We need to talk about Social Media

30-07-2015

I've recently closed my Facebook account, and had everything deleted. The full nuclear option!

That statment, on it's own, has provoked interesting reactions from the few people I've mentioned it to. Comments have ranged from it's social suicide to I had a friend rage quit but he came back to I never really bothered with it anyway. I can well imagine that I don't do Facebook is the new I don't watch telly. I suppose that is testament to the power and success of Facebook. But it's made me think quite a lot about social media in general, so I figured I'd write some of my thoughts down.

The thing is, I never really rage quit Facebook. It was much more of a meh-style decision that's uncovered a lot more than I thought. On the surface I find Facebook to be a very easy distraction. That's not really Facebook's fault, it's mine. I did catch myself constantly checking things and wondering "why am I doing this?". I do the same with Twitter now I've left Facebook, but I do it less - for reasons explained later. I once heard Facebook described as the Tescos of the internet. In many ways, I agree - it's become lowest common denominator stuff. In some sense, that's quite an achievement. I remember Grayson Perry suggesting that the best works of art these days will maybe be found inside the server halls of a giant tech company, or the mini server farm in some kid's garage. There is no denying Facebook is an incredible technical achievement. But what has it brought us?

Facebook's privacy policies have come under fire. I'm told they aren't too bad at it now, but they are a business, and we are the product. I don't believe there is any getting away from that. So the question becomes more simply, is the cost worth the benefit? I don't plan my social events or contact my friends through Facebook really. There are one or two I might find it harder to contact, but in the main, the people who I care for and who care for me use other means to contact me. So the actual social bit I don't seem to get.

The other benefit I can see is much more insidious. I believe it was Julian Assange who stated that social media was just a way to prove yourself worthy to a social group you identify with. It's perhaps fairly obvious but I liken it to the geeky black t-shirt or the stickers on your laptop. I believe it's called signal theory. It's about saying "look at me, I'm cool, I'm like you" or "You are not one of us". It's a way of showing allegiance to a peer group and also a way to mediate these internal group power structures. In short, social media has shown us our own dark side. Consider trolls, online bullying, and all the death and rape threats that pervade the various platforms. It's not just Facebook; all the others are complicit too.

The cost side, for me, outweigh the benefits, but I think the costs are much less obvious. My data are sold to other places in order that said companies can market to me more effectively. It's been said that the USA has a "stalker economy". It's all about collecting as much data as you can, to sell you crap you don't really need. And what do I get in return? Piles and pile of vacuous crap, with the occasional nugget of insight and amusement. I also have that lovely feeling of anxiety you get when your social circle online is too big, and they are all shouting various things into the echo-chamber, getting all up-tight about some local matter you really have no stake in.

I heard a friend say they were careful about what they posted online - the implication being that they were in control. I think this is a false belief. Now it is possible, for example, to avoid Facebook and Google knowing if you are pregnant (a friend of a friend has actually done this study) but it's not easy. While you are watching one thing, you arent watching another. Also, you are a link in a chain. It's not just about your data, it's about the link you form with others. Plus there are other data points like the things you click on, the length of time you browse the site, etc. I think one needs to be wary about what they post but I don't believe it's possible to be totally in control without signing out completely.

Around the time of the Pride 2015 March, here in London, Facebook users were offered the chance to add rainbows to their avatars. I didn't do this because it's fairly obvious this could be used as a social experiment. I'm generally not opposed to such experiments (science after-all right?) but there was a similar scheme around voting. Reading articles by Bruce Schneier it becomes clear that saying when you've voted is a way of giving power to Facebook. It works like this: people are more likely to vote if their peers vote. Facebook had an affect on voter turn out in the USA. Facebook is pretty good at knowing which way you will vote. Facebook controls who sees what on their network. Put two and two together and, in a tight race (and it would have to be pretty tight), Facebook could swing an election.

That scenario is unlikely to happen right now but it hints at a possible future. Not sure I like that.

One theory suggests that Facebook, and to a greater extent, Google, are performing a sort of colonialism in parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world. By being the ones bringing internet to places that don't have it, they control what can be seen and make the local populace reliant on their services. This is a violation of net neutrality and it is somewhat insidious. Again, it's not quite there yet but I believe it has the EFF somewhat concerned. Some people believe the internet itself is just Facebook and Google. That's quite worrying.

I'm expecting a barrage of "get you and your Tinfoil hat" and the like. Truth is, you don't need to be a paranoid nut-job. The evidence is all there, and people actually don't care. I think it's because we don't appreciate the value of information and what we are giving away. As a society we've sleep walked into this new culture and I wonder what the result of that will be? More power to corporations who don't have our best interests at heart I suspect. Not sure I'm really cool with that either. I want to be involved with things online, truly I do! But I suspect Facebook isn't the place for me.

I love data; it's my day job to work with lots of it, but in that sense, the power is mine. I have it all on my hard-disk, I write the code and I decide when and how to use it. Twitter remains somewhat relevant for me, largely because it's API allows me some agency over it's processes (Facebook has an API too but I found I could never be that bothered to mess with it - it's just not as good). I'm in the middle of a fun experiment with Twitter to solve some of the problems I've outlined above, so the costs don't quite outweigh the benefits yet. Hoping to have some good data from that experiment really soon!

The take-away message for me is that such things aren't free and they have a cost. Sometimes they are a force for good and sometimes they are a waste of time and at worse, actually make your life worse. Would you rather read a book, play a game with a friend, or browse Facebook? Knowing the costs might actually change your mind.