extent as the working classes of the Rust Belt.

The meaning of Facebook

Facebook heralds the advent of a society that mirrors what the social network claims to promote. Not a society of democratic exchange, where people interact within a virtual agora by opposing arguments, but a society divided by antagonism and defiance, one that is partitioned in isolated bubbles; not a society of free sharing of information but of commercial exploitation of the data we deliver each time we visit Facebook. Why should we turn away from this social network and all those who promote its paradigm? Because the proliferation of images encourages negative feelings, jealousy and intellectual harassment; because it distracts us from thinking in depth and it fragments our lives; because it spreads and strengthens the logic of ratings that leads to a superficial redefinition of the value of intellectual products and individuals; because it reinforces our preconceptions instead of confronting us to opposing arguments. The network invented by Mark Zuckerberg, who could very well run for president at the next US elections, poses a significant democratic threat. Was it Zuckerberg’s plan all along, ever since his solitary meditation on that Californian pedestrian crossing?

Ultimately, what will be the value of my own article? Will it be “shared” five or one hundred times? “Seen” by a dozen or a thousand people? Read in full by three or fifty people? Will it be “liked” by my wife and a few friends or by a legion of strangers? And what will I discover from this echo that doesn’t say anything about its effectiveness i.e. its capacity to generate new ideas and contradictory arguments... Will it even trigger the following action: a reader’s unsubscription from social networks? “Impact” doesn’t really matter, if it only refers to numbers, if it isn’t backed by human thought. If I were to make a wish, it would be the following: I invite my friends and readers to disconnect their phones, realize that social networks devour and fragment the short time we have. And instead of checking their timeline a hundred times, their messages a thousand times, they could use that time to live a real experience: walk, cuddle, or daydream.

A longer version of this article was originally published in French in La Règle du jeu.

Benjamin Hoffmann
Assistant Professor of Literature, Ohio State University