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Opinion | We’re selling ourselves to Facebook

The risk of a tool like Facebook is difficult to pin down, but its power is clearly pernicious

By Felicity MacKenzie, First Year History

Tools can be dangerous. Hammers, wrenches, knives: misuse them and they can cause huge pain. The risk of a tool like Facebook is more difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, it holds the potential to be deeply pernicious.

To say the majority of us use Facebook is an understatement. According to a study by online measurement company SimilarWeb, the network’s 1.4 billion active users spend an average of 58 minutes on it each day. This adds up to the equivalent of a 9-5pm workday (with lunch break) every week. We log on in all manner of situations; when we’re procrastinating, hanging out with friends or lying in bed.

We're still worryingly unclear as to what Facebook's role is in our lives

Despite this high level of engagement however, we’re still worryingly unclear as to what Facebook’s role is in our lives. We view it roughly as a social network, whilst half knowing that it’s something more. This nonchalance is incredibly foolish and hands a disproportionate amount of power to Facebook itself. It’s time we wake up and learn to use the tool thoughtfully.

Facebook | Tim Bennett / Unsplash

So what actually is Facebook?

The clue is in the name: it is a catalogue of human beings. This gives it the potential to be an excellent medium for communication; connecting families and friends across the globe, as well as giving new opportunities for international conversation and the spread of ideas. Furthermore, it can keep us informed about what’s going on in Bristol and the wider UK, from gigs and sports events to protests like the action by Extinction Rebellion in London this week.

On the surface, this promises enhanced human interaction. Somehow, however, the reality doesn’t quite match up.

Research consistently demonstrates that social media is detrimental to our mental
health. It increases feelings of loneliness and makes room for miscommunication. We’re often left waiting for someone’s reply, agonisingly trying to interpret the 2D signals. This is a recipe for anxiety.

Research consistently demonstrates that social media is detrimental to our mental health

So why do we still use it?

According to Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, it’s because the network is intentionally ‘exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology’. Facebook works on something Parker calls the ‘social validation feedback loop’. This provides a concrete way for us to assess our standing in the social hierarchy. We feel good when we’re recognised with a like. We feel bad when we see someone doing something that we wish we could be doing.

Our sense of self worth goes up and down, up and down.

Crucially, the factors by which our culture determines social success are elusive and comparative: sexual appeal, money, happiness - to name just a few. Each of us longs to find rest somewhere; in someone, something. This is what companies capitalise on. They bombard us with the idea that the happiness we’ll find in having this experience, having that relationship, owning this item, will somehow bring us rest.

Facebook is making us its product

Facebook is, of course, a company. We’d expect it to engage in such a practice. Yet there is a key difference between it and most others of its ilk. Facebook isn’t trying to sell us anything. Instead, it’s making us its product.

Facebook’s customers are the advertising companies, who are vying for our data and attention. It uses the ‘social validation feedback loop’ to keep us online, because the
more time we spend using the network, the more exposed we are to adverts and the more information it can collect about us. The more of this we give to Facebook, the more valuable a product we become for it to sell.

The effects of this manipulation are insidious. Our culture is consistently over-stimulated with colour, light and sound. The ‘you only live once’ attitude tells us that we have to be ‘living our best lives’ all the time. Facebook fits right into this pressure cooker of anxiety and capitalises on it mercilessly.

Facebook | Kon Karampelas / Unsplash 

So what can we do about it?

Without us, Facebook would collapse. It needs its products - and this gives us power. Sadly, I can’t see the social network disappearing anytime soon. If we’re to continue to sell ourselves, then, we should at least try and minimise the damage done in the process.

Here are some practical tips to help put the power in better balance:
Take breaks from social media. Look up! Next time you’re in a queue or walking down the street, don’t look at your phone. Take active enjoyment in and appreciate the things around you. Frame your day with something that isn’t Facebook, for example, make a cuppa before you look at your phone in the morning and take five minutes to do something which doesn’t involve it after setting your alarm at night. Book a coffee with a friend!

Philosophy is physical: the way you think will change the way you act. Consider the source of your self-worth. Should we be making a fluctuating state like ‘happiness’ our goal? Would things look different if we strove for contentment?

Our attitude, at least, depends on us. Let’s use Facebook for the tool that it is, then shelf it back where it belongs.

Featured image: neONBRAND / Unsplash

Do we underestimate or overestimate the powers of social media?