Facebook’s ballyhooed IPO and subsequent stumble has generated the expected amount of Monday morning quarterbacking, most if not all focused on the viability of the company’s economic model, or lack thereof.
But while many look at Facebook now and see a company that was overvalued financially, I am looking at a company that has been overvalued morally.
Much the way that it has become clear over a long period of time that corporate values and human values are not in fact aligned, so has it become clear, in a much shorter period of time, that social media values and human values are likewise not aligned.
In our collective love affair with Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and the rest, we have maybe failed to see this clearly.
Social media offer us cool tools and unprecedented connectivity with one another, and I am not here to argue against our using and enjoying services such as Facebook and Twitter. But I do think we will serve ourselves far better if we can begin to approach social media not with the rapt enthusiasm of the zealot (or investor) but, rather, with the informed skepticism of someone approaching anything or anyone that has demonstrated its inability to operate from a system of shared values.
Not sure what I mean? Then have a look. I’ve identified five major values that are, by now, built into the social media world. Understood as attributes of the social media environment, these things are not new news. But I think it’s time that we understand these attributes as actual values being promoted by social media enterprises, and time that we consider whether these values reflect what most of us would consider helpful human values.
The value of rejecting privacy
Facebook has long been spearheading an online movement to trespass on what are otherwise widely recognized as standard principles of human privacy. Convincing people to share personal information in a setting that only appears to be private is by its nature anti-privacy; to do so while repeatedly changing the structure of its privacy settings—always, seemingly, in service of making non-sharing more difficult and sharing more automatic—is all the more suspect.
From a human point of view, Facebook’s shifty, unforthcoming behavior regarding privacy is shameful; from Facebook’s perspective it is both natural and defensible. The company is merely pursuing its goal of being a very large, very dominant social media network.
Social media companies are by their nature uninterested in the value of privacy; in fact, their growth seems to depend in large part upon convincing most people that privacy is somehow quaint or passé and is in any case not important.
The value of quantity over quality
In the social media world, everything, all the time, is about quantity.
Even when it’s been demonstrated that human beings cannot in fact have more than 150 actual friends, over there on Facebook, the orientation has always been to add more friends, and then more. You have to take a conscious stand against the site’s prevailing culture and the behavior of most everyone around you to accept a humanly reasonable number of so-called friends.
And Twitter of course has typically been focused on the number of followers one can accumulate. I have long since lost track of how many people have followed me on Twitter only to unfollow me simply because I did not follow them back. Such people were not concerned with the quality of what I might be sharing on Twitter, they were concerned only with the quantity of followers they themselves were seeking to attain.
And yet in the course of our daily human lives, I am pretty sure we consistently require the capacity to choose based on quality over quantity, and that a value system based on quality is an inherently more connective and compelling one than a value system based on quantity.
The quantity orientation grows subtly dehumanizing day by day on social media sites, with their relentless assumption that you must always want more friends, must always share everything, must always desire a bigger and bigger audience for your life.
Quantity orientation is subtly reinforced by the very structure of social media sites. If you do not post regularly to Facebook, your updates will automatically be less likely to show up in the streams of others. Over in Twitterland, your perceived influence is determined almost exclusively by a combination of how many followers you have and how often you tweet. If you are someone who measures your words carefully, and thinks long and hard before bothering to say something, you are automatically considered less valuable than those who just can’t stop themselves.
The value of the permanent present
Social media is about speed, not reflection. The immediate moment rules the roost. People vie not to be most reliable but to be first, because in many real ways, the only moment that exists in the social media environment is right now.
This is not a philosophical construct but a practical description. If you are successful at playing the social media game, and therefore have large quantities of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, your visible “news stream” is reduced almost entirely to things that are happening right now. Even 15 minutes ago, even five minutes ago, might be off your front page—out of sight and, therefore, out of mind.
