There's no idle gossip in braille

A recent Medium article suggests that it doesn’t matter whether Facebook is broken up, or implements radical changes, or is replaced by a different platform. The author, Colin Horgan, says that it’s not necessary at all. He is partly right.

He’s right that we don’t need Facebook to fill the roles it does. He’s wrong when he says we don’t need those things at all.

On the one hand, all of the things that social media does are rather high in Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Need is a loaded word. We don’t need shelter, sex, or human contact the way we need air and water. Of course you don’t need to see pictures of your friends’ kids, but that’s one small part of having a social aspect to one’s life.

Colin Horgan’s assertions can be interpreted to mean that although we do need those things we don’t need social media to provide them. But that raises the question of what «social media» even is. Many of the things that Facebook and its ilk provide require some form of media, especially if we’re going to cross a geographical spans in our social life. Blogs, email, paper ‘zines, even phone calls and letter-writing are all social media.

Medium, the publishing platform the article appears on, is a social media site. Medium promoted that article on Facebook and Twitter. It seems somewhat disingenuous to say something one thinks is important enough to share over the internet with other people while claiming that what other people say on those sites is unnecessary.

It could be that platforms like Facebook give us something we need but does so with such immediacy and volume that it becomes a problem. One wouldn’t generally mail pictures of a plate of food through the Postal Service. The signal to noise ratio is certainly lower on Facebook than nearly anywhere. But this is not new. As communication gets easier and cheaper it is used more, for more things.

I log on to Facebook two or three times a month, usually when someone tells me that I’ve missed something that they sent me. I’ve tired of the self-righteous bickering that I admit I’ve been a part of. But a couple of weeks ago I arrived at my weekly meditation group to find the doors locked and the lights off. The cancellation was announced on the Facebook group. Had I checked Facebook first it could have saved me an hour of driving and a half hour of waiting on the sidewalk. Avoiding Facebook means I do miss out on important things.

This has become true of email as well. There’s so little of any import that arrives in my email inbox that I often don’t check it. I try to look a few times each day but sometimes it’s a few days in between checking email.

Therefore the problem is not that these platforms exist or that our ability to communicate comes so cheap, but that we don’t have many good ways to filter what we need to see from what we don’t. It’s not even that Facebook does a terrible job of it (although it does). Every time Facebook or Twitter tweaks their newsfeeds to present more relevant information to us, the complaints are deafening. We don’t want Facebook telling us what we should see; we want to see it all.

Curating content is not automatic, and it’s not free. I don’t have suggestions here about how this problem can be addressed and it shouldn’t be ignored. We should be trying to find better ways to talk to one another and better ways to share our opinions. We don’t yet have the answers. Maybe Facebook and Twitter should be abandoned, and if your definition of «Social Media» is as narrow as to only include Facebook and Twitter perhaps it’s fine to say that social media ought be abandoned. But it’s not that simple. More broadly defined, social media provides us with important services that can make our lives better and easier and more fulfilled. We owe it to ourselves to try to make it work better.