“On Facebook, our communication is assessed like online advertising — how many click-throughs did it inspire? This prompts us to make what we say on Facebook sound like advertising discourse. And if the way we talk about ourselves is to a large degree who we think we are, this would not bode well for human dignity.”
By Rob Horning
For a long time, well past the point of reasonability, I was one of those people who didn’t want a cell phone. I romanticized the idea of disappearing completely as technology left me behind and I could assume a “pure” form of unmediated existence. I professed a fear of being too easily reachable. But more likely I was afraid that carrying a phone around would provide continual proof that in fact no one wanted to reach me, that I had already disappeared and didn’t even know it.
But what I harped on most was my fear of having to ignore certain calls and have the person who called assuming that I was choosing to ignore them. Maybe they would trust that I have a good reason; maybe they would think, like I often do, that I am self-centered jerk. But the plausible and conveniently neutral explanation that I am not home would no longer apply, would no longer be at the ready to mitigate the missed connection.
Inevitably, I thought, this would degrade my moral obligation to reciprocate with friends in order to sustain for myself the idea that they actually are friends. The burden of reciprocation becomes too great: Because we are expected to carry around phones, it’s easy to presume that by default, the conversational channel is always open and that when your call is not taken, it’s as if the person you were trying to talk to had turned their back on you mid-sentence. A new burden emerges: an obligation to explicitly redraw the boundaries of availability. Being “not at home” becomes a state of mind, a choice that brings forward any feelings of self-importance that might otherwise lie dormant.
It would seem natural enough to want to associate availability to presence, but thanks to technology, we can be virtually present yet dispositionally unavailable. This conundrum evokes those scenes in 19th century novels when the card of hopeful drawing-room visitor is sent up, and the servant returns to say that no one is in, even though everyone knows that they are. Etiquette deems this a frank, acceptable lie, a recoding that blunts the truth that one person has refused to speak to another.
I have always been uncomfortable with that, probably because I too readily imagine myself being refused. It seemed to me that cell-phone technology was muddling social signals, putting both too much and too little ego at stake in the effort to communicate. To restore clarity, I thought it might be morally useful for everyone to unambiguously experience the full weight of their refusing, and then maybe they would do less of it. (I believed somewhat naively that no one thrived on the capricious power to reject.) Naturally I overlooked how much refusing I do. When I didn’t have a cell phone, I operated under the illusion that my various refusals were disguised by the “not at home” fiction; now I am in the position of having to feel like one of those drawing-room snobs every time I ignore a cell-phone call. But I don’t want to be the snob, I protest to myself — the snobs are supposed to be picking on me. I’m the underdog! I’m the underdog!
If anything, social media have made our responsibilities toward those friends trying to reach us even murkier. Some of the success of those platforms must be attributable to how they ease the pain of refusing people. When you are socializing in a broadcast medium, you don’t have to refuse anyone. To accept a friend request on Facebook, for instance, sends out a self-satisfying burst of good will and burdens us very little; at worst, we may have to defriend the person later, an invisible action that the defriended may never notice. The awkwardness of building cliques is displaced to the medium and becomes part of the platform’s functionality, how it allows you to regroup friends and filter the results of their gross social product online.
And increasingly, Facebook is performing the social filtering for us, absolving us of the guilt implicit in that as well. Social media structures communication between friends so that the responsibility for listening — inescapably built into earlier mediums that structured talk between friends as person-to-person — is modulated into a vaguer injunction to respond if and when you feel like it. Because status updates and the like are not addressed to anyone specific, they don’t generate an obligation in anyone specific to pay attention. The messages instead compete in an attention marketplace that Facebook’s interface creates and moderates, in which the currency is comments and “likes” and the other click-driven responses that the company can measure and process algorithmically. The results of that process — which is explored in this Daily Beast article by Thomas E. Weber — determine which messages will be featured prominently in friends’ newsfeeds, and which ones will be suppressed.
The algorithms that Facebook uses to generate the newsfeed it presents to users do a lot of pre-emptive refusal for us — we don’t see a list of all our friends’ updates in reverse chronological order. The platform filters out materials it has determined will be less compelling to us (or someone in our friend pool or who is statistically similar to us, at least). Weber points out that posts that others have responded to are more likely to show up in news feeds. He advises that you “try to get a few friends to click like crazy on your items” if you want to show up in your friends’ newsfeeds more regularly.
But Facebook’s sense of our interests is only one of its filtering criteria. Facebook, Weber explains, prioritizes updates that prompt “user engagement” (links requiring clicks) over ones that are just thoughts or ideas, not links or photos. Pushing updates that require clicks suits its own purposes of keeping us logged in and generating data trails it can use. On Facebook, our communication is assessed like online advertising — how many click-throughs did it inspire? This prompts us to make what we say on Facebook sound like advertising discourse. And if the way we talk about ourselves is to a large degree who we think we are, this would not bode well for human dignity.
Since these algorithms essentially adjudicate sociality, it pays to shape what we say to suit them. This is part of how the form of social media shapes the content: our identity. “For average users, cracking the Facebook code is something of a fun puzzle,” Weber writes, “but for marketers trying to tap Facebook — or individuals who see the service as a way to promote themselves — understanding how content propagates through the system is anything but a game.” But Weber has set up a false distinction: Facebook systematically obliterates the distinction between “average users” and “marketers” and makes all friendship into a game of self-promotion, a struggle to get noticed. Its algorithms require a search-engine optimization of the self, a sanitized version that reveals to friends not who you are, what you’ve been thinking about and what you want to share, exactly, but instead shows how well you’ve been able to package yourself as an attention-getting brand. Self-expression is insufficient for sustaining friendship in the realm of Facebook; you need to be selling something, and you need the numbers on your side to make an impact. The self disappears into an endless sales pitch.
Facebook makes a market in friendly discourse and skews it so that it, as broker, always comes out ahead. But in other ways, the friend market functions like most others: it depersonalizes exchange and reduces transaction costs, thereby increasing the number of exchanges that occur. Accordingly, the volume of friend communication we consume thanks to Facebook has increased exponentially. But we have next to no ethical obligation with regard to any of it — that’s understood by all parties entering into Facebook’s market. We are obliged only to be rational maximizers, like we are in ordinary markets.
But what has radically changed is the nature of friendship, which once upon a time was something intended specifically as a bulwark against depersonalization, against market logic. With Facebook, the consumerist allure of “more, faster” fuses with a closely related moral cowardice about rejecting people to drive us en masse to the platform, bring the efficiencies of commercialization right into the heart of our social lives. With friendship in play as an alienated revenue stream, we must retreat even further into our private lives to find a haven from commercialization, to preserve the disappearing self. Soon we’ll have to seek refuge in that evocation of the “blissful isolation of intra-uterine life” as Freud called it — the “total narcissism” of sleep, where our gadgets can’t reach us.