The REAL Real Problem with Facebook

by Nishant Kothary

34 Reader Comments

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  1. There should one more action button for “DISLIKE” !!!

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  2. I get all this, and agree mostly. but, i wonder….wondering…what if being challenged to reveal all facets, just whip out your facets when you feel like it, regardless of who is listening/watching or if it is the “right” audience, might be a good thing for personal/human growth and evolution? i dunno…just wondering.

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  3. It’s easy to criticize, but harder to come up with solutions. You’re right that circles don’t work. So what does? I’m sure facebook wants to be better, but how can it?

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  4. Excellent article and it’s representative of the feeling I was having that led to the deletion of my FB account a few months ago. Not only were the ads becoming incessant, I was becoming irritated by the uniformity of everyone’s posts. Passively posting the latest quasi-inspirational message or quietly bragging about what car they just bought all in hope of receiving “likes” (and the cryptic status update obviously fishing for responses). The fakebooking got to be too much because I knew these people would never actually say the things they’re posting. I think ultimately, I was looking for a continuation of my real personal relationships through Facebook. At first it seemed like a nice complement to my real-life interactions with them. But their FB identities soon started clashing with their real identities (including mine) and as a result I ended up despising their FB selves which began to creep into my real-life perceptions of them. As soon as that started happening, I knew I had to delete my account to preserve the actual friendship.

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  5. You mention there are only two options to a public presence:

    Option 1: faceted – showing different faces to different people, or
    Option 2: diluted – a diluted version of you that doesn’t stand for anything.

    Being authentic is what’s really at play here. You can be authentic to your momentary reactions. You can also be authentic to the deeper you, the one from whom the facets emerge.

    So I see this third option: being authentic to your values and your principles and your gut and your heart.

    Whether in public or in private, in a cocktail party or alone with a good friend, on Facebook or in IM, I think I can be the same and exhibit the same deeper side of myself, un-compromised and un-faceted. At least that’s what I try to do.

    I don’t know. I think you raise a very good tension.

    Thanks for writing on this.

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  6. With every redesign, Facebook has become less about human interaction and more about serving commercial interests.

    Good design – which Facebook had about 6 years ago – doesn’t need constant revamping and updating for the sake of it. But once the money was dangling in front of them, they put profit before user experience and ignored protests against the change.

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  7. One of the things I like about FB is that everything-ness of peoples interests and lives. I find myself with a deeper understanding of people when I see a whole image of someone’s life as opposed to a “tech only” or “sports only” edit of someone. I think that there is a shared experience of living and seeing our lives on the timeline (warts and all) that is greater than “siloing” our lives into set verticals. I find that total human experience to be one of the most valuable parts of facebook. not that I don’t complain about Facebook – I do.

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  8. The real problem with Facebook is a lot bigger than Facebook.  It’s that we’ve all been trained by TV and advertising to compete for “eyeballs” by compressing our lives into sound bites—catchy photos, witty comments, etc.  We’re essentially constantly looking for opportunities to create commercials of our lives, ones that will not just attract the most “likes” on Facebook but that will make us feel like our idea of an attractive, or at least interesting, TV character.  It will take a lot more than a new user interface to change this.

    Or maybe that’s over-the-top cynicism.  I just happen to have just read E Unibus Pluram by David Foster Wallace (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2577573-e-unibus-pluram)  and have been thinking about how remarkably relevant it still is in the YouTube/Facebook era.

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  9. If you read what Mark Zuckerberg has to say about what we should share online, it is (IMHO) a pretty radical view – he thinks everyone should just be completely open and share everything.

    I struggle to code switch between work friends (I work in a fairly conservative industry) and some of my close friends from college, some of whom have careers that allow them to live very thoroughly authentic, unfiltered lives – surf camp manager, artist, photographer, etc.

    I also have cousins who are very conservative and religious. I don’t see them often, so I enjoy watching their kids grow up on Facebook.  But based on the things they’ve seen come out of my feed, or posted by some of my more “creative” friends, they probably think I am Satan.

    I wonder if soon the cultural pendulum might swing back the other way, towards more privacy and less broadcasting. Another NSA-style scandles, another clumsy attempt by Facebook to leverage the data they collect on us, or just a trend toward more balance in our lives.  I’m sure a lot of people’s New Years resolutions included spending more time with people in the real world and less time in front of the computer screen.

