What does your Facebook feed say about your friends? Is it a waterfall of hilarious mannequin challenges? A cascade of political diatribes? A stream of baby photos so long you wish plastic foldout wallet inserts were still the top choice of grandpas everywhere?
It can be tempting to assume that the rolling digest of content on that familiar blue and white screen is reflective of the individuals you’ve met –– a glowing cacophony of diverse ideas, lifestyles, opinions, and let’s face it –– memes.
But the truth is, that binge of curated content actually says more about someone else.
Yes, you guessed it –– it’s you.
As we enter an era following one of the most intense and emotionally exhausting elections of, well, possibly ever, many fingers have pointed at the ‘Book, blaming it for the downfall of credible news, and, as a byproduct, informed citizens.
“Echo chamber”, the latest buzzword, became the answer to how the hell we landed here. The blame game players found a culprit. Election results seemed to confirm more ideas we’ve heard countless times –– we’re divided, we’re polarized, we’re not listening to each other, and it’s all Facebook’s fault.
But is that true? It’s worth taking a closer look.
You are indeed largely in control of what you see on Facebook… which is why, for the sake of the future, you should care.
Anyone who’s been with Facebook since its invention has seen many iterations of what we now refer to as the “news feed”, and observed how these changes have affected what we ultimately see on the site.
In the beginning (2006), Zuckerberg created status updates. Soon after, the digital currency of likes entered the scene –– an immediate, simple way to affirm the thoughts of an update or the attractiveness of a selfie.
March of 2009 brought us filters, lists, and the ability to post multimedia along with our posts. With these changes, users could cull only the most interesting and useful of content themselves.
Don’t care about Aunt Mildred’s hip surgery? Or your high school friend’s engagement?
Click. Click. Gone.
Over the next few years, Facebook shirked the original reverse chronological structure, and started prioritizing the posts that got the most activity, meaning the most liked, commented on, and shared of the content stayed at the top, while the untouched posts of yesterday fell to the bottom to be forgotten.
By 2013, Facebook had gotten even savvier, with tweaked algorithms and integrations with other burgeoning social media services like Instagram. Facebook users began seeing content tailored to reflect their past interactions. The move from broadcasting to narrowcasting continued.
The following years brought more of the same personalized options, from video updates to keyword searches. Simultaneously, Facebook worked to limit clickbaity articles, overly pushy promotional posts, and hoaxes. The Facebook news feed algorithm constantly evolved, using various metrics and methods to determine what users would see at the top of their feeds.
Over Facebook’s lifespan, Zuckerberg’s team has played around with user activity, including our interactions with different stories and our interest in particular content creators or topics, giving priority to friends and family. This trend is evidenced by Facebook’s recent release of its core values –– make the world more open and connected, among others.
When viewed as an evolutionary timeline, it’s clear how Facebook has formulated our news feed to our liking, pun intended. It has become a place where, ultimately, we see what we want to see.
This level of control has empowered Facebook users to curate their social media experience, which on the surface, sounds like a good thing… right?
Fewer weird pregnancy photos, stories about cats, or emotional diary entries, for starters. How could that hurt anyone?
The power to unfollow or unfriend has opened the possibility to virtually delete people from your life, for all sorts of reasons. Maybe that person is annoying, or racist, or maybe they just think differently from you, and you’ll know it by the comments they leave.
Oh, comments. This section of Facebook and other social media sites has become a notorious breeding ground for trolls: people who spew hateful sentiments from the comfort of their keyboard. Now, anyone with an online presence open to the wider internet must brace themselves for what could be a firestorm of typo-ridden negative responses, that not only challenge their beliefs but threaten their safety.
The perceived anonymity of sites other than Facebook have emboldened such trolls to higher levels of vitriol. But even among friends on Facebook, the nasty barbs fly somewhat freely.
Throw in a hotly controversial election or other world event, and what do you get? Unfollows, deletes, blocks, and lost friends abounding.
Our information-sharing circle tightens as eyebrow-raising comments make us wary of people we know or once knew.
Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, advised against falling prey to this tendency in a tweet this past October:
Do NOT get stuck in the comments section of life today.
Make, do, create the things.
Let others tussle it out.
The World, as told by the news feed, has become smaller and more focused, not only for petty personal tiffs, but for large-scale fear and hate. Somewhere along the line, respect and social decorum fell apart when a keyboard and a screen came between people.
What happens now?
Now that we’ve refreshed our memories as to how we got here and what’s causing many of the problems in the online world, let’s talk about why you still use this blue and white social media behemoth.
If you haven’t already looked at the cold hard facts, you should know that more hours on Facebook are probably not doing much good for your mental health in general.
So, it begs the question –– why do you continue using it?
This isn’t a rhetorical question, I really want you to ask yourself this one.
Take some time to reflect about your motivations for getting on the ‘Book. Do you actually use it to stay in touch with faraway friends? Do you run a business Page or manage the social media for your company? Do you lean on it as your primary news source?
Or, the more likely answers –– is it primarily a time waster that you use to punctuate time at your unfulfilling day job, a social awkwardness crutch, a space to vent about the recent global events, or a meme pantry?
If the second group of answers more closely mirrors your Facebook time, it is worth analyzing whether it’s a habit worth maintaining.
How many hours per week do you estimate that you spend on Facebook? What are the moments and situations in which you tend to go on it? After you use it, do you tend to feel happier and energized, or frustrated and deflated?
Be honest with yourself, and with the effects that it has on you.
Just like food, or alcohol, or sleep, technology use, and specifically Facebook, should be moderated and used intelligently. Though it has a myriad of positive aspects, if left unchecked, Facebook use can do more harm than good.
It might sound all bad right now, but there is good news: you are in control of your Facebook experience.
Remember: if Facebook has done anything, it has valued the ability of its users to drive the content that shows up in their Facebook feeds. You just have to do so productively.
If using Facebook makes you happy, stimulates you intellectually, and fosters stronger relationships amongst your friends and family, you’re probably doing something right.
But if you find that it largely makes you feel inadequate or upset, encourages drama, and ruptures connections, it’s time for a change.
Of course, you can unfollow, unfriend, and block. You can prioritize posts, like and unlike pages, join and leave groups, silence messages — the list goes on.
However, another option is to formulate your own Facebook strategy, where you can read and see ideas that run against your own. Your strategy might include:
Then, there is always the rogue option. Delete your Facebook for a while and see how you feel. Be that weirdo who calls people to talk. Organize meetups with friends you haven’t seen for a while to chat over coffee about the news. Take an online class about effective communication. Turn your phone notifications off.
Make the real world your news feed.
You might be surprised by how much more open and connected your life starts to become.
No matter whether you end up curating your feed, limiting or expanding your Facebook use, or going totally off the grid, remember one thing: your world is not the only one out there.
Many other good, hardworking, intelligent, thoughtful people have worlds they’ve created –– in Facebook or elsewhere –– that look entirely different from yours, and it is worth getting to know them on or offline.
If you move in this direction, you will start to understand points of view opposite of yours. You’ll create spaces, online and offline, where dialogue and discussion are encouraged, but hate is banned.
And where real people, not just their digital picture and name, are the ones you’re talking to.
There may not be one right or perfect way to use Facebook, but there are plenty of wrong ways.
We are increasingly living our lives out on screens, and the way we interact with one another will continue to evolve and change with our technology. As we encounter pitfalls — where we as users have turned a technology into a force for evil — we have a social responsibility to take a step back and examine where we are going wrong.
Pocket devices have given us the power to control the information we get, easily spread good vibes, or inflict pain on others, sometimes at the expense of our own well-being.
In the end, we must each define how social media will play a role in our own life.
Not everyone will start or join this movement, but if you’ve read this far, you will likely be one of them.
For all the updates, comments, shares, and likes you haven’t posted yet, good luck.
Photo credit: Peogeo
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.