A recent post from Facebook acknowledged that Facebook is bad for your mental health. To remedy this, Facebook want you to use more Facebook.
Here is what Facebook’s researchers have found:
- Scrolling through your news feed is distracting and depressing.
- Interacting with people “brings us joy and strengthens our sense of community.”
Hmm, that makes it sound like we should spend less time on Facebook and more time interacting with the people we love. Perhaps we should switch to other means of communication that don’t require us to scroll endlessly through a depressing feed.
Nah, says Facebook. Let’s just make the feed slightly less depressing.
I’ve been thinking a lot, even before I read this post, about this article by Tristan Harris, who calls himself an “Ex-Google Design Ethicist.” He points out that one of the biggest ways social media apps make themselves addictive is by restricting the menu of choices available to you. We rarely think to ask what isn’t on the menu. For example, if you want to know where you can find a bar you might enjoy, Yelp steers you into asking the question “Which of these bars has the best photos of cocktails?”
Company-sponsored research also works this way. It’s not that sponsored science is always fake or dishonest; it can be, but it’s often not. What funding often does is buy the question. And here, Facebook researchers decided the question they want to answer is: “How can we make people feel better about using Facebook?”
That is not the same question as “How can we be happy?” or “Should we quit Facebook?” even though those are both very good questions to ask after learning that we feel sad when we scroll through our feeds.
You can read the whole post by the Facebook researchers and never see any question about how much Facebook is an appropriate amount of Facebook. That’s not the question they want to answer, because the answer is probably “less.” Instead, they ask questions like:
- How can we make people happier with reading their news feeds?
- How can Facebook “support [teens] as they transition through different stages of life”?
Maybe a good conclusion at this point would be stop giving people incentives to scroll through their feed.
Bah! That’s exactly what somebody not invested in the financial success of Facebook would say. Instead, Facebook proposes slightly shuffling the content of the news feed so you can feel better about scrolling through it.
Candy and cola manufacturers admit that their product is bad for you, and acknowledge that you should only eat very small amounts of it. Baby formula companies will gladly tell you that “breast is best” and keep their marketing subtle: emphasising the difficulties of breastfeeding, encouraging you to keep samples around “just in case.” Facebook is still at the stage where it feels safe recommending that you still use just as much (or perhaps more) Facebook.
They’re only trying to limit the menu. “Should you spend all day on a Facebook with this feature or a Facebook with that feature?” they wonder. In their post, the researchers paint themselves as martyrs because they reined in clickbait and fake news — that meant the company had to miss out on clicks! Boo hoo, Facebook. Boo fucking hoo.
I’ve been experimenting lately with using less Facebook, and less social media in general. One time, when I was nearing deadline on a major project, I had my husband change my Facebook password so I couldn’t get sucked in. I used to keep a browser tab open to Slack at all times, but now I close that tab when I’m writing. I’ll put my phone to charge in the bedroom when I want to spend time with my kids in the family room. I do not let Facebook send me push notifications, ever.
And I still get sucked in. If a friend texts me with Messenger, I open my browser to facebook dot com and then somehow I end up scrolling through my feed instead of chatting. The same thing happens when I open the twitter app to transmit some witty thought. Pretty soon I’m 100 posts down in the feed and I have no idea anymore what that witty thought was. Some stressful, lonely writing days I crave human companionship, but instead of finding a human to talk to, I scroll endlessly through my social media feeds, and end up feeling more lonely than before.
We don’t need a slightly happier feed. We need to spend less time on Facebook. But that’s something Facebook will never help us do.