By Dom Cioffi
I joined Facebook early on – within a couple years of its launch. College kids were the early adopters, but after a year or two, savvy adults were starting to connect as well.
I was cautiously curious when I first heard about Facebook. I’ve never been an early adopter of any media and the whole idea of living out loud online didn’t necessarily appeal to me.
Nevertheless, I joined and set up a page and then watched as connections started coming in. It was slow at first since Facebook was not the ubiquitous entity that it is today, but within a couple years it seemed like the majority of people I knew were all members.
I will admit that I enjoyed seeing what old classmates and neighborhood friends were up to in their lives. It was fun to see how people were growing families, moving around the globe, and engaging in unique and interesting activities.
I’ve posted a few pictures over the years but not enough to keep anyone entertained. In fact, the only time I’ve ever really posted an update was soon after my cancer diagnosis. I was getting so many inquiries about my health that I realized one post could answer everyone’s questions.
It was a longish post that basically overviewed my diagnosis and treatment plan and how I hoped things would progress. I also thanked everyone for checking in and being concerned.
The response I received from that one post was overwhelming. Friends and acquaintances that I had not seen or heard from in decades took the time to connect with me and send prayers. I was genuinely taken aback by the outpouring of love and support and responded as such.
My opinion of Facebook at that time was optimistic. I knew social media was something that had a potential dark side, but with my aforementioned experience, I also saw it as something that could genuinely bring people together and spread positivity.
I don’t believe that anymore.
I have two main reasons for now doubting the validity of social media: First of all, I don’t think human beings are wired in such a way to properly navigate a modern digital landscape. And secondly, I think the forces driving innovation and competition in our digital world are creating scenarios that completely undermine what it is to be your own person.
This is all because of the algorithms that the social media giants have adopted in order to maximize the attention of its users. The idea is to keep people lingering on your platform for as long as possible in order to serve them up as many ads as possible. They study your movements and history of behavior and tap into that to influence your interactions.
Here’s an example (and I’ll pick on Facebook because they are the biggest and easiest to confront, but the other major platforms are just as bad): My brother is a member of Facebook. He regularly posts pictures of his children’s and grandchildren’s activities as well as his own undertakings.
We are brothers (it even says so in our bios) and yet I NEVER see his posts. He is the one person online that I’d most prefer to see pictures of, and yet, Facebook has decided to virtually negate him from my newsfeed. Instead, I see daily posts by a woman I barely knew 30 years ago.
Why is this?
I’ve read enough about these algorithms and spoken to enough programmers in the field to understand that Facebook’s goal is not to maximize my happiness, but to prey upon my biases in an attempt to use me for data collection and ultimately, profit.
This frightens me because, when you extrapolate that outward, very bad things can begin to happen.
This past week, Netflix released a new documentary entitled, “The Social Dilemma,” which speaks to this exact point while reviewing the current digital landscape and the trappings that are now determining the public consciousness.
In my mind, this is one of the more important documentaries to be released in years and should be required viewing for anyone who plans to spend time online. But the most damning part of this film is that it features some of the more prominent people in the tech world – many of whom were the early engineers of today’s social media platforms – giving dire warnings of how dangerous the online climate is today.
Our country is currently in a precarious state. It is of utmost importance that we all, as citizens, take a step back and consider whether our beliefs and opinions are our own or are being manipulated by outside forces.
Watch “The Social Dilemma” as soon as possible – and then watch it again with your kids.
An unnerving “B+” for “The Social Dilemma.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at email@example.com.