Type
Article
Category
Culture
Reading

How do you like me now? Positivity and the death of Facebook

It is eight in the morning and with a sleep-blunted mind I absentmindedly swipe my finger over my phone. It is one-thirty and I’m on the toilet staring at the screen while the work-paid minutes tick by. It is two-thirty; my mind wanders from work and my keys tap in a familiar web address. It’s 6 pm and ignoring the subtle smell of body odour creeping through the bus air, I flick through the news feed. In a moment of clarity, I roll my eyes: what am I doing – I don’t even like Facebook.

For me, and I suspect, for most of my generation – those with a smart phone and the ability to use the internet – Facebook has become a habit. Though our engagement with it is born out of a melange of boredom, curiosity and narcissism, it is not quite an addiction; there is no burning desire, no feeling of release. We (or at least, I) partake in Facebook in a joyless, unthinking haze.

There is a certain irony in this. Despite the ambivalence, ‘liking’ and Facebook go hand in hand. The ‘Like’ button is everywhere, tucked in the corner of each post, waiting to be clicked, to fire off notifications to the millions of people that log on each day. It extends beyond Facebook’s pages, populating sites throughout the web, spreading the network’s particular brand of positivity.

Facebook has clearly framed its site around its Like button. Along with the blue and white colour scheme, Like is its calling card, showering the site with positivity and enthusiasm.

At first glance, it seems as though its optimism is infectious; Facebook looks to have the world at its fingertips. There are currently 1.01 billion Facebook users throughout the world, and that number is still increasing. If it were granted statehood, Facebook would be the third most populous country in the world.

Companies flock to the site to advertise their wares, and as a result, it perpetually rakes in money. (Its shaky share offering was a blip in an otherwise steady march towards increased revenue.) Market research firm eMarketer estimated Facebook to make over $5 billion profit in 2012, and $6.6 billion in 2013. In 2011, eighty-five per cent of Facebook’s income was produced through advertising, and this figure remains fairly constant from year to year. Looking at these numbers, it seems a bona fide success: the world, it appears, likes Facebook.

Putting aside its mercantile prosperity, on paper even its raison d’être is laudable. Behind the innumerable aps and the ceaseless ads, it allows people to interact. On Facebook’s own Facebook page, the social network states its intention without ambiguity: ‘Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected.’

This is a noble aim. In a world of political, religious and nationalistic acrimony, of barely contained paranoia and seething dissatisfaction, opening the gates for unhindered communication – for connection beyond our limited social realms – has to be a positive thing. To put it in less-grandiose terms: when we can travel with an ease unheard of sixty years ago, when we might never learn the name of our closest neighbour, what is not to like about a social network that has greater reach than most people thought was imaginable?

Despite Facebook’s outwardly sunny disposition, its self-professed mantra of open connectivity and its seemingly relentless stream of users and profits, it is rarely viewed with the same positivity it encourages.

It is criticised by everyone from politicians to pedestrians, columnists and radio commentators, on a daily basis. The media warn of lascivious child predators lurking behind welcoming profiles. It is denounced as the death of privacy. Its facial recognition software is seen as a small step from computer profiling. Every change to its interface is scrutinised for unsavoury practices. It is listed as a major contributor to divorces. Its operators are taken to task for hoarding personal data and using it for mercantile purposes. Every cyber bullying case calls for harsher restrictions on Facebook’s internet reign. People whinge about the ads, the way they seem to track user’s movements around the web. When Facebook’s floated share price began to drop it was seen as indicative of another web company not ready for the real world of business. Memorials on profiles of deceased people are called tacky and inappropriate. Research suggests that it adds stress to people’s lives.

There is an interesting contrast here – the difference between the negative public sentiment and Facebook’s Like-based structure. This contrast is more than just coincidence. It shines a light on something unsatisfactory about the world’s most popular social network, something that will eventually have people leaving it for something else. Far from an expression of positivity, Like represents everything that is wrong with Facebook. In time, it will prove to be its fatal flaw.

 

If one were to bet on the reasons for Facebook’s impending downfall, there would be more obvious culprits to back. One of the most conspicuous would be the website’s use of personal information for pecuniary purposes, which has been a major sticking point for users and commentators alike.

