Boasting over 1.2 billion monthly active users and topping rankings of social networks, we expect Facebook to be something massive; something with the power to trigger a revolution – technological or political. And perhaps it is.
For a start, it makes face-to-face communication seem antiquated; what with the option to share videos and images in real time, the possibility of causing widespread change in people’s minds and the same in politics seems much easier. If you prefer, you may let your words take over in messages and statuses as you share, post, and comment. Talking of comments, your opinions are everything to Facebook: the pages you like, the groups you join, the events you go to, and the friends you add are closely watched so that you can be recommended by others appropriately. In short, it is a multi-sensory, automated, almost effortless way of keeping connected.
But how much of your social experience on Facebook is actually revolutionary? Take joining groups for example: naturally, we join groups whose members seem to share our interests, goals, and views – school or university groups, workplace groups, and political or social groups. We may avoid groups that our friends are not part of, and of course, why wouldn’t we? Facebook often recommends us groups based on whether our friends are members, as well as on our location and occupation. So we are virtually given no chance to break beyond our immediate social environments. Democratic values may have penetrated as far as access to Facebook’s information and facilities, but not as far as to those with the access. This is because Facebook has done very little to break down the social divisions between users, namely divisions created by employment, education, and friendship circles. Rather than changing the world, this securely secludes people into their own little patches of Facebook Land.
However, desperate to prove that they have had some real impact, Facebook have subjected their unwilling users to a psychological experiment. Revealed earlier this summer, this so-called experiment consisted of Facebook manipulating the news feeds of 689,000 users by editing their friends’ posts; the conclusion stated that emotions expressed by their friends in posts – positive and negative – rubbed off on users. As was reported by Guardian’s Robert Booth at the time, this sparked widespread outrage, mainly about Facebook’s intrusion into users’ private lives through misrepresenting their views and controlling their emotions. Though this invasion seems to indicate that Facebook’s power is becoming excessive, what it also does is help reinforce the concept of a divide between the public and private by renewing discussion and renewing fears of its possible disappearance.
Since the discovery of this psychological experiment, Jim Sheridan, a member of the Commons Media Select Committee has expressed his fear for the potential of “’Facebook and others’” to “’manipulate people’s thoughts in politics’”. Others criticised for interfering with people’s privacy have been, to name a few, the state, media, and the labour market, creating the apprehension that Facebook is fast becoming our next major institution or government with the capacity to determine what people think or how they vote. Yet, this anxiety is premised on a perception of people as this blank, confused mass who are just waiting to be influenced and taught how to view politics. So even if Facebook assumes more power than most social networks, any attempts to use this to shape lives will only reproduce a time honoured image of people rather than revolutionise it.
Another old assumption made and encouraged by Facebook is that their users are living individualistic lifestyles when not active. This explains why the psychological experiment complacently suggests that users gain all their ideas and stimuli from their Facebook environments, especially from their Facebook friends. The experiment’s conclusion overlooks how we could have other non-active friends, have access to other influences, or could confront these Facebook friends and groups offline about their opinions. If everyone hung around alone on their Facebook pages, the better chance Facebook will have of getting through to them. In order to have more control over people online, Facebook wants to perpetuate the view that individualism is taking over offline society.
Therefore, although Facebook seems like an instrument for revolution, it is in fact only helping to prolong some patterns and tendencies of our social and political world.
Booth, Robert. June 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds
McVeigh, Tracy. April 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/apr/19/zero-hours-contracts-flexible-working
Mulgan, Geoff and Buonfino , Alessandra. January 2006. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2006/jan/18/communities.guardiansocietysupplement
Womack, Sarah. June 2006. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3341109/Family-life-faces-State-invasion.html