home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

antisocial media

4 july 2018

Siva Vaidhyanathan's Antisocial Media is a spirited jeremiad against all things Zuckerberg. If the book is over the top, you have to admit that Facebook is over the top, too. The egregious can perhaps only be countered by the effusive.

Vaidhyanathan's thesis is that Facebook, for all its innocent intentions, bids to become the "operating system of our lives" (99), an eventuality as sinister as it sounds. Because of Facebook's very openness, the way that it melds itself so perfectly to individual choices and desires, it makes us susceptible to evil forces that the company does not have the gumption, the self-interest, or the corporate mission to counteract. Facebook divides us, paralyzes our will to engage in sober deliberation, substitutes flares of emotion for thought, and isolates us into ever-amplifying ideological bubbles. All we get in return are pictures of kittens. Which is not, Vaidhyanathan admits, altogether a bad thing. But it's not an adequate compensation.

Vaidhyanathan may be right that Facebook has succeeded too well. Facebook is no longer just another website or a mere app; it is more akin (in 2018) to a (mostly) worldwide global utility. Vaidhyanathan, I think, overstates Facebook's effective reach when he says that "almost everyone in North America and Europe has a Facebook account" (54). The best estimates for early 2018 show 214 million US users, for instance, which is admittedly a hell of a lot of accounts in a nation of 325 million, assuming that most of the holdouts are either too young to sign up or too old to care. But think of how many of your acquaintances have at some point signed up for Facebook and then stopped checking it after Liking a few snapshots of grandchildren or lunches. The core of the Facebook community is huge, but still a good bit smaller than "almost everyone."

I'm also skeptical of Vaidhyanathan's assertion that "in less than a decade most of us have learned to depend on Facebook to such a degree that it's difficult to imagine living without it" (19). Now, I freely admit to wasting 10 or 12 minutes at a time scrolling down through people's links to their favorite pork cracklings, their upcoming comic-book conventions, covers of books they loved, photos of their puppies recovering from operations, and their local weathermaps (it rained!) – to choose just those exciting things that are trending as I write this paragraph. I certainly check Facebook several times daily. But there are other ways of contacting people, and much of the time I need to use those methods anyway, because a lot of people I know are among the billions who don't even nominally have Facebook accounts. And somehow I think I could imagine living without the weathermaps and the pork cracklings.

The most sinister of Facebook's initiatives, at least as described by Vaidhyanathan, are taking place far from the suburban round of people's exercise diaries and hobby photos. A Facebook program called Free Basics brings various Internet functions to people in Myanmar and the Philippines – as the name suggests, for free. If Vaidhyanathan is correct in his critique, Free Basics is not quite as philanthropic as it sounds. If it provides affordable services, it also creates information bottlenecks – and surveillance networks – in places with appalling human-rights records. (Far freer India seems to have rejected Free Basics, despite its tempting appeal.)

Vaidhyanathan makes the cogent point that if Facebook enabled the Arab Spring, it also enabled the repressive reactions that followed in many countries. Facebook is still not available in China, which would seem to be a good look for Facebook: if a repressive state rejects your platform, you must have something libertarian going for you. But WeChat, the Chinese social media giant, shows the same "operating system of our lives" ambitions as Facebook does: and Mark Zuckerberg apparently can't wait to mind-meld Facebook with WeChat.

So Facebook is neither neutral nor benign. Of course it would be the first big company ever to hold those distinctions, if it actually lived up to its own rhetoric. But has it blighted 21st-century life to the extent that Vaidhyanathan claims? Vaidhyanathan sees Facebook as the emotional/intellectual parallel to the slot machine (38-39). Instead of being rewarded with bells, whirrs, and the occasional token payoff, Facebook rewards our scrolling and clicking with little bursts of anxiety, anger, and resentment (51). Fair enough. They woudn't be successful if they weren't so addictive.

But other aspects of Facebook seem less worrisome to me. The "operating system of our lives" fear is an extrapolation. Vaidhyanathan tells us to beware the day when Facebook is listening to our every move, 1984-telescreen-like, the day when we all wear Facebook glasses and let Facebook run our appliances and, basically, our lives. This vision of Facebook-as-Matrix seems way overblown, and even Vaidhyanathan admits it's a ways off. For one thing, nobody is ever going to wear those stupid glasses.

