They started by counting our friends: Facebook has turned us into nondividuals

POSTED BY   Will Darbyshire
29th January 2018

Social media was invented well before Mark Zuckerberg introduced the world to Facebook, but his company did, undeniably, master the format. However, in the timeline of social technology, we are at the very beginning. Where we are now with social media equates to where we were with the car in the 1930s, if not even earlier.

That is to say, yes, Facebook are the early masters, defining what social media currently is, what it’s for and how it works, but by no are they are the future. There are hideous flaws in Facebook’s software which, intentionally or unintentionally, force us as users to behave in ways that contradict our personal moral values.

time well spent

What started as a student platform,  exclusive to those you share a lecture theatre with, quickly grew into the 21st century’s very own form of global communication and procrastination. But since then it has grown out of control. We are now at a point where Facebook and other social platforms govern our lives and influence our values.

They started by counting our friends

Social media, from the very beginning, set the tone for what was to come when it designed one very simple feature into its software, friend counters.

It was never a feature of society to introduce yourself to people by telling them exactly how many friends and acquaintances you have. And yet MySpace and then Facebook decided that this was a good, essential feature that people needed. But this was a fatal mistake, rather than mirroring the needs and wants of their uses in real life, they enforced a non-optional friend counter on us and then showed it to the world.

Twitter took this to the next level by turning ‘friends’ into ‘followers’ and telling us that our number of followers dictates our power and pull within society. Not our values, not our intelligence, not the good that we bring to the world or the ways in which we contribute to society, but the number of people we can persuade to click the ‘follow’ button, with very little regard paid to how we do so. Take your clothes off; give public voice to hateful thought; lose weight; risk your life for a cool selfie. Do whatever you have to for shares and followers.

We have changed the way we live because of social media. More importantly, we have ignored our values in order to fit into the homogeneous social template that social platforms have demanded.

If you believe some former Facebook employees, the company has prioritised user growth over everything and once they had enough of us hooked, they changed their advertising philosophy to bombard us with ads disguised as entertainment; they decided they wanted to be a news network and bombarded us with sensationalist stories regardless of whether they were true or total fabrications. They allowed a foreign state to manipulate their platform and influence the outcome of the U.S Presidential Election.

To put it simply, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have run out of time. They are no longer fit for purpose and the damage they have caused to our values, morals, wants and needs is rapidly becoming terminal. If we continue down this path, lives will become worse as generations pass and, 4 or 5 decades from now, we will have allowed ourselves to be turned into homogenous nondividuals, crowbarring our own thoughts and feelings to align with those which we are told we should have.

Time Well Spent

But that won’t really happen because humans won’t let it. In reality, we’re cottoning on, gradually, to the damage that’s being caused and that is partly because of the work of organisations like Time Well Spent.

Time Well Spent, founded by former Google employee, Tristan Harris, are working to try and fix the “digital attention crises” we find ourselves in. Time Well Spent believe that it is the very way in which social software is designed that makes it harmful to its users. It’s not projected onto it, it’s embedded within it.

”It’s possible (but very tricky) to design software so as to address the users’ sense of meaning,” says Joe Edelman, who coined the phrase Time Well Spent with Harris, “But it requires profound changes to how software gets made!”

time well spent

Essentially, Harris and Edelman want to see a shift away from using comments and shares as the primary method for deciding how positive a person’s or a company’s contribution to the world is. They also argue that social media simplifies the relationships we have and that, because each of us is forced to use an identical template, we are being taught that being alike is good and being individual is no way to get on in life.

In an essay published on Medium, Edelman suggests that social software designers begin by asking themselves what the actual values of their users are, and then how best to translate those into the digital space. He says that, if they were doing it properly, “designers would ask which features…make good or bad practice spaces”. If for example, a user is creative and wants to use the platform to express that,  “do mechanisms for showing relative status (like follower counts) help or hurt when someone is trying to be creative?”

It’s a simple philosophy, but one which today’s social media platforms have failed to live by. Instead, they have crammed us all into simple categories in order to maximise profit and growth. What Zuckerberg intended to be an independent, non-corporate, user-centred platform has become a social monster with more followers and a greater reach than the religion of Islam.

Let’s hope that tomorrow’s platforms, from Time Well Spent as well as others, arrive quickly (they’re expected to pop up in 2018) and allow us to create digital identities which better represent who we are and what we believe in; or, as Edelman puts it, “virtual places where people practice the kinds of acts and relationships they find meaningful”.

They started by counting our friends: Facebook has turned us into nondividuals

Will Darbyshire

Will is Content Strategist with The Digital Marketing Bureau, writing on all aspects of tech. Will specialises in writing interviews and profiles, as well as all things PropTech.

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