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  10. @Katinka — That could very well be the case. I don’t know but I think we’ll certainly find out in due time.

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  11. @Michael — In a sense, taken together the solutions would simply amount to the Next Big Social Network, right? It’s really hard to come up with solutions for this problem. That said, I have a few observations about what does seems to work. Take Instagram, for example. You don’t send friend requests on Instagram. You simply follow people. This is hardly a novel feature, but it dramatically changes the consumption habits of its users. I’m into dogs, especially Weimaraners. For the most part, I follow other people who’re into dogs, especially Weimaraners. We are connected by a real-life context that is meaningful to us, and present ourselves within that context. The posts are very pleasurable for those of us who share that context (and often extremely painful for those who don’t share that context with us). Pinterest takes this to a new level. It lets you create boards that map to many contexts important to your real life. And instead of following people (which you can), you can follow the specific areas of interests (boards) that you share mutually. Quora does the same for topics. There are other implicit “features” like your ability to anonymize yourself to some degree, the nature of how your signals are broadcast to others, the frequency of cross-broadcasts, etc. that factor in, too. Maybe I’ll write a followup… In the meantime, thanks for the feedback/question.

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  12. @Pascal — Love how you put it. Indeed, it is all about being authentic to ourselves. And to have others accept our authenticity. Tension is such an apt word for it. For some of us, tension is stressful. For others, its flow.

    @Matthew — It’s really refreshing (and sort of inspiring) to hear that. We may need to be friends.

    @David — Sounds like an interesting read. Bookmarked. 

    @Clydicus — I’m with Zuck on that, but I think the world will implode when that happens. Or maybe not. I agree with you that we may be swinging back the other way soon. I can’t help but find myself censoring in ways I didn’t. Maybe I’m just getting older (not sure if it’s wiser).

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  13. I was thinking about almost this exact problem with regard to LinkedIn the other day. Like most people, I’m open to new opportunities in related, but disparate fields, and yet I sort of have to have a single “resume” that encompasses all of them.
    I guess for good or ill, we all have a “public” presence now, and like politicians and other famous people, people will form opinions about us based on that. At least everyone I know on FB is someone I knew in real life first.

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  14. Fantastic article that so eloquently puts what we are all thinking. Every once in a while somebody will post from the gut, their true authentic selves shining through and those posts are precious. But the abundance of pouty lipped selfies and “am I bad for loving kale?” posts make me want to scream.

    I do have one insight, the people making those obnoxious posts are actually obnoxious people… there I said it. But don’t tell anybody because I don’t want anybody on Facebook to know that honesty is part of my authentic self.

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  15. @Jennifer — Obnoxious is just a relative term, though, right? Yes, loads of people argue for some universal standard for obnoxious — e.g. Celine Dion is “objectively” obnoxious, some would say — but those arguments are typically built on really shaky foundations. I think we are all obnoxious to each other in different ways (one man’s meat is another man’s poison). Maybe some of us rub others the wrong way more than the average. But we’re all somewhere on the obnoxious gradient when seen from someone else’s viewpoint. That we have to endure each other’s obnoxiousness in their entireties is what’s more troublesome to me…

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  16. 1. I like your thoughts on Pinterest and Instagram. What’s your opinion on Reddit?

    2. Facebook allows people to reveal their unfiltered thoughts too. Socially awkward people can contribute any thought at any point of time to anyone in a conversation that took place several minutes ago.

    This relaxation of real world rules such as social hierarchy and timing adds an interesting dimension to conversation. It helps some people actually realize and express their true selves, something they are unable to do in real life.

    Social networks needn’t necessarily mimic the real world contexts.  Maybe that’s why people like it so much.

    All in all, this is a very stimulating article.

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  17. The “problem” with facebook is of a “social” nature, and thus inherits characteristics of a social structure, very subjective (different for different people), and sometimes biased.

    Facebook users can tweak the platform according to their own wants. I normally don’t follow/like my friends’ posts on Facebook, I use it for following pages (blogs, product sites etc.) that cater to my interest (like Pinterest). Also, I follow people who inspire me in some way, or share a common interest (like Instagram). Likewise, I read hash tags more than my news feed.

    I keep my Acquaintances feed separate from main feed, so that I can willingly view them anytime later.

    So basically, I use Facebook the way I want it to be and Facebook changes for me and any-day you are still connected with your friends (global chat interface).