Other more immediate fears don't concern me much either. Surveillance is the standard fear, and at a Big Data level it's real enough. (Though even there, what's the essential problem with some company knowing you're trying to buy shoes, and sending you a Facebook ad for their shoes?) On the personal level, I am not much concerned about Facebook, or even individual Facebook users, watching me. All they're going to see are pictures of my cat, Whisper Wilson. One fear that Vaidhyanathan echoes – the idea that anonymous forces are now privy to our private behaviors – has always struck me as misplaced, though I know people take it seriously. The idea goes that we post some picture of ourselves drinking beer beside a pool – or far worse, I know – and the world, which once saw us as sober types sitting at a desk or working out all day, now knows our sudsy private side. But for the love of Mike, why are you posting a picture of yourself in swim trunks with a beer koozie on the Internet with the thought that it would remain strictly private?

In other words, if Facebook has telescreeny aspirations, they're still ridiculously easy to avoid. Facebook would need state authority behind it to become really Orwellian, and that's not happening soon. At least in countries like the United States, where state, federal, and local governments, for all their size and wealth, are providentially disorganized and find it difficult to build a few miles of train track, let alone get the trains to run on time.

Vaidhyanathan also laments the interpersonal costs of Facebook. "Facebook brings all of our acquaintances together," he says, "into one confusing collection of otherwise unrelated profiles that we are forced to deal with without the help of rank or distinction" (65). Facebook "relationships" thus become a matter of algorithmically-determined priorities of "Likes" instead of true connections. This too is true enough. Unlike more focused media like e-mail, it is quite true that I have never made a friend via Facebook, and it is true that I have several "Friends" that I have never met and am unlikely to have any more than the odd "Like" in common with. But so what? The Internet is like that, and so in its own way was snail mail, long before there was an Internet.

I do sometimes feel the alienation that Vaidhyanathan critiques. A few years after I opened my Facebook account, I went through and purged my Friend list in two stages, first from about 200 down to about fifty, and then from fifty to ten or twelve. I was feeling the postmodern fatigue of piecemeal Friendship, and I wanted to reduce my circle to my Dunbar number, the people who would actually give more than a Sigh if I kicked the bucket tomorrow. This didn't work very well, and before long I was back to 237 again. (Sounds a bit like my WeightDrop app, come to think of it.)

What I learned was that Facebook works best when you treat it as a performance space and a true networking arena, not as a substitute for human connection. I post photos of my cat because he is a damn attractive cat. I felt bad for bookmarking my place in Antisocial Media so that I could see how many Likes my last photo of my cat had gotten since I started reading, but a man needs some amusements. I also use Facebook to bring people together for parties, which has often led to holding conversations with people, in real life, that I hadn't seen for ages. I am not going to worry too much that my roster of Friends ranges from my son, my oldest friend, and my ex-girlfriend, right across to a few people who Liked the same grainy old photos of New York City that I did on a Group that I contributed to for a while. Meanwhile, my partner, my boss, most of my colleagues, and many of my local friends and neighbors don't use Facebook at all. Facebook hasn't destroyed my ability to figure out who's who.

My essential problem with Vaidhyanathan's thesis is that, with slight adjustments, you could make the same complaints about many a previous media innovation. Television, the telephone and telegraph, the fax machine, the newspaper; heck, the printing press, the scriptorium, the personal letter. Somebody was probably griping 3,500 years ago about the potential for Linear B to warp the social institutions of Mycenae.

(Lest you think that's just a laugh line, remember what Socrates said about writing, in the Phaedrus:

You give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
The man could have been talking about Facebook.)

Facebook is yet another medium. An odd one, as it's proprietary and in its relative infancy, but a medium all the same. Vaidhyanathan does admit that every social ill he invokes predated Facebook by a long chalk, and that at worst Zuckerbergism has just amplified existing tendencies.

"Facebook makes it hard to think," says Vaidhyanathan. Individually, "we can delete an app or turn off a mobile phone. There are no such strategies for the harm Facebook does to our ability to think collectively" (199). But were we doing all that great at collective thinking before Facebook came along? As the demotivational poster says, none of us is as dumb as all of us. Vaidhyanathan deplores the circulation of disinformation among the deplorable in 2016, but that ship had sailed long before the first BCC'd e-mail was ever sent. If Facebook changed minds for the dumber during the last electoral campaign, TV and direct mail and the old-fashioned whistlestop were changing them decades before.

I have to think that if you approach Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram or any other marvel of the 2010s) with your bullshit filters firmly installed and your sense of drama dialed down, you will be OK as an individual, as even Vaidhyanathan agrees. And there is no way to cope with social and technological innovations except one individual at a time.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Antisocial Media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.