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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Facebook Is Great for Venting and Buy-Bragging, Not So Good for Thoughtful Essays

Let us imagine a Facebook user named Jack who decides to think very deeply about some topic – perhaps a moral topic or a philosophical topic. Let us suppose that Jack does quite a bit of research and reflection on the topic, and then writes a 2000-word essay displaying some original thinking on the topic. Then Jack posts his essay on Facebook. He imagines that his Facebook friends will recognize the depth of thought in his essay, and respond with quite a few likes or comments.

But Jack will have no control over the way this essay appears on the Facebook feeds of his friends. He will be at the mercy of Facebook's news feed presentation algorithms. Facebook will treat this essay in a way that almost guarantees it will receive little attention. On their news feeds, Jack's friends will see a little block of text giving a few words from the start of Jack's long reflective post, with a little link at the bottom leading to a page giving the entirety of the text. But these friends of Jack's will be given no initial indication of how long Jack's post is. So unless they click on the link, Jack's friends won't know that Jack has bothered to put down 2000 words of deep reflection on some topic. Probably almost all of them won't bother to click on the link, and will suppose that the link only gives a few more words, rather than many paragraphs of prose. Facebook will do nothing to highlight Jack's long post in the news feeds of Jack's friends. Jack's long essay will be given the same size in those feeds as trivial little 50-word posts, and may get smaller space in those news feeds than trivial run-of-the-mill selfies.

Jack will then probably find that his thoughtful 2000-word essay has been largely ignored. But if instead he puts up some shallow little post with a photograph (perhaps a selfie or a picture of some little thing he bought), he will probably get just as much attention as he got from his long thoughtful post.

Before long, Jack will kind of realize that Facebook is not a platform that does much to reward complex reflective thinking, and that he can get much more “bang for his buck” by putting up shallow little “look where I was” or “look what I bought” posts. Jack won't be likely to put up many more deep, reflective posts. Looking at how his friends post almost nothing but short, shallow posts, Jack will probably follow that way of using Facebook, rather than being a “Facebook oddball” who posts long, thoughtful posts.

Facebook is a good platform for expressing emotion, particularly short-lived emotions caused by events in the news. Facebook is good for venting little bursts of anger at things that annoy you, by writing tiny little posts like this:

The Giants blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. How much can a fan take?!

Facebook also can be good for expressing sadness at things that happen in your personal life. Facebook is also an almost ideal platform for anyone who spends lots of money, and who wants to brag about his conspicuous consumption by posting lots of little “look what I bought” posts and “look where I went” posts.

A typical "buy-brag" social media post

You might put it this way: Facebook is a fine platform for feelers and spenders, but it's not a very good platform for thinkers. Particularly appalling is the lack of control a Facebook user has over his own Facebook page. If you happen to have written a long Facebook post detailing your philosophy of life, there is no way for you to highlight that post so that it always appears prominently to anyone who comes to your page. Such a post will get “lost in the stream” after you post ten or twenty trivial little posts and photos.

If Facebook may encourage us to produce short and shallow social media contributions, the same thing can be said about Twitter. By limiting the length of a tweet (a message posted on Twitter) to 140 characters, Twitter has rather been encouraging people to make short soundbites about topics, rather than deep, complex reflections. This problem has only been slightly alleviated by the fact that Twitter recently increased its maximum tweet length to 280 characters. It's all but impossible to state an argument of any depth or complexity using only 280 characters.

A platform such as Twitter is ideal for someone who rose to public prominence despite a lack of depth, a type of person who might cringe at the idea of writing a complex thousand-word essay, but who enjoys the opportunity to vent his ire at various people or things that annoy him, by tweeting short little bursts of angry prose.

Thankfully we still have the blogosphere, where people can write posts that appear in a way that the author can control, without being at the mercy of some automatic formatting process that makes everything you post look like some blip in a stream of consciousness, with most people seeing your stream of consciousness getting all mixed up with other people's stream of consciousness. If you want to do some serious online writing about something, put it in your own blog, using easy-to-use tools like blogger.com,  rather than relying on Facebook presentation algorithms that disfavor the reflective thinker and favor instead short little brags and outbursts. 

 The blogosphere is deeper