Staying with Facebook
Do you remember your first?
That moment of first attraction? The flirting? The sense of anticipation?
Then the moment you first connected?
We never forget our first, even if the relationship sours a bit as it matures, even as a darker personality emerges, even as we wake up one morning and realize we are sleeping with the spawn of Satan.
I am not talking about first love of the human variety. I am talking about our relationship with Facebook.
Most of us know the history by now. Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and friends at Harvard University. As it rapidly expanded, it remained limited to university and high school students with .edu email addresses.
My son first introduced me to Facebook sometime around 2006 when he was still in high school. It was clear this was something special. In 2006, Facebook expanded to take in any consumer with a valid email address, young, old, and everyone in between. From that point, growth exploded, as did Zuckerberg’s wealth.
I signed on in 2008 and remain active to this day.
But I have significant concerns, as do millions of others. Those concerns received a troubling airing last week when a former Facebook data analyst, Frances Haugen, testified before Congress, her testimony based on thousands of documents she took with her after leaving the platform.
There was not a great deal new in Haugen’s testimony. But she was able to confirm long-held suspicions, now backed up by those documents and made more credible by her even-handed, plain-English delivery.
She explained that Zuckerberg and the Facebook team know their platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, can be harmful to the most vulnerable in our society, particularly young people, especially young girls. But they resist making changes that would offer greater protections.
Profit Over Change
She explained that Zuckerberg and his management team know their platforms spread disinformation that harms people and institutions, including our democracy. But necessary changes would decrease slightly the company’s gargantuan profits because disinformation drives clicks and strengthens consumer engagement.
She explained that Facebook executives know the platform can be used to spread hate, including notions of white supremacy and destructive Christian nationalism. But necessary changes to content algorithms could dampen growth and, yes, reduce profits.
She explained that Facebook executives know there are easy, quick fixes that could address concerns, but the company bureaucracy values those obscene profits over people.
Her testimony was damning.
Added to previously aired concerns about Facebook’s massive data-mining initiatives that violate all notions of consumer privacy – and to concerns about the platform’s management of political speech – Haugen’s testimony makes it nearly certain that Congress will step in to implement tougher regulatory measures.
Still, I Stay
Given the company’s soulless, profits-first value set, why do I stay? Some of my friends and family members have left, some following the 2016 fake news/misinformation debacle, others because of privacy concerns. But I stay.
My first-blush romance with social media is long past, of course. The novelty is gone, as are my once passionate convictions that Facebook and other social media platforms would democratize political discourse. And even as Facebook remains a remarkable marketing tool for journalists, it also devalues mainstream news while elevating the fake and false.
What is left, for me at least, is the most pragmatic benefit. I give up privacy and the aggravation that comes with misinformation and hateful messaging in return for the opportunity to stay in contact with friends and family. It is as simple as that, an honest transactional relationship.
Modern society isolates us, never more so than during this pandemic. Our work and family obligations leave little time for casual friendships or the resumption of old friendships that have gone missing. Facebook changed that. I can stay in touch with people I enjoy even if I have not seen them or even talked with them in years.
Through Facebook, I can keep current on the activities of siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and my one child who remains on the platform. It provides the only means I have of staying in touch with former students.
With friends and family scattered all over the country, Facebook gives me the first pictures of a newborn family member, or the first news of a friend’s career change, or the first news, sadly, of a death. I often learn of major news events from private Facebook posts before the news hits the mainstream.
All of that would go away if I left Facebook and I am not prepared for that sacrifice even though leaving would be a meaningful, value-driven decision.
I do not think of myself as a social media addict. After retiring from the University of Idaho I dropped off most social media platforms that I had joined just to understand and keep up with my students.
Facebook is all that remains for me. I post in spurts, mostly silly stuff about the Oregon Ducks, or my cigar smoking, or scenes from my travels, or the view from my porch. For their privacy, I do not post much of anything about my children or grandchildren.
I can go some hours between check ins and was not at all discombobulated by the Facebook outage early last week.
But I cannot leave.
Maybe There’s Hope
Congressional action that limits the ability of any media company to do its job makes me nervous and, make no mistake, Facebook is very much a media company. Still, I agree with those members of Congress from both parties who now argue regulation is necessary – and inevitable.
Nothing Congress can do will bring back my earlier passion for the platform. But it is possible regulatory changes will bring a bit of peace to a relationship that has soured over time, but which still holds great promise.
With Congressional help, maybe the spawn of Satan can be redeemed.
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Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.