Conversation from the future:
“Welcome to your page, Alicia. Here are your recommended friends…”
“Ugh, Mooooooooom! I told you, Lyle is a stupid boy.”
Does that conversation sound strange to you? Or is it all too plausible?
I personally cannot log onto a social network without feeling like Big Brother is trying to get me a play-date so that he can go to the park with his mates.
As I pass the one-week mark of my “Not on FB or Twitter anymore” the boredom starts to recede, and while I still get the urge to browse, it is not as strong. (Being sick probably has something to do with that, as well.) Productivity is not any higher (see previous post) but it isn’t lower, which is a fair balance. Overall, there have not been any grave incidents where friends were unable to contact me, and I haven’t experienced any symptoms that might be associated with solitary confinement. Not a bad prognosis for now.
While there haven’t been serious temptations for me to return to the social networks, I do find myself reflecting a lot on them. Today’s thoughts are expanding on something I wrote earlier, that is: forced sociability online.
As Jaron Lanier says, people give too much credit to siren servers. To put it as straightforwardly as I can: the sites benefit the more we share, and we share more when we have more connections, ergo the sites benefit when we are connected. The algorithms then try to make us notice as many ‘mutual friends’ as possible so that we connect with them ourselves, presuming that ‘mutual friends’ means that you have interests in common.
In other words, social networks recommend friends to you the same way shopping sites recommend products based on your purchases. (Or, as Jamie Varon put it, Tinder makes it possible for you to order a date in the same way you order take-out.)
Setting aside the ethical and moral quandaries that arise when someone treats someone else as a commodity, there is a huge fallacy in this method of making social connections – not everyone you are friends with on social network is actually a friend. A friend (or a follower) is a shorthand term for anyone, from your lover, to your kindergarten teacher, to your mom, to some guy you briefly punched in the face during training, (and then bought them a drink because it’s only polite), to a colleague you don’t get along with. Occasionally, the more technologically savvy employ a stratified approach to whose posts they see and whose they do not — but not everyone is technologically savvy, which is why we hear about recruiters denying jobs based off an applicant’s social media profile. However, this does not resolve all the issues that come from such a simplification of social relations.
An obvious consequence, for example, is the proliferation of what Nancy Baym calls “weak ties” (2010). In other words, we make connections with people we do not know that well and we do not invest much energy into them, and yet those connections exist in our lives. From the outside, we look like we have a wide, thriving social circle, which is presumably good because “bigger is better”, but in reality, we only talk to a handful of these people, and even with social networks, we are not aware of the most basic details of their lives.
Another, much more serious issue is that the algorithm does not differentiate between one kind of friend and another. As such, someone may be forced to connect with people they don’t like or get along with simply because they share a pool of acquaintances and use social networks for organizing meetups, or just talking. In addition to having to interact with people we find unpleasant, this kind of connecting for the sake of the group exposes us because they see our profiles, presumably created for a different audience in mind.
This doesn’t even begin to account for all instances where you share mutual friends with a person who hurt you in one way or another in the past; a person who still makes you anxious by simply existing within your periphery. Again, non-participation in social networks is very difficult, and even without the technological advancements, there is always pressure on the part of peers for one to “just get along” and “play nice” for the sake of the group. Facebook didn’t invent peer pressure, but it does not make it any better, either.
Finally, the unspoken social conventions on social networks do not fare too well with change. Once you are friends with someone, you have to stay friends – to unfriend or to block is considered as a last measure resort, in case someone becomes abusive or makes you feel unsafe in another way (and even then, as I mentioned, there might be peer pressure to play nice.)
But relationships are not static. If anything, they are a living thing in themselves – they are formed or born, they grow and develop, they stagnate, they grow weak, and yes, they also die. Sometimes people move away, or change jobs, sometimes there is a serious event which severs the relationship, and sometimes it runs its course when participants no longer have an interest in common and cannot bring themselves to put in the effort to keep it alive. We may mourn the loss of some relationships – it is, in fact, perfectly human to do so – but some we simply let go of and we move on.
The only thing social networks do in this context is artificially extend the life of relationships we no longer care for, turning it into weak ties, or, as it sometimes happens to me, sources of resentment and envy. There have been occasions in the past where I was so busy feeling jealous for missing 5 different things, that I could not enjoy the one fun thing I was doing now. The truth is that I don’t have the energy to live six lives at once, and I do not appreciate being told that I should by a computer that thinks it knows better.
Or, in other words:
Mooooooooooom, stop trying to decide who I’m friends with!