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.

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