This kind of heedless permanent present should not be confused with a spiritual sense of being in the present moment. The instantaneity fostered by social media is akin to the dog in the movie Up, forever distracted by squirrels. Whereas a deeper, more genuine awareness of the present moment means more than being blinded by the surface of life. It’s not that spiritually aware people don’t also get distracted by squirrels—the difference is that they quickly understand that they’ve been distracted. A deep sense of presence allows you to transcend the present moment, not be held prisoner by it.
The permanent present fostered by social media networks tends to imprison users in a landscape overrun with squirrels.
The value of friendship-free friendship
Social media have pioneered a new frontier in human relationships: the friendship-free friendship. Click a button and gain a “friend,” no matter whether you actually know the person in any meaningful way.
Twitter stands out for its honesty and straightforwardness in this regard. On Twitter, you don’t seek friends, you seek followers. Which is semantically a big improvement, although I still question the focus on quantity (see above).
Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, made a conscious decision from the beginning to call the people you connect with on Facebook your “friends.” It was a telling choice, made by a young man who simply could not have previously had experience with the soul-sharing, emotionally interactive relationship between two people—i.e., actual friendship—about which countless poets and philosophers through the centuries have rhapsodized.
The proof is in the pudding: if Zuckerberg had previously had a deep and potent understanding of human friendship, he would have never used the word “friend” to describe a Facebook connection in the first place.
Note that in so saying, I do not belittle the potential for online friendship. Two people can surely exchange thoughts and feelings via this electronic medium in a manner that can both create and nourish a significant friendship. But true friendship, experienced through whatever medium, takes time to blossom and care to tend to. Adding a “friend” on Facebook via the click of a mouse is a feeble shadow of the real thing.
The value of attention-getting
In part because the online world is open to one and all—such a difference from the “old media” model of one-to-many broadcasting—an intractable problem facing anyone who seeks an audience is how to get anyone’s attention.
Thus has the very idea of getting people’s attention risen to a value in and of itself. This is the essence of anything that’s said to have gone “viral”—most typically, videos. As noted in a previous essay—“It’s Called Viral For a Reason“—we all know, instinctively, that the fact that something has grabbed our attention does not have any inherent relation to its qualitative merit. But we somehow lose sight of this far too easily when interacting with social media, where we are daily instructed to be impressed by something’s “viral-ness.”
I’ll say it again: it’s called “viral” for a reason. Viruses are things that do harm to human systems.
The loss of the interior
If these five stated social media values, together, have one thing in common it is a relentless focus on the surface and/or exterior of things rather than the depth and/or interior of things. The social media milieu is by nature marked by information overload—there are endless streams to follow, interests to “pin,” pictures to look at, videos to watch; to operate in this setting effectively one must avoid the depth that might exist in people, places, and/or ideas. There just isn’t time. It is best, in fact, not even to recognize that there is any depth to be had. Just “like” it, share it, move on.
And so back to the original question: is this a human value? Is this how we want to live together? Racing breathlessly along the surface? Considering a near-infinite parade of exteriors, ignoring interiors?
I know there are many of us, already, who resist this—who indeed make a determined effort here online to seek depth and meaningful interaction. But we are thus far operating against the grain of online culture—against the grain of capitalism itself, it often seems, since it is by and large the pursuit of dollars at all costs that typically fosters this misalignment of values in the first place.
In the long run, I am, oddly enough, optimistic. Because I don’t think this cultural landscape is sustainable. We will come to our senses at some point, survey the damage done after the fact, and find a more helpful and meaningful way to forge ahead.
In the meantime, until our human values re-assert themselves here online, we will be living through interesting times indeed. Just try to remember that this interesting period of time does not inform us very much about where we are heading in the long run: first, because none of the values promoted by a social-media-dominated world are helpful with depth-oriented, long-term thinking; second, because our collective awareness during this time period, in thrall to social media values, cannot yet begin to imagine life on the other side of the trance. We will get there someday and wonder at the path we took.