Mark Zuckerberg is under fire from Congress for failing to protect Facebook users’ personal information and for its inability to prevent Russia from using the social network to influence the 2016 presidential election.
While the site’s privacy troubles are recent, users have known about its other shortcomings for years. That Facebook can make us miserable is old news: so many research studies have concluded that it negatively affects our well-being, last year the company conducted its own such study and largely agreed. “I’ve been impressed by the consistency with which the scientific literature has uncovered negative links,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, whose oft-cited 2013 research concluded that Facebook use predicts a decline in users’ well-being.
So why are we all still using the service, really? What do the experts studying our behavior on Facebook have to say? In her book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” MIT’s Sherry Turkle notes that we often use Facebook to “reflect the person we want to be, aspirational self.”
Some researchers theorize that we can benefit from interacting with this better, shinier self. “Yes, we filter and lie by omission on Facebook,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Catalina Toma. “But we tell the truth, too. A person can’t say they just got engaged if they didn’t just get engaged.” Toma’s research has found that when people spend five minutes viewing their own Facebook profile, their feelings of self-worth are boosted.
But concocting that “better” version of ourselves can be hard on us, too: Turkle believes that Facebook encourages what sociologist David Riesman called the “other-directed life,” wherein a person measures their own worth through what others think. “We curate a self-online that is the self we want other people to see,” “We preach authenticity but practice self-curation. We alienate ourselves from who we really are.”
Facebook has done such a good job of making us feel in control that the company has begun to draft our public personas for us. Think about the site’s new photo montages of “friend anniversaries,” wherein an algorithm culls our most liked, most commented-on photos. When we post these machine-created self-representations, Facebook is partially deciding what facets of lives we should show the world.
How much is Facebook in control, versus how much are we in control? What seems to matter most to us is that we feel in control. Turkle likens the issue to climate change. “The climate is in trouble. But you put these thoughts aside when you are faced with a sparkling, beautiful day. Facebook’s big problems are the climate. Your personal use is your personal weather,” she wrote.
So even when Facebook is making us unhappy – when photos of vacations and restaurants and conflict-free families are actively depressing us – we’ll likely rationalize that behavior. We’re often unable to rationally decide, “Hey, looking through that friend’s photos made me feel worst about my own life, so it might be a wise and healthy choice to avoid her posts in the future.”
When a loved one dies, some families choose to leave the person’s Facebook profile intact posthumously. Leaving the profile up means that friends and family can comment to others under the photos of the deceased or even write a note addressed directly to the person who has died. “I think that writing on the profiles of the dead is a beautiful, new way to express feelings – to yourself, and to other friends and family of the person who died – that really is not the same as a note to the bereaved person, what people usually did to mark the moment,” Turkle reflected.
Toma noted that throughout history, society has had adverse, fearful reactions to new technologies, and with each new invention, we’ve adapted our social protocols and behavior accordingly. As New York Times technology writer Clive Thompson noted in his 2013 book “Smarter Than You Think,” in the 1880s, “Mavens of etiquette fretted that the telephone would coarsen our manners, because of the predominant greeting – ‘hello!’ – derived from the shout of ‘halloo,’ a bellow used to summon the hounds to hunt.” As Zuckerberg explains the “hows” of using Facebook to Congress, it’s important to consider the “whys,” as well.
Ms Leslie is the author of “I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live In It.”