NEW YORK: Mark Zuckerberg is under fire from Congress for failing to protect Facebook users’ personal information and for its inability to prevent Russia from using the social network to influence the 2016 presidential election.
While the site’s privacy troubles are recent, users have known about its other shortcomings for years. That Facebook can make us miserable is old news.
So many research studies have concluded that it negatively affects our well-being. Last year, the company conducted its own such study and largely agreed.
“I’ve been impressed by the consistency with which the scientific literature has uncovered negative links,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, whose oft-cited 2013 research concluded that Facebook use predicts a decline in users’ well-being.
So why are we all still using the service, really? What do the experts studying our behavior on Facebook have to say?
BECAUSE FACEBOOK ALLOWS US TO BE BETTER VERSIONS OF OURSELVES
In her bestselling book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT’s Sherry Turkle notes that we often use Facebook to “reflect the person (we) want to be, (our) aspirational self.”
Some researchers theorise that we can benefit from interacting with this better, shinier self. “Yes, we filter and lie by omission on Facebook,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Catalina Toma. “But we tell the truth, too. A person can’t say they just got engaged if they didn’t just get engaged.”
Toma’s research has found that when people spend five minutes viewing their own Facebook profile, their feelings of self-worth are boosted. Like an Oprah-endorsed gratitude journal, Facebook’s pristine rendering of our past can remind us of what’s good in our lives.
But concocting that “better” version of ourselves can be hard on us, too. Turkle believes that Facebook encourages what sociologist David Riesman called the “other-directed life,” wherein a person measures their own worth through what others think. “We curate a self online that is the self we want other people to see,” Turkle emailed me.
We preach authenticity but practice self-curation. We alienate ourselves from who we really are.
BECAUSE FACEBOOK MAKES US FEEL IN CONTROL
Control has massive appeal in the context of complex human interactions.
In Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle details an online romance between Adam (whom she meets at a conference) and his partner Tessa, noting Adam’s tendency to archive all of Tessa’s texts so that he could expertly craft his responses.
Ultimately their relationship failed, with Adam later reflecting that his hyper-attention perhaps created unsustainable expectations for Tessa and her view of him.
“Online communication makes us feel more in charge of our time and our self-presentation,” Turkle writes in the book. Facebook provides a special combination of this control, combining our friends, political views, photos, and life accomplishments into one editable presentation of the self.
Facebook has done such a good job of making us feel in control that the company has begun to draft our public personas for us. Think about the site’s new photo montages of “friend anniversaries,” wherein an algorithm culls our most liked, most commented-on photos.
When we post these machine-created self-representations, Facebook is partially deciding what facets of lives we should show the world. In other words, Facebook has begun drafting Turkle’s “aspirational self” for us.
How much is Facebook in control, versus how much are we in control? What seems to matter most to us is that we feel in control.
Turkle likens the issue to climate change. “The climate is in trouble. But you put these thoughts aside when you are faced with a sparkling, beautiful day. Facebook’s big problems are the climate. Your personal use is your personal weather,” she wrote.
BECAUSE WE’RE BAD AT JUDGING WHAT’S GOOD FOR US
“We’re exceptionally good at justifying our behavior,” Kross told me. “It’s one of our superpowers.” Kross cited the psychological principle of rationalisation (psychology’s fancy term for “making excuses”), wherein we justify our own thoughts and actions even when presented with contradictory information.
So even when Facebook is making us unhappy – when photos of vacations and restaurants and conflict-free families are actively depressing us – we’ll likely rationalise that behavior.
We're often unable to rationally decide: "Hey, looking through that friend's photos made me feel worst about my own life, so it might be a wise and healthy choice to avoid her posts in the future."
BECAUSE WE HAVEN’T GIVEN UP HOPE
Facebook is a work in progress, and Facebook fulfills important functions. It connects us with others, lets us easily exchange information between each other, and helps us get social support when we need it.
“It helps us address our most fundamental need - the need to belong,” wrote Hanna Krasnova, Chair of Business Informatics, Social Media and Data Sciences at the University of Potsdam, over email.
One unexpected way in which our Facebook behavior is oddly hopeful? When a loved one dies, some families choose to leave the person’s Facebook profile intact posthumously.
Leaving the profile up means that friends and family can comment to others under the photos of the deceased or even write a note addressed directly to the person who has died.
“I think that writing on the (Facebook) profiles of the dead is a beautiful, new way to express feelings – to yourself, and to other friends and family of the person who died – that really is not the same as a note to the bereaved person, what people usually did to mark the moment,” Turkle reflected when I asked her about the practice.
Toma noted that throughout history, society has had adverse, fearful reactions to new technologies, and with each new invention, we’ve adapted our social protocols and behavior accordingly.
As New York Times technology writer Clive Thompson noted in his 2013 book Smarter Than You Think, in the 1880s, “mavens of etiquette fretted that the telephone would coarsen our manners, because of the predominant greeting – 'hello!' – derived from the shout of ‘halloo,’ a bellow used to summon the hounds to hunt.”
As Zuckerberg explains the “hows” of using Facebook to Congress, it’s important for us to consider the “whys” as well.
Jess Kimball Leslie is the author of I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live In It.