Facebook uses information collected about its users to provide targeted advertising. With the information it has gained about a person’s age, gender, hobbies, websites visited, and a plethora of other indicators (some of it given voluntarily by Facebook account holders, some of it gained through other means), Facebook displays individualised ads that approximate each user’s interests. Theoretically,[1] these ads increase sales, with users more receptive to the advertisements they see. When combined with the website’s massive user base, Facebook is never short of companies keen to advertise.

This practice, which is the core of Facebook’s revenue stream, is attacked in the media for being a breach of privacy and a dishonest use of users’ information.

I first became aware of it through the occasional status update from disgruntled ‘friends’ appearing when I logged in. Over the past year, my news feed has become replete with statuses and comments about the issue. Much of it started as amusement: a screen grab of two advertisements – one for losing weight, the other for dating services – together with a pithy comment: ‘Facebook knows I’m fat and alone.’ Gradually, as the jokes grew old, the updates became broader, questioning more than just the ads: ‘Is it just me or has Facebook jumped the shark?’ one person asked. Then they became terse: ‘THE ADS WON’T STOP FOLLOWING ME,’ and ‘Remember when every second “story” wasn’t an ad?’

At a less insular level, Facebook’s targeted advertising has drawn the ire of critics around the world, on the basis of privacy concerns and data selling. When the ads were first announced in 2009, Executive Director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, David Vaile, made the general feeling of negativity clear: ‘It horrifies me in the sense that it’s the final step in selling out their customers’ data.’

Vaile expressed concern with Facebook’s methods, arguing that they represented a breach of trust with users. He ended his commentary on a potentially foreboding note: ‘Maybe they’ll get away with it. They may not.’

You could not be blamed for envisioning this becoming an issue for Facebook. But if Vaile was predicting targeted ads to be the harbinger of Facebook’s demise, he missed the mark. Years have passed and people continue to log in; despite the periodic outburst of irritation, most people simply ignore the advertisements, filtering them out as they scan their screens.

But Vaile was not far off; he just needed to look at bit deeper. Though targeted advertising is an obvious, outward manifestation of data manipulation, it can only function as a result of the software it is built upon. It was this that Vaile could have turned his mind to if he was searching for a chink in Facebook’s armour. By following targeted advertising back into the software, he might have found the Like button – the true engine of discontent.

To understand the reasoning behind the Like button’s undesirability, it helps to understand, at least marginally, Facebook’s backend. Facebook is able to work the way it does, in part through its ‘social graph’ and Open Graph Protocol. Broadly speaking, within Facebook the Social Graph is a method of connecting the various users of the site and then sharing these connections beyond the connected parties. When you post a picture from the night before on your friend’s wall and they Like or comment on it, people not directly involved in the post and response may nonetheless be informed of the interaction. In effect, this creates more room for continued and broadened dialogue and for the sharing of information.

Social graphs are not exclusive to Facebook, but what makes Facebook’s unique is its implementation through the Open Graph Protocol. As Facebook explains, ‘The Open Graph Protocol enables you to integrate your Web pages into the social graph … This means when a user clicks a Like button on your page, a connection is made between your page and the user.’ By linking this in the Social Graph, this ‘connection’ between the page and the user is then made known to other Facebook users. As a result, web pages that exist outside Facebook are nonetheless incorporated into the social network’s broader realm.

The upside for Facebook is that by having other websites link themselves in through the Open Graph, they are able to collect information about user habits beyond the confines of their own pages. Whenever the Like button is clicked, Facebook’s data system receives information about the pages their users frequent. In this way the Like button operate as tendrils, passing data back to a central nervous system. From this data, the many and varied pieces of code that make up the website’s brain can decide how to proceed, often making ads relevant to your previous browsing appear on your screen. The system is extremely fallible, but with time it has become more effective. It will only continue to do so with further improvements to Facebook’s information pool.[2]

How is this a weakness for Facebook? The ingenuity of the Open Graph Protocol is undercut by the way it has been implemented. The Like button is the major conduit of information in Facebook’s social graph. In time this will prove to be a mistake.

It is disingenuous and undesirable, covertly transforming an expression of enthusiasm to mercantile venture. (Of course, one can define like to include wanting something (‘I would like that box of sour apples’) but even within this money-related definition, the relationship is a direct one, between the party who likes and the apples/apple vendor). By subtly commodifying the button, Facebook enriches itself as a third party. The information was not found on their site and they have performed no service.

