Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
In the first weeks of a new year, many people look back on the previous year and dwell upon what they wish they had done differently. And thus inspired, they resolve that in the months ahead they will act to remedy those past shortcomings. While it is not written anywhere that one is only permitted to embark on a quest for self-betterment/enrichment in January – the first month of the year is, nevertheless, the socially sanctioned month in which one is lauded for laying out ambitious plans for improvement. Granted, individual human beings are not the only ones with New Year’s resolutions. Indeed, it seems that some social media companies are also getting in on the fun. And what is it that they are resolving to do?
It seems that they have resolved to see how far they can push their users before those users finally declare that they have had enough.
Two recent stories are illustrative of this point. The first is a recently revealed incident in which Facebook conducted (another) experiment on unwitting users. The experiment involved deliberately disabling Facebook’s app for some users of Android phones in order to see what the effected users would do – at what point would they simply give up on Facebook? It turns out that the answer may be “never.” Confronted with the broken app, many users simply accessed Facebook through the mobile web. The second incident involves a proposed change that has many of Twitter’s users tittering and grumbling – namely the rumor that Twitter is going to start permitting drastically longer tweets. At the moment Twitter limits tweets to 140 characters, it seems the company may raise this limit to 10,000 characters (to put that number in perspective, at this point this post is a little more than 1,700 characters long).
It may seem rather silly to get overly worked up about either of these things. After all, the Twitter change has not actually happened yet and it is quite conceivable that the company will not go through with the plan. By the same token, even though the Facebook app crashing experiment has just come to light, it actually took place a while ago. Alas, the main takeaway from Facebook’s app crashing experiment is simply that Facebook users should now expect that at any time on the site they may well be unwitting (and unwilling) participants in some manner of experiment. Certainly, one can approach both of these stories with righteous indignation and a sense of “who do these companies think they are!?” but the truth is that both of these stories make the answer to that question abundantly clear. These companies think they are in charge, better yet they know they are in charge, and they are confident that they can do just about whatever they would like with little in the way of actual consequences. They know that there is no alternative to their platforms, and so they feel they can act with impunity.
The narratives surrounding social media often have a certain utopian sheen to them. These platforms, at least we are told, will make it easier for us to connect, to stay connected, to share, to communicate, to organize, to joke, to learn, to become informed, and the list goes on. Or, to put this in slightly different terms, social media is portrayed as something that greatly increases the capabilities and freedom of its users. In fairness, there is certainly an argument to be made that social media can be a powerful tool – it really does make it easier to share your latest announcement or to spread an activist message. And yet, these recent stories about Facebook and Twitter serve as a reminder that the very social media platforms that seem to increase your freedom simultaneously deprive you of it. They are comfortable quicksand, you don’t realize how horribly stuck you are until something happens that suddenly makes you want to get out. In the process of struggling you realize how deep you have sunk.
A common sentiment that one encounters around many social media platforms is a widespread sense of dissatisfaction. You have probably heard individuals you know grumbling about how much they hate Facebook, Twitter, or [choose your own social media platform] – in fact you may have voiced such sentiments yourself. It is the type of frustration that bubbles to the surface whenever a new social media platform is, briefly, touted as “the Facebook killer” (remember Ello?). And yet these lusted after alternatives rarely seem to be true alternatives – and they may simply be purchased by the company for which they were meant to be alternatives (example: Facebook owns Instagram). Thus, even though people may grumble about how much they dislike a given social media platform, such grumbling is usually followed up with some variation of a frustrated recognition that – as much as a person would like to – they can’t really quit the social media platform which is the source of their grumbling. After all, if you quit Facebook how will you hear about the upcoming event? If you delete your Instagram account who will see your vacation photos? If you get off Twitter how will you torture the world with your endless stream of puns? And if you disappear from any of these sites won’t your friends and followers take offense (or even more unthinkable: what if they don’t notice you are gone)?
These may seem like idle, silly questions – but they have a serious core to them. If we leave social media, so the anxiety goes, we are afraid that we will miss out. If you are living in a technological society and you want to be social – it can be challenging to do so if you swear off all social media. When the norm is for individuals to have a fairly robust social media footprint, one may fear that the lack of a presence on social media will put them in the position of some kind of social outcast – or at least make them seem distinctly odd. We may know, in a literal sense, that of course we can quit any of these social media platforms…but can we? Well, the answer is obviously “yes, you can” but the point is that it isn’t that simple. In her book on social media, The Culture of Connectivity, José Van Dijck makes this tension clear:
“For many of the plugged-in, opting out is not an option: it would mean opting out of sociality altogether, since online activities are completely intertwined with offline social life,” (Van Dijck, 173)
This is the web in which social media catches its users, and to be clear it is a web in which it knows its users are stuck. The source of social media companies’ power is directly related to this: the reason they can blithely experiment on their users or push through a wildly unpopular change is because they remain confident that their users are not going anywhere. As a result there is something rather tragic-comical about angry campaigns where social media users express their frustration about the very social media platform they are on (such as: #KeepYour10K) – the companies may deign to claim they are listening to their users, but ultimately they feel little need to respond unless they genuinely fear that a proposed action or change will spark a major exodus from their platform. In the aftermath of Facebook’s emotion experiment there was not a massive surge of people quitting Facebook, their app crashing experiment did not stop people from using Facebook – and thus Facebook can safely continue experimenting on its users, secure in the knowledge that its users are not going anywhere. It is quite possible that Twitter will abandon the proposal to allow 10,000 character tweets (this post is still over 2,000 characters shy of hitting 10,000 characters) – but the question angry Twitter users need to ask themselves is this: if Twitter pushes through this change, will they leave the site? If the answer is “no” it goes a long way to explain why Twitter won’t listen to its users. How many protests have been launched about some change to Facebook? And how many users have actually left the site when those changes went through? Not enough to make Facebook even shrug.
Putting this question in another, broader, way: what is the threshold at which you will finally say of a given social media platform “that’s it! I’m done!”? Does that threshold exist? Or, are you unhappily aware that this is a threshold that keeps getting pushed back further and further because as much as you may despise a given social media platform, going without it would cut you off from your friends and acquaintances?
To be clear, the intent here is not in any way to defend the stupid, immoral, or crummy things that social media companies do to their users. Nor should this be understood as an argument that unless social media users are willing to quit a site, that they should keep quiet about it. Furthermore, this also is not meant to suggest that social media users should simply delete their accounts from offending platforms – they may want to, but for many quitting on connectivity is just as unpalatable as staying stuck in it. No, the point is to emphasize that the power social media companies have over their users is derived from these companies’ confidence that their users have no other place to go. Social media users are stuck. When these companies act out of a sense that there is no alternative to the services they offer they are not simply acting out of bluster. Indeed, these companies have worked hard to ensure that there are no alternatives.
What incidents such as Facebook’s app crashing experiment and Twitter’s proposed 10,000 character limit remind us is that, as Erich Fromm put it:
“what we use is not ours simply because we use it.” (Fromm, 225)
These companies certainly understand that. As should we.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics, London: 2001.
Van Dijck, José. The Culture of Connectivity. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2013.
[Fun fact – the entire body of this post is under 10,000 characters in length]