    Give it some time, the issues you have picked up are valid and should exist in a “social” network, but they cannot be brought instantaneously like *boom one fine day, we have a social site that handles code switching. Social processes are evolutionary by their nature, so such a network (maybe Facebook 100.0) is not happening any time soon.

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  18. Great article, I think the same way.
    In my opinion Facebook was a fantastic idea, but could be used in a better way, would be more usable.

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  19. Good article.  I now can name the dragon …switch-codificationablity. The way I see it, any post potentially could bore, delight or offend any person. Which is why I have come to realise that the only way to cure my switch-codification angst is hit the delete button.  But then I’d have FOMO. I don’t even know why a panda could be sad yet.

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  20. I think there’s probably a cyclical element to all of this. The internet started as a bunch of discrete terminals, then Compuserve, AOL, etc. tried to serve as an aggregator (remember AOL Keywords, anyone?). Yahoo! started out as a hand-curated directory of content, then AltaVista (then Google) disrupted that business model entirely.

    If you consult your BCG Matrix (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth-share_matrix) you will see that most products have a life-cycle and Zuck’s should probably just pump as much cash as possible while he can. Last year’s IPO was a good start. Anyway, the point I am ambling towards is that we probably don’t need a “better Facebook” but something entirely different…

    [EDIT]
    It’s not exactly a new concept, but the Diaspora project over at https://joindiaspora.com/ might supplant “Facey B”, but I think it might be a start. Why join the “cat lovers” page on FB when you could join “the social network of cat lovers” and authenticate yourself with OpenID?

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  21. The appeal of all of these rising and falling trends is the promise of connection, being a part of a group, wholeness. This need is ego driven as our sense of self, identity, or individuality is the belief that you are not part of the whole already, but separate, and alone.

    So a new site pops up, like Facebook, where you can connect with friends and share everything about yourself in order to come together. Only the things you share, pictures, comments, interests, are not you, they are a collage of facets you take as yourself. But this very promotion of self is what leads to the lack of wholeness that you sought in the first place.

    And so, the appeal is lost, and turns into another ego fueled party of self gratification. Until, the next trend appears and our sense of ego sees another opportunity to find wholeness and grasps at another facade.

    Sites like Instagram & Pinterest gained traction because they are less focused on the individual and more about the flow of the whole. But in time, these too shall pass.

    From my point of view the ultimate value of transitioning through these various mediums is that they allow us to see through facade after facade of self image. Ultimately one day the veil will be pierced, the curtain draw back, and realization of complete oneness, wholeness, was here all along.

    A puppy dog chasing it’s tail.

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  22. @Vinay —

    1. I like your thoughts on Pinterest and Instagram. What’s your opinion on Reddit?

    I think Reddit is a lot like Instagram. But its culture is dramatically different, and that probably lends itself to so many factors from the level of anonymity to the primary medium used for Reddit. It just has a different culture… I don’t spend nearly as much time on Reddit as I do on Instagram, though. What’s your take?

    2. Facebook allows people to reveal their unfiltered thoughts too. Socially awkward people can contribute any thought at any point of time to anyone in a conversation that took place several minutes ago.

    Oh, absolutely. It’s not just socially awkward people, but more so, introverts. I am a fairly classic introvert (though, anyone who has met me in person would be shocked to hear this; let’s just say I became a really good code switcher for both, good and bad reasons… I’ll save this for another digression), and I thrive on interacting through social media. 

    This relaxation of real world rules such as social hierarchy and timing adds an interesting dimension to conversation. It helps some people actually realize and express their true selves, something they are unable to do in real life.

    This is a compelling view. I’ve heard it before, and I’ve read some about it. I’d love to more on it. Why is it better? Why is it worse?

    Social networks needn’t necessarily mimic the real world contexts.  Maybe that’s why people like it so much.

    All in all, this is a very stimulating article.

    Or hate it. But I’m totally with you. The Internet is, in many ways, a better version of reality, and in others, not so much. I am not saying anything new here, but it’s certainly stimulating to think about it. Thanks for the insights.

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  23. @Himanshu — Agreed.

    @Carolynne — :)

    @Richard —
    I think there’s probably a cyclical element to all of this.

    Or as Buxton once called it in an email , “predux”.

    Thanks for the link to Diaspora. Checking it out now.