Within Facebook’s utopian vision of an ‘open and connected world’, this action rings hollow. No one cares that Facebook makes money, but this method – using a symbol of positive naivety – is disingenuous, untrue, and hypocritical. By structuring their information retrieval around the Like button, Facebook have potentially created a great irony, in which their highjacking of positivity results in a swelling discontent, and in time, an exodus.

 

To argue that this will cause people to revolt against the site might sound like the curmudgeonly ramblings of a paranoid privacy nut. For users to take this as a reason to revolt, they would need a  fairly tight handle on Facebook’s inner workings.  On top of that, the inconsistency is not exactly the kind slight that ignites passions in, and produces petitions from the average user. But this is only one aspect of the Like button, only one of the ways that it is slowly rotting Facebook’s foundations.

In everyday use, people are probably more likely to engage with the button on the actual Facebook site rather than ‘Liking’ a page in the infinite web. The button is everywhere on the social network’s pages, waiting silently in the top left-hand corner of every post for users to demonstrate their appreciation or approval. Though this seems harmless, this too has a negative side.

Imagine logging on and reading a post by one of your ‘friends’. Maybe it is someone you went to school with, or had brief contact with at a part-time job. You got on amicably enough, have run into each other in the street a couple of times, been drunk at a few of the same parties, but you are unlikely to take your relationship to any more-rewarding, level. Though you would never refer to the person as your friend, due to the website’s lack of descriptive choice and some unanalysed feeling of obligation, you remain exactly that on Facebook.

This person has uploaded a photo of a tattoo idea they have been mulling over. The tattoo design is an image of the Southern Cross, with a banner below it that reads ‘Australian Born and Bred’. Having strong opinions about the tattoo’s connotations, and not being completely adverse to minor confrontation, you find it hard to simply ignore the image. To this end, Facebook gives you various options for dealing with the photo: Like, Comment, Share, and Report.

This creates a problem. Apart from the rarely used Share and Report buttons, your options are to Like or Comment. This is an uneven choice. By forcing this dichotomy, Facebook requires that any negativity or disapproval must be expressed through a comment. Though you might want to explain to your ‘friend’ that this tattoo implies a sense of aggressive nationalism coupled with a lack of imagination in the wearer, you feel that a definite ‘Dislike’ would give the more concrete, unambiguous feedback he or she is seeking. But you cannot. Within the Facebook platform, there is no opportunity, no simple way to express how you feel.

This example might bear no relation to your feelings on Southern Cross tattoos, but it does demonstrate the bias implicit in the website. By simply providing a Like option, without the opportunity to Dislike, Facebook creates a place of relentless, expected positivity. The inherent ease in liking compared to the effort required to comment means that criticism requires additional commitment. Far from the vacuous mouse-flutter of a Like, commenting requires the thud of fingers on a keyboard, the unmoving motive of a durable thought. As a result, within this space, negativity has to be viewed as more negative than positivity is positive; you have made the extra effort to disagree.

The remaining options are few. If you feel negatively towards something, with the inability to Dislike, Facebook implicitly encourages behaviour that does not fly the twin flags of openness and connectivity highlighted in their mission statement.

If you no longer want any part in someone’s updates, in what you perceive to be witless, pedestrian drivel, borderline racism, the relentless enthusiasm of a new parent, mundane whining, or any other irritation that plagues your newsfeed, Facebook provides two methods of dealing with the content. Both of these are artlessly passive aggressive.

The less drastic option is to choose to ‘Hide’ the person from your newsfeed, simply make them disappear. For you, their updates will cease to exist, but to them, it will be as though nothing has changed.

The more final decision is to ‘Unfriend’ the person. With a single click, you can remove a person from your social circles. The only thing that achieves the same result in the real world requires a bullet.

Both hiding and unfriending someone are behaviours at odds with Facebook’s ideals of connectivity, and they do not come about through some small oversight. They are the result of the way Facebook is structured – its insistence on Like. Despite its mantra of connectivity, by its very construction the website discourages any potentially negative communication. Far from being open, it encourages a lopsided, suppressed atmosphere, a smiling, laughing, brainwashed cult. And far from being connected, anyone not wanting to toe the positive line is forced into clandestine, secretive manoeuvres.

