For many digital citizens, Facebook is no longer a friend but rather an old acquaintance they are trying to keep at a safe distance. Perhaps you still see each other at important events, you still know the same people, but you’ll never be close again. You are not yet ready for #faxit but you find yourself thinking about it a lot. But it is a hard process. Well, that is how I experience at least — I find it surprisingly hard.
I have been part of an online community since 1999, when I joined an email group for ‘independent communication professionals’. It was the year I started my freelance business and networking became a way of life. Hyves, Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn, I joined them all — to know people was to increase your chances of finding work. I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people both on and offline and exchanging ideas. I still enjoy the digital space, but I have become rather wary of entering. Social media became part of our daily life and business, but it now seems to be evolving into something a lot nastier. Whereas Facebook was once a handy tool to keep in touch with real and virtual friends, these days it appears to have divided humankind into bite-sized pieces, then swallowed the lot to spit out its bile online. And — although we cannot blame technology for our own evil, we can wonder about its role in social polarisation.
Public discourse is increasingly marked by harsh language about the “us and them”. Opinions that were considered absolutely not cool when I grew up, are now expressed in the regular media and even in the high street. (Seriously, I have had shopkeepers telling me whose fault ‘it’ is, completely out of the blue). The mechanics of social media are perfect for extremist views. I sometimes click on the comments on a post and the language scares me. And when I get scared, I get angry. And angry people can find all the confirmation they need online. Truthfully, ‘the interwebs’ are not a happy place to be in such a state of mind. Nor does confirmation solve anything, it just nudges everyone away from the centre towards the edges, where the angry people live.
My personal experiences seem to be in step with growing public realisation that social media platforms — such as Facebook – are built for our benefit. On the contrary, they may cause actual and acute harm to individuals and the wider society. YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, for example, can trap people in a world of extremist views; Instagram has been proven to have a deteriorating effect on the self-esteem of children; and Twitter is an effective channel for trolls, bullying people in the cyberspace. And let’s not even start about the damage Tinder does to our sense of self.
All this and more made me eager to learn about how Facebook in particular influences my worldview. Why do I only see a fraction of my online friends? Who places those ads and why? What happens to the stuff I post on my news feed? Where did I sign away ownership of my photo’s? Why does Facebook need all my personal data? Who benefits? And what is my actual value to Facebook’s advertisers?