Pros and cons of Facebook

In my last post, I wrote about my headphones, a piece of technology that has helped me to cope with my brain’s difficulty screening out distractions to focus on a single task, which I see as one of my Asperger’s traits. (In fact, I’m using those headphones to listen to movie soundtracks right now as I write this post!)

This time, I want to write about another technology that I used to find very helpful in allowing me to make and hold on to social connections: social media, specifically Facebook. Unfortunately, while my headphones have gotten better over the past several years (they’re wireless!), Facebook has steadily gotten worse, to the point that I made a decision to simply stop using it in 2016, when it became clear that the negatives outweighed the positives.

One of the effects of my Asperger’s syndrome is that I have always lagged behind my peers in developing social skills. I want to form friendships and connections with people, but participating in a conversation is an exercise in interpreting the nonverbal signals that others seem to pick up and give off naturally, while trying to orchestrate my own behavior so that I approximate the correct nonverbal signals myself. It can be exhausting, and it can leave me frustrated, when I finish a conversation and realize that I didn’t talk about anything of consequence, and I don’t even remember the other people’s names.

Communication on the Internet is a godsend for people like me. I can plan out my words before saying them, with no body language or tone of voice to interfere. Social media puts the person’s name right there along with a picture of them, allowing me to learn to recognize people in a way that fits my learning style. On Facebook, I was able to form connections with other people close to my age at our church– once, we got together to go to a local folk music festival, and I had a great time. I still think of it every time I hear Sierra Hull’s music. I was able to hear from the people at my church throughout the week and get an idea of the things they enjoyed, cared about, and prayed about.

I was able to stay in touch with acquaintances from college– from Cedarville, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati. They had moved on to all walks of life– farmers, professors, social workers, bloggers, mothers and fathers. Some went into the ministry, and some now looked back at the teachings we’d received in the name of Christ with a critical eye. I was enriched by both.

Probably the neatest thing that Facebook allowed me to do was to reconnect with my friends from Bloomsburg Christian School in Pennsylvania. I’ve written about how I’ve come to realize what a special group of kids they were. Almost everybody I meet or read about who grew up with Asperger’s syndrome recalls middle and high school as a time of bullying they just had to endure and eventually heal from. I was a weird kid– I sometimes did off-putting things, not even realizing I was doing them. A lot of the time, I didn’t seek out friendships because I wasn’t ready to expand my world beyond what made sense to me. But rather than pick on me, my classmates actually protected me from bullying. They let me be myself. And when I finally did begin to open up, they accepted me and included me.

I really enjoyed getting to see where God had led many of them, and sharing in their trials and joys by praying for them. It was also only because of our reconnection on Facebook that we ended up planning our 13-year class reunion, which I wrote about on this blog.

Those connections were the reason why I first joined Facebook, and they were what kept me there for a time as it gradually changed into a very different place. Facebook is always changing things– its layout, its options, its privacy features, and especially the algorithm that determines what each member sees. Nobody ever seems to like these changes, but Facebook doesn’t ever seem to take its members’ complaints into account. Why is that? What business shows such disregard for its customers?

But that’s exactly the point. It doesn’t cost any money to join or use Facebook, so why should Facebook concern itself with what its members want? Facebook members are not customers at all– rather, we are the product Facebook is selling. Our personal information is valuable to advertisers, because it allows them to specifically target their ads to a particular audience based on age, sex, income level, region, and interests. Because Facebook knew I was a single male in my 20s-30s and my location was near Cincinnati, I was inundated with ad banners blaring “Meet single young women in Cincinnati!”

That’s actually a pretty benign example of targeted advertising– you’ll see that level of targeting just from doing searches on Google. The amount of information Facebook is capable of collecting is much scarier. Just from the sites you visit, the articles you click on, and the phrases you type, a computer algorithm can deduce your race, religion, political positions, and even your emotional state. Jewelers and wedding planners can target ads to people that are in relationships likely to lead to marriage, while divorce lawyers can target married couples who show signs of difficulty. Every time you click on something, you are giving the algorithm a little more information about which advertising tactics work better on you. If you’re an advertiser, you can test the red font on a million people and test the blue font on a million people and see which one gets more clicks. It’s a laboratory designed to foster discontentment and evolve the ultimate marketing techniques.

That was something I understood about Facebook, but I could put up with it in order to keep my connections with my friends. Ad blockers would screen out many of the “Meet hot singles!” banners, and I determined to be more careful about what information I posted online. I deleted the list of interests from my profile now that its only purpose was to help advertisers target me rather than being a way to connect with potential friends.