    @David —

    From my point of view the ultimate value of transitioning through these various mediums is that they allow us to see through facade after facade of self image. Ultimately one day the veil will be pierced, the curtain draw back, and realization of complete oneness, wholeness, was here all along.

    Wonderful.

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  24. Awesome article!!

    I’d like to see Kim Dotcom attack this issue while he’s creating other private, yet centralized services. Watching facebook grow into a consumer herder is creepy!

    Managing our various persons might also come down to participating in various services or micro facebook like sites. Like using dribble to talk design, another site for politics and sharing news.. While somehow curving the effect of self validating our narrower opinions (facebook feels like a nice place for a soapbox).. If there was a way to carry one’s self into each service super easily (similar to “log in with facebook”), that could allow for easier code switching by forum environment?

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  25. Great article – I can’t think of a single person (including my 70-something aunt) who doesn’t express similar frustrations.  And I’ve talked to dozens. I’ve spent the last few months writing a mobile client to experiment with ways to make context awareness and context switching the primary lens of social interaction.  Facebook on iOS was the target platform.

    I can tell you two things we had the technical means to make some progress against, but more interesting is the one thing that arises as a very sticky problem.

    For one, context comes first in real life, and I think that sticking a contextual lens in front of all social network interaction is pretty necessary.  Any stream or anything you post should go through the lens of context first, just as we moderate our real life interactions based on where we are with almost no thought.  Code switching, to a reasonably aware person, is almost automatic.  The perception of what context we are in takes almost no effort in real life – I don’t have to “decode” if I am at work or at a bar, talking to a friend or a stranger – my intent has already brought me to the context, and I don’t have to think too hard about.

    When we speak without context, we’re in the realm of broadcasting and advertising, not interacting, and I think its pretty obvious that the most functional feature of Facebook is advertising.  Sometimes broadcast is great – social networks have made tasks like personal brand building and professional networking more accessible and responsive and that has some benefit. But when the intent is to communicate, and there is no contextual moderation, our message is subverted by the medium, and that is frustrating as hell.  Just ask my aunt.  Context first.

    The second thing is liquidity.  People can adapt to context changes in seconds – we’re very flexible.  Decade-old-database driven systems, not so much.  At the very least, Facebook could make keeping lists up to date quite a bit easier.  Do a rough click count on making changes to a friendlist sometime.  Even the automatic list generation feature requires one to type in a bunch of static data in an obscure place. 

    We landed on a Circles-like solution, that brings context forward as the primary lens and makes list-making easer.  After using our app for a while, however, the bigger unsolved issue emerges:  intimacy.

    Context is not just about interest areas, or demographics, or even culture.  Contexts expand and contract in their acceptance of our postings based on intimacy of relationships.  The most obvious groups people tend to make, in our experience, are groups that differentiate between family and acquaintance.  Deeper intimacy equates with wider sharing and greater overlap of contextual groups i.e. less filtering.  Lesser intimacy means more moderated posting.

    Intimacy is closely related to trust.  Our testers don’t make a lot of distinction when talking about their experiences between the idea of context and the issue of privacy.  They all felt that social networking is suspect in this regard.

    Much of the issue with Facebook being a place where one can be less filtered has to do with the feeling that, while its wonderful to have such easy access to our friends and family, one is never really sure that more intimate contexts can be trusted.  Facebook could do a lot of work to make the whole ideas of contexts a) much more accessible, b) much more liquid, and c) much more trusted. 

    I personally think its time Facebook thought about offering more then one interface.  They’ve sort of started down this road with their separate apps for maintaining Pages and Messaging.  Maybe the next one could be targeted more directly at personal communication and small groups.  The point would be such divisions would be about levels of intimacy, as opposed to being apps made for different product offerings.

    BTW, our iOS app is called Roundup for Facebook, and we are continuing to iterate regularly.  Feel free to DM me for a copy. We’d welcome feedback.

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  26. I tend to aspire to Mark Zuckerberg’s philosophy of having one authentic persona. To do as little “code-switching”, and keep as few secrets as possible.

    The fact that social media forces us in this direction may be difficult, but looking at the bigger picture, I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing.

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  27. The degree to which we think we successfully present different persona in different contexts is largely overestimated by everyone.