This could be fixed with a little sanctioned negativity. Of course, one might argue that allowing for negative expression through a dislike button is potentially damaging to relationships, and thus, to user experience. But Facebook connects ‘friends’. There is no such thing as a friendship without room for a bit of even-handed disagreement. Without it, a friendship is the equivalent of small talk at a party – vacuous, tedious and boring.

As with liking, disliking is a fact of life. Unless we are in a particularly good mood, we do not operate in a Xanax-ridden idyll of ceaseless positivity. We whinge, we complain and we express displeasure. I do it almost constantly. In fact, I am doing it right now.

Facebook does not rid us of easy negativity by only providing the Like button; it simply creates less-desirable, less-honest avenues for expressing it. When combined with Facebook’s use of liking as a conduit for financial gain, there is an undeniable sense that the website is not there for the right reasons. In a world that should be striving for openness and connectivity, it is broken and incomplete.

At a base level, Like is the reason the website fails on its supposed mission to bring a more open and connected world. It hinders and cheapens communication – or to use Facebook’s nomenclature, ‘connection’ – and leaves us wanting more. In this light, it is not surprising that it is ceaselessly criticised. These criticisms are symptoms of a rotten core, something we subconsciously buck against, even if we are unaware of it.

Sooner or later, when we have a spare moment to think, when our phones are placed securely in our pockets and our laptop screens are firmly closed, we will face the truth. Then, there will be nothing left to do but press the ultimate dislike button – ‘Delete My Account’.

 

[1] There has been a lot of criticism about the effectiveness of Facebook advertising, with companies including General Motors pulling out millions of dollars in advertising spending, on the basis that fans of the brand did not like the advertisements and did not click on them.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rory Kennett-Lister writes non-fiction, fiction, criticism and commentary. His work has been featured in The Lifted Brow, Collect Magazine and Place Magazine, among others. Outside the real world, he can be found on Twitter (@RoryKL) or through his blog, rorykennettlister@wordpress.com.

More by

Comments

  1. i am partially paralyzed and don’t get out a lot. facebook and my ‘friends’ list are just that – my friends and family. i talk to a small circle of them everyday usually more than once, we exchange personal info such as family member info, birthdays, we know each others pets, children, our type of employement – it was just my birthday, i got a dvd and some cookies from my wealthy sister – from my fb friends boxes of chocolates, books, cards, clothes jewelry – well you get the picture. no not all of my 200+friends are that close to me, but just like in life i have a small group that is. i use fb statuses as encouragement when a friend is depressed, i flaunt my hippiness and independence and liberalism and dark humor with posters and statuses. above all else after fighting death 4 times and being paralyzed from the neck down i use fb as a means to stay connected, meet dating interests, or make new friends – and stay strong to be honest. the ads don’t bother me- i’m not a shopper – but when i do need something i like that they are at least there as an options. and as far as my personal info – it’s simple . on fb you learn very quickly – if you don’t want the world to know – DON’T PUT IT ON FACEBOOK. i have brought together – youtube, netflix, jibjab, yahoo and or google mail, medical er and basic vet er info sites, i pay all my bills thru fb, have all and any references/ translating sights, daily weather and alerts, i use my phone along with windows photo gallery to catalogue/edit my photography on fb, my skype is thru fb, and i am in constant touch with my friends in scotland and eng exchanging pics, stories, with messenger and that rarely used share button(used frequently now) – your article needs updated – you can also block someone – neither can see the others posts, names, anything – very effective. i am connected today because of dear ol’ facebook – gotta love it…..hahahahaha lisa heaton <3

    • Hi Lisa,
      I’m sure there are many people like yourself who find Facebook useful. I guess what I was saying is that Facebook is structured in such a way as to encourage certain communications and discourage others. And that makes it flawed as a website designed for free and open connection.

  2. This just crystallises for me everything I can’t stand about Facebook.FB: The online cult of shiny happy people alternating with witty one-upmanship.Apart from actually messaging someone personally I don’t feel there’s any real communication going on on FB.It’s very much the day to day cult of positivity at all costs taken online to be exploited by the corporate world.Just reams of “like” minded people agreeing with each other.So yeah, I’d love a dislike button so we start to acknowledge a bit of variety in thought and emotion on FB.Or maybe I will just delete my account.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>