Facebook is the message

I just found an old email I received from a friend in 2009. It was easily 2000 words, he was telling me about his time in Buenos Aires. My response was at least 700 words, I was explaining to him about our lives back home, and the recent passing of my godfather. He replied, with nuance, understanding, and another 1000-odd words.

Reading it all now, in 2015, it’s hard to not feel a sense of loss — and not just for the passed loved ones. There’s a feeling that one is looking at a behavioural relic. A mode of communication that people have given up on today, as social media has redefined what it means to stay ‘connected’.

It’s amazing the amount of detail that is contained in our discourse. It is a stark reminder of the influence of a medium: that a letter allows so much reflection and contemplation; actual depth. A letter encourages explanation, structure, storytelling. In 2015, it feels like the only time we encounter such things are in professional media and vapid think-pieces (much like this one…). I can’t remember the last time I had an account from a friend in such detail.

On social media everything is instant, reactive, shallow. We observe everyone’s lives, but without connection. Everything is mere entertainment - an intentional, never-ending list of dopamine hits, designed to keep us looking. This is the raison d'être for the companies that are the custodians of these platforms.

Despite Facebook’s glossy advertising campaigns, these companies have no duty-of-care when it comes to the maintenance or the meaningfulness of our relationships. This much is blatantly obvious when they give advertising equal weight to the posts made by friends - with the exact, intended consequence of both commercial and non-commercial postings reflecting each other in style and tone.

When this is combined with aggressive limiting and algorithmic filtering of the content you see, the platform begins to feel more like a strange, voluntary, prison, rather than the friendly, global meeting place its expensive advertising agencies would like to portray it as.

I remember when all this was new. I was at university at the time, with a particular focus on 'internet studies'. We were all so excited about the new global connectedness, marvelling at our ability to stay in touch with our new-found friends, even when we weren’t all in the same locations. It was exhilarating.

The thrill was soon gone though. It eroded slowly as the platforms (particularly Facebook) rolled out their epic bait and switch. What once seemed intimate has now become impersonal. Where before people shared holiday albums, now we share snippets, 3 pictures at most, captured to get the most likes, rather than to meaningfully share our experience with our friends - not that they'll even see the images.

I know all the business reasons that things ended up like this, but I can’t help but feel that it didn’t have to. We all have choices, and, hopefully, much to the chagrin of idealistic, 2005 Mark Zuckerberg, 2010 onwards Mark Zuckerberg made his in favour of commerce instead of people.

I understand the pressure he would be under, but he has always been in the rare position of chairing the board while being CEO. He could have made a different choice about the role of advertising and popularity algorithms on his platform. Looking back at those old emails just shows me how stark the impact of the decisions made by him and his team have been. To me, it emphasises the responsibility that people like us (founders, developers, designers) have to consider the wider impacts of our product decisions on our users' lives.