    It’s a known cognitive bias, covered very well here http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/08/21/the-illusion-of-asymmetric-insight/ (bear with it a bit, the piece does a long detour via something seemingly unrelated at first)

    Our propensity to think we do this persona game, let alone the back-of-the-hand-on-the-forehead-oh-deary-me whining about how it’s a trait of human nature that will forever defeat social networking technology is rather short sighted in this respect.

    Context switching is only important to the switcher as a mechanism of identity self-preservation through delusion. The people you interact with see you as a cohesive whole no matter what. The only thing Facebook or any social network impedes is your ability to nurture the delusion you are fooling people, not communication or social interaction itself.

    There’s plenty more bad stuff to be said about social media and why it whittles down human interaction to feedback loop of noise and lowest common denominators without having to scrape outside of the dialectic barrel by throwing bits of theories whose intellectual foundations are at the muddy level of the conversation during a bong workshop in a California dormitory. Anyone who refuses to capitalise their name showcases a level of social and intellectual maturity that makes them more fit to make tie dye shirts than academic papers.

    Let’s give this 5 more years, and all social media will solely be filled by content doing meta analysis of content doing analysis of how social media affects communication. When your headline has both the name of a trendy tech platform and the phrase “real real problem” complete with look-at-me-I’m-clever capitalisation, it’s merely heralding that future age of navel gazing.

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  28. Great article, thanks for writing it.

    I think the question around the inevitability of design changes is an interesting topic. It makes me think of how people love antiques. They search out moments in time where designers “got it right” in their eyes. There’s not really a digital equivalent, yet I’d wager that there is a demand.

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  29. This is an intelligently written essay about the complexities of human nature and how software still comes up short when addressing it. However, I still get a sense of “sour grapes” from those who just can’t stand the fact that Facebook became as successful as it did. The fact that FB is a public company, currently worth billions, probably lies at the root of it. If the author is looking for a software application that factors in “code switching” than he should probably look to a company that has no plans to go public and is not VC funded. Companies like Craigslist are a rare and endangered species and so much emphasis is placed on start-ups that take in VC money making it impossible to make the type of systemic change the author believes must happen to anything with a “great design” lest it become a “silent killer.” The future for a software world that caters to the complexity of human nature itself (and hopefully for its betterment) won’t come from a VC funded start-up. We are the victors and victims of the software age. Both go hand in hand.

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  30. @David — Thanks for the thoughtful response. I nodded my way through it. You’re absolutely right about liquid context changes, and the lack thereof in the social media equivalents we use today. Intimacy is a whole other beast. I suspect that intimacy is something that you can’t really design for, but it becomes a result of a design that enables trust and liquidity (as you called it). I’ll be interested to see what you guys find out…

    By the way, I did download Roundup and took it for a spin. I don’t have enough usage yet to have an opinion. I remain ambivalent about lists, but I’m willing to be open-minded about them. :)

    @Andy — I’m conflicted. There’s the world I want, and then the world that is (and has been since the forbidden apple). I’m with Zuck in terms of the world he wants (and I want). But I did kick off this column with this: It Is What It Is. I’m conflicted.

    @Nica — I like that analogy. Never thought about it that way.

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  31. @Byron — I couldn’t be happier that Facebook went public. I own stock in the company. But you’re probably right about the tension between Facebook’s main goal now (shareholder value) and what I’m seeking. It’s only going to get worse, I suspect.

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  32. @Tory — That we’re dishonest about our own dishonesty is something we’ve known for a long time. We’re all predictably irrational. There, we agree.

    But I think a great point that you make about humanity — that we tell ourselves stories about ourselves that are horribly (or wonderfully, depending on your point of view) affected by cognitive biases — gets woefully (and ironically) lost in your frivolous attack on people who signal in ways that don’t agree with your personal tastes. I get that, too, though. I am generally displeased with people who signal their intellectual supremacy by employing long sentences that are garnished with gratuitous vocabulary and lacking sensible punctuation and subordinate clauses. But I digress.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter how look at it, I can’t help but consider your comment an emphatic case in the REAL real point of this article. ;-)

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  33. Exactly my point, Nishant. But thanks for your provocative essay. I enjoyed reading it.

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  34. I personally value the whole image of a person’s identity on fb over seeing segmented identities. We have niche social groups (online + offline) where this can take place and are valued.. I think this is why fb is still the #1 social network. But, i do agree that making digital identity/interaction to mimic our real lives is really really hard, and there are still huge gaps to overcome..

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