We saw the US government grill representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google about the propagation of fake news over the web.
Now we've seen former executives from Facebook come out to discuss the damage that their platforms have done to public discourse.
I wanted to highlight two interviews that caught my attention. They show how new media have ecological consequences: when we add new technologies to the environment, they change the entire environment, often with unintended consequences (see my prior posts on media ecology).
Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook (played by Justin Timberlake in the movie The Social Network), has pointed out the fact that Facebook is designed like an addictive drug. Every time you see more likes, comments, or shares online, you get a blast of dopamine (a chemical that signals immediate reward to your brain), which gets you coming back for more likes, comments, shares, etc.
The result is what Parkers called a “social-validation feedback loop” that exploits “a vulnerability in human psychology."
The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’
And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments.
It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.
Parker isn't alone in his assessment. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, has come out with a similar concern. He goes so far as to express “tremendous guilt” about how “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works."
The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.
Okay, let me admit that I’m a still user of Facebook, although lately I’ve considered deleting my account. Here’s the question I have to ask myself: What value is this media truly bringing to my life? When I reflect on this question, here's the honest answer: not much.
Facebook does help me keep in touch with friends and organize groups and events with them (mainly, I use Facebook to organize get-togethers). However, I’m not afraid to admit that I find most communication on social media to be superficial and phatic.
At this point, I agree with both Parker and Palihapitiya’s temporary solution (which you can hear in their full interviews): only use Facebook minimally. Very minimally. Make sure the majority of social interaction in in the real world, not the virtual one.