Social Disconnect.

So last week I discovered that for the last month or more, Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, had set all my posts to only be published on my parents wall.  Brilliant. :D  Anyway, with the election nonsense going on, I’ve decided to unplug from facebook, g+, and twitter for a while until the dust settles.  I’m going to spend the time working on my blog here, and various projects I’ve left to stagnate.  I can still be contacted by email, if you remember that old technology, and I’ll still reply to direct messages (though I’m not expecting any, tbh).  When discussing this, one of my friends at work pointed out that the fact I wasn’t willing to delete my account outright implies that I’m addicted.  They’re probably right.

“10 of your friends like this stupid meme you posted? That’s great! Everyone loves sarcasm! Post some more of that and you’ll be become super-popular!”

The addictive nature of social networking sites is interesting to study though.  The way people mindlessly post and share content, looking for likes, retweets, +1s reminds me of how slot machines work with their pre-determined variable ratio reinforcement schedules.   I’ve written about the topic of reinforcement before because it’s as fascinating as it is scary.  Outside of gambling, RPG games like Final Fantasy, Diablo, and MMOs use VR reinforcement schedules to hook people into spending large amounts of their free time (tens or hundreds of hours) performing mindless, repetitive tasks – rewarding them with level ups, and item drops.  In gaming, we call this ‘grinding’.  It’s intentionally tedious, and many games nowadays encourage “micro-transactions” (i.e. spending real money) to skip all of that stuff.  Social games have this down to mathematical precision — if you want some insight into exactly how horrifying they are, I’d encourage you to read Tim Rogers’ review of The Sims Social and companion piece who killed video games? (a ghost story)

Social networks reinforce mundane, repetitive user actions such as refreshing the page, liking an item, or re-sharing it, by rewarding them with attention.  Anyone who has spent a lengthy amount of time online will eventually come to the conclusion that attention is gold dust on the Internet.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s sincere or not.  The internet is, we believe, a level playing field, and everyone is fighting for their share of attention online; you, me, your family, mine, your favourite band, your least favourite politician, fucking marmite, television celebrities, pundits, hacks, religious figures, anonymous hackers… I mean, hell, if Charlie Sheen can successfully reboot his career by having a mental breakdown on twitter, there’s hope for us all.  Right?

Facebook and Twitter give you a platform to project your trivial insignificant nonsense to the world, and this is reinforced by positive attention.  On a forum, if you post half the junk you do on facebook, you’d get branded as a troll or an ‘attention whore’ and ostracised by the community.  But not on Facebook right?  They’re your friends!  You’ll notice that Facebook has never implemented a ‘dislike’ button — negative reinforcement would drive people off the site, which would probably upset advertisers.

Due to the transitory nature of the wall and twitter feed, it’s quantity, not quality, that is emphasised.  Furthermore, you’ll start to notice that Facebook is now filtering content from your friends and pages you’re following, presumably based on popularity (likes/trends), so that you only see a percentage of what you’ve subscribed to.  Page owners – bands, magazines, and what not – are now desperately pleading with users to adjust their settings because they now have to pay Facebook to guarantee that their updates will appear on your wall.  What this means is that your Facebook wall is becoming an increasingly competitive space — already over-saturated with companies and corporations trying to advertise their special brand of bullshit on your wall.

So every day people and organisations just post random garbage to social networks, in a scatter-shot fashion, trying to out-shout each other.  I was actually employed to do this for 6 months, and frankly, I strongly suspect that over half of them don’t even know why they’re doing it, except for a pressing need to have “an active Facebook presence”.

Why?

“Because everyone is on Facebook”

That’s one of the things about social networks that’s really innovative — everyone is there.  You don’t need to leave the site or bookmark stuff any more, because they bring the best content from the web directly to you.  News, current affairs, interests, hobbies, music, games.  I mean, does anyone use email for contacting their friends any more?  Or, like me, do you almost exclusively use social networks to contact your friends and family?  It’s more convenient isn’t it? You may have noticed a couple of years ago they stopped emailing you every time you get a message or notification — it’s redundant when most people “check their facebook” multiple times a day.  It also encourages people to keep visiting the site.

Yesteryear sites like Yahoo, MSN, AOL, as well as your favourite ISP, tried and failed to pull this off.  All of them had (and still have) redundant content on their home pages — the latest news, fashion, and gossip, as well as their own webmail to boot.  But they all lacked the magic ingredient of social networks — instead of creating a universal, personalised hub for your friends and interests, they all created their own branded ‘portals’, each with distinctively bland, irrelevant, re-hashed ‘original’ content.

Convenience is the key ingredient to making convergence work, and social networks are massively convenient because they pull your friends and interests into an easily digestible, personalised news feed.  Social networking is better than static communication like emails, because they’re dynamic, engaging, and there’s an social vibrance or flow to them.  Breaking news stories spread quickly and gossip trends to the top — almost every time you refresh the page, or scroll down far enough, you’ll likely encounter something that piques your interest.  But that’s also why I find them problematic.  They’re designed to draw you into an unconscious routine of checking your notifications, posting or reposting content, and then refreshing page periodically to see if people have responded to your update.  Like a slot machine.

When I first joined Facebook, I saw it as an online community or forum “with just my friends”.  Now it feels like a crowded, uncomfortable, stale white and blue conference room with a bunch people I vaguely know from my past, intermingled with corporate PR reps and indie musicians wandering around like lost children trying to find their way.  Everyone wears a name tag containing a brief description of who they are, what they do, their sexual orientation, status, interests, beliefs, and their birthday, lest you forget.  On their backs they are required to wear a thing called their “Timeline”, which highlights the key events in their life, or lack thereof.  Mostly it chronicles your failed relationships.  The room is so crowded that you can only really speak to the people in your immediate vicinity,  but megaphones are available for a small fee so you can reach your friends at the back of the room.  In one corner is the games room, but it’s starting to look like one those dodgy stalls at the fairground, or one of those gambling arcades at a motorway services stop — you know the kind, with lots of bright colours and music to attract kids, but designed callously to rob you blind.  Except it’s not your kids getting hooked on this, it’s your mum.

I have nearly 200 ‘friends’ now and yet I can’t remember the last time I actually had a conversation with any of them outside of my circle of face-to-face friends.  We don’t need to, because they can just read my status updates and I can read theirs.  We communicate through automated validation.  Real friendship, which I’ve learnt to value through losing it, has been replaced with something superficial and alienating.  In a way, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I’ve actually lost touch with some of my closest friends.  Facebook has connected me to everyone, and by doing so, I feel connected with no one.

I’m not going to talk about privacy, that’s been done to death, you know the risks when you use sites like this, and the internet at large.  My primary concern is productivity.  Every time I’m writing an asinine comment on facebook or a witty “That thing” observation on twitter, I can’t shake the feeling I could be doing something more worthwhile with my time.  Yet, at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to delete my account.

And so, I guess we’re stuck with each other.

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