But troubling news about Facebook kept coming out. Evidence mounted that they were collecting information even on people who were no longer Facebook members, or who had never joined in the first place. This makes sense to me; it would actually be hard not to do. Imagine that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock both have Facebook accounts, but Dr. McCoy doesn’t. If both Kirk and Spock, who are Facebook friends and live in the same area, happen to post about visiting a Southern doctor who complains about using transporters, Facebook can create a “shadow profile” for this doctor, filling in his name and other details as they are revealed by other posts.

This means that even if you manage to keep your personal information a secret, details about you will still be collected when they are revealed by other people on Facebook. You might decide never to post a picture of yourself on Facebook, but you can’t keep someone else from doing that. Facebook even suggests that you label each person in a photo with his or her name– even if they don’t have a Facebook account. Facial recognition software is sometimes good enough to suggest the name for you. You can make its next guess even better by confirming it.

(Incidentally, this is why I didn’t bother to delete my Facebook account when I decided to stop using the site. I don’t think it would make any difference.)

I still didn’t consider that to be enough reason by itself to quit Facebook, though. It’s not as if I’m trying to hide anything about myself. I expect that anyone collecting information on me will find it pretty boring! : )

No, what ultimately drove me away from Facebook was when it stopped being a medium and tried to become a messenger. Advertisers aren’t the only ones who see great value in Facebook’s “product.” It can also potentially be a very powerful tool for politicians and social engineers, anyone with a message seeking voters or followers in the service of some cause.

Though I’m being hard on them, I’m not trying to paint Facebook as just an unsympathetic villain here. Due to their enormous success around the world, they have been placed in a difficult position. What do you do about a terrorist group using Facebook to find new recruits? What about a racist conspiracy theorist looking for like-minded people in order to share vicious lies about whomever they hate? What about a regime with the political and economic power to pressure news organizations not to cover the way they are persecuting an oppressed class?

Facebook has had to deal with, and is still dealing with, situations like these.

Maybe it was because of issues like these, or maybe it was pressure or money from groups with a political message, but Facebook began to see it as their responsibility to inform and educate their users. Every day, a handful of news stories that had captured people’s attention were posted at the top of the screen. Rather than prioritizing status updates from a user’s best friends, Facebook started displaying news items that were getting a lot of comments simply because one friend had clicked “like” on a reply to a comment about the story.

I can’t speak to how everyone reacted to these changes– I can only give my own reactions. I felt like I was being drawn into arguments. I’d see some misunderstanding or incorrect statement about an issue I cared about, and wrestle with myself over whether to write a response. Sometimes I would, only to realize that I was responding to a tiny branch of a conversation that had spun off topic five replies ago. Sometimes I wouldn’t, and I worried about whether I was letting a dangerous untruth go unanswered.

I intensely disliked the daily parade of “hot” news stories. Invariably, there was something deeply upsetting about these stories on the face of them, some injustice that suggested a widespread problem. We were being invited to show our anger, to try to outdo each other with how outraged we could be. But within a week, the story would be forgotten, a new outrage having taken its place.

Some people began scrutinizing the bias in the choice of each story, or in the super-simplified wording of its headline, and in turn they were accused of using their own bias to ignore whatever the stories were about. People began viewing each other through the lenses of the stories that they clicked “like” on or commented about. “I thought she was my friend!” “All of the horrible problems that article pointed out, and this was the only thing he felt upset enough to comment about?”

I said and felt all of these things and more, and I felt more tired and manipulated with every story designed to draw me into another argument. Could any of us claim to really care about the stories we expended so much energy writing about when we forgot them just as quickly? It’s as if all we really cared about was the fighting.

As 2016 went on, it got worse and worse as the United States was gripped by an election in which it seemed almost no one really felt good about their own party’s candidate, but each citizen felt strongly that allowing the opposing candidate to be elected would be disastrous.

Secretly collected data, lies couched in news, blatant bias in reporting, Facebook’s “captive” audience and its power to influence minds– all of them became part of the fight as organizations compromised their ethics and people ended friendships.

And I had had enough. My family and I voted, then took a vacation away from televisions and the Internet and waited until the election was over. I bid Facebook goodbye and tried my best to keep away. The world is still full of problems and injustices, and everything that both sides tried to warn the other about, but it has kept turning. I still acknowledge Jesus Christ as the one truly in control and await His return as the only good and just Ruler we have all longed for.

I think that disconnecting from Facebook allowed me to remove a lot of unneeded stress from my life and focus on more important things.

And yet…

I miss the connections with others I used to have. I have trouble joining conversations at church and usually feel too tired to make it to social events. I’m no longer able to keep up with my friends from school or college, and I miss them, and wonder how they are doing. I have my relationship with my girlfriend, who I treasure each day, but I know it’s healthier to have other friendships too, or I might drive her crazy! : P

I’ll have to see if I can find an answer outside of Facebook for remaking those connections. If any of you are reading this post, please know that I miss you, and I still think of you and pray for you.

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