Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

Open Facebook these days, and what you see is a lot of urging to quit Facebook, due to recent revelations about its relationship with the Cambridge Analytical kerfuffle.  Apart from the irony (surely intended) of posting the call to arms on Facebook itself, I think it’s a dubious response to a very real dilemma: how to avoid being manipulated by social media.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Socolow gives some sound practical advice on the subject, but his view of the real problem is a near miss:

… Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement.

We — humans, that is — have always had difficulty facing unpleasant and frustrating information, especially when it conflicts with our world view; that’s highly unlikely to change.  There are several recent studies that suggest that, in fact, being confronted with rational arguments against your world view can even strengthen your resolve.  It becomes a test of loyalty, not a rational decision.  So, what to do?

Get a room, as they say.  For better or worse, we are often much more flexible in our positions, even ones we hold dear, when no one is watching.  It’s the public gaze that stiffens our backs.  That’s why sensitive negotiations are better conducted in secret until at least a tentative agreement is reached.  It’s also why our outrage at secret government hearings is misplaced, especially in these bellicose times.  Transparency is good, by all means, but after the fact, not during.  I suspect this effect is a genetic response to the social nature of humans as a species; what we sacrifice in accuracy we gain in solidarity.  It’s a trade-off, of course.

The problem facing us now is that in social media, the boundaries between public and private are hazy, if not absent.  It feels private to post something on Facebook.  You are usually alone when you do it, sitting at your computer, in control.  No surprise that it comes as a shock when someone (out of nowhere, you think) strongly disagrees.  In front of that huge list of friends you’ve accumulated.

When you read something on Facebook, on the other hand, it feels public.  As such, it invites comment, even disagreeable comment.

Of course, anything you put online is public, no matter how it feels at the time.  Keeping that in mind is a big step toward curbing emotional responses, and therefore mitigating the natural tendency to accept what supports our existing beliefs, and reject everything else.  Post in public, react in private.

Having said all that, Socolow’s point about the internet’s tendency to ghettoize information is real.  You don’t even have to be on social media as such.

You can do a little experiment.  Find a friend, preferably someone you tend to disagree with a lot, and sit side by side, and google the same words, each on your own computer.  Then compare the results.

Quitting Facebook will make you feel virtuous, but not much else.  Better to stay and apply pressure to change the algorithm.

The illusion of online celebrity

A couple of quotes to ponder:

A politician riding on a wave of tweets feels as if the nation is cheering his every word, even when the nation is actually reading the sports page while a select splinter of hard-core supporters manically pound away on their smartphones. A hundred thousand people cheering you on in the social media feels like a mass movement. But this is a gigantic country.
— Gail Collins

…behavior online is too easily taken as a mirror of reality when it is nothing of the sort. What seems to be the voice of the masses is the voice of a self-appointed few, magnified and distorted.
— David Streitfeld

The reality is, even if you have 10,000 followers on Word Press, Twitter, Facebook, or God knows what else, most people have never heard of you.

We desperately need to get over ourselves.

How to become a Facebook sensation in 10 easy steps

Another in my acclaimed series of how-to articles.

  1. Publish a blog alleging something preposterous, like “Walmart Paper Towels Used in Obamacare Plot to Cover up Monsanto Assassination of Hugo Chávez,”
  2. Arrange for a friend with Photoshop to have Batman saying it while slapping Robin.
  3. Post the result on Facebook, with a caption, like, “Wow!  Just…wow!” or something similar.
  4. When someone points out that it is, in fact, utterly ridiculous, accuse that person of censorship.
  5. Share your own post, asking why the mainstream media have been ignoring this story.
  6. When lulzsec offers to crash the FBI website in protest, share that, too.
  7. When Fox News calls, tell them you got the story from Huffington Post.
  8. When Huffington Post calls, tell them you got the story from Fox News.
  9. When interest wanes, pretend Facebook tried to shut you down.
  10. Start a petition against Facebook.