Hi, Fickle Readers! This is a departure from my usual rants on literature, Shakespeare, and the state of the writing industry in the 21st century, but sometimes I just gotta write what falls out of my brain. And with the Internet overflowing with awful, awful news this week (hey, Ferguson cops, you get your stories straight yet?), I discovered I really did want to write about one of the tiny changes we could all make in our lives that would give us back some control and serve as the smallest pocket of resistance to Big Everything.
In the past week, I discovered (on Facebook–hah!) two intrepid Facebook experimenters who posted articles on two independently conducted yet similar studies on the function of that little blocky thumb in everyone’s news feed. First, over at Wired, Mat Honan writes about what he found when he decided to Like everything that crossed his path on Facebook, even if he actually hated what he was looking at. So what happened? Advertising algorithms ate all the content from non-corporate human beings:
My News Feed took on an entirely new character in a surprisingly short amount of time. After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.
Not only did he manage to wreck his own feed in less than two days, his actions became a contagion affecting his friends’ feeds as well.
When I posted a status update to Facebook just saying “I like you,” I heard from numerous people that my weirdo activity had been overrunning their feeds. “My newsfeed is 70 percent things Mat has liked,” noted my pal Heather. Eventually, I would hear from someone who worked at Facebook, who had noticed my activity and wanted to connect me with the company’s PR department.
After 48 soul-deadening hours, Honan pulled the plug on the experiment.
On the opposite side of the equation, blogger Elan Morgan discussed her experiences after she announced she’d no longer be Liking any content on Facebook. Beginning on August 1st, she stopped using that tempting little “Like” link and claims that the results were profound and positive. First, she no longer has shock-and-awe click-bait material exploding all over her feed because, by quieting all the Likes, the Facebook ad-bots no longer try to spew out content that may be related to her interests in topic but not in tone (e.g., liking a kitten pic and suddenly being swamped with info on animal torture–thank God I’m not a big kitten pic fan). Second, since she’s no longer automatically pressing a button to express her approval, she’s started doing what Facebook ought to be doing for us in the first place: she’s communicating with people again, thinking up things to say instead of just giving the equivalent of a wave from a speeding car.
I had been suffering a sense of disconnection within my online communities prior to swearing off Facebook likes. It seemed that there were fewer conversations, more empty platitudes and praise, and a slew of political and religious pageantry. It was tiring and depressing. After swearing off the Facebook Like, though, all of this changed. I became more present and more engaged, because I had to use my words rather than an unnuanced Like function. I took the time to tell people what I thought and felt, to acknowledge friend’s lives, to share both joys and pains with other human beings.
That’s nice to hear, isn’t it? I mean, one of the main reasons I joined Facebook was to stay in touch with friends from high school and college that I hadn’t seen in years and feared I’d never see again. I was so overjoyed to find members of my old D&D group from college (yeah, I’ve done my share of role-playing; shut up), I almost cried. Then I laughed, because a few nostalgic posts brought out exactly what I missed about these guys. (One of them, who played an extremely upright Paladin, was well known in our campaign for inadvertently sending a messenger boy to his death inside a seedy tavern. Said player replied with something to the effect of: “You rescue your fellow adventurers dozens of times, and does anyone remember that? No. You send ONE adorable urchin into harm’s way, and that’s ALL anyone wants to talk about.”)
Because of Facebook, I know where all these friends wound up in the world, I hear about their lives, I see pictures of their families. That, to me, is extraordinarily important, seeing as how, with all my family’s health issues, etc., we often can’t go and visit people we want to see. That includes people who live down the friggin’ street from us. There’s so much human interacting I want to do, why would I want to waste the precious seconds of my life scrolling through lists of “mind-blowing” facts about London? (That wasn’t in my Facebook feed. It was one of over 72 million hits I got when I plugged “will blow your mind,” a popular headline phrase these days, into Google.)
Then there’s that feeling that all you are is a marketing guinea pig being scrutinized by Mark Zuckerberg and his pals. Or the feeling that there are about 7 bazillion items you want to see based on your Friend list and all you get are Buzzfeed personality quizzes. (Not that I’m against personality quizzes. I just don’t like the fact that they have a tendency to replicate ad infinitum after you click a single link.) I get that Facebook and other web sites need ad revenue, but they don’t need it that badly. I want my interests catered to and my mind as free of distraction and commercial manipulation as possible. Somehow, with all the hot steaming gobs of capital these Facebook tycoons are earning, I think they don’t need my help learning how to further exploit the human mind.
So, Fickle Readers, and those who are writers, too, I invite you to join Elan Morgan’s bid to shake ourselves of the psyche-dulling inanities of the Like function, and maybe even stop clicking “Share” or on any links we find in Facebook. I know, I know, it’s likely an impossible Utopia I’m imagining, but it seems like it might be worth the power we could recover from that omnipotent site that holds our friends hostage for a couple of Levi’s ads. Also, the nasty, evil, spiteful side of me just plum enjoys the idea that I and my ilk will be irritating executives everywhere. Anyone who’s old enough to remember the first time you could fast forward through ads on a VCR–or even silence ads with a mute button–will know what I’m talking about.