Columns / Discourse / April 10, 2013

The Book of Zuckerberg: Evaluating Facebook as a filter for political events

When afflicted with writer’s block, I often find myself doing what I imagine most of this campus does: I log onto Facebook. It is something I have never written about, which becomes odder and odder the more I think about it.

Facebook is the first filter through which many of us get our current events. It’s how we discuss everything from our cats to North Korea. It topples governments at the same time it proliferates pictures of what people had for dinner. More importantly for this column, its political clout grows with every passing year.

Slowly and subtly, Facebook is moving toward founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated goal of making itself the sort of center of the Internet. Another small step was taken with this week’s introduction of Facebook Home, a hybrid app-operating system-homepage that aims to make Facebook the first thing you see when you turn on your phone.

The idea is that most of our online activity will someday be mediated through Facebook. The articles you read, the purchases you make on Amazon, even the locations you plug into your GPS could one day present a continuous life chronicle broadcast to the world, should anyone care to read it. The company, meanwhile, gets ever more efficient in putting you into advertising demographics.

Facebook is, of course, a medium and is thus neither inherently good nor bad. It is a tool that can be used for whatever purposes we put it toward.

Still, there is reason to be concerned about Zuckerberg’s goal coming true. Monopoly is rarely in the best social interest and because of the unique nature of social networking, envisioning a real challenger to Facebook is becoming harder and harder all the time. (I feel almost a tinge of pity when I see a Google+ icon at the bottom of a page.)

From a political perspective, Facebook’s stated goal of making the News Feed into a “personalized newspaper” is certainly a bit troubling. Though such a project would focus on personal updates from friends, it is hard to believe that it would never seek to co-opt the more traditional functions of a newspaper.

That is where I am particularly concerned. A worrying study recently completed by Shannon Rauch and Kimberley Schanz indicated that heavy users are more likely to passively accept racist postings than light users.

The psychologists blame a “Facebook culture of shallow processing and agreement” for the finding.

Anyone who ever logs in should be able to recognize this sort of culture. Facebook debate is marked by shallowness and confrontation above all else. (As an idle question, ask yourself how many people’s feelings on gun control were changed by Facebook postings after Newtown.)

This is not to say that shallowness and confrontation are not also distinguishing features of our offline political debates, but there is something about Facebook as a medium that seems particularly conducive to such an argumentative style.

It is also worth considering the larger social costs of a hegemonic Facebook.

In a fascinating if slightly melodramatic article in The Atlantic, Stephen Marche wrote, “Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.”

Facebook lures before us the temptation of the same sort of shallowness in our personal lives as in our political ones. It is decaf coffee, smokeless cigarettes — friendship without social contact. To use philosopher Slajov Zizek’s phrasing, it is reality deprived of the Real.

PostSecret and pictures of cats should not deceive us. There are real consequences of Facebook’s move to dominate more and more of the Internet. It is too early to say if it will end up being a good thing or not, but it will undoubtedly prove to be fascinating to watch.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  facebook GPS Internet medium monopoly pop politics Rauch Slajov Zizek social contract twitter Zuckerberg

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