Facebook doesn't listen and is blinding us all


Facebook's a pervasive, important part of my day. I use it to connect with friends and family from all over. At the same time, I am being a part of an ecosystem where I learn more about the world around me and share news and views.

In all honesty, though, I don't like Facebook very much. It's nice to know others feel the same.

I recently read an interview on The Atlantic (shared to me through Facebook, ironically) in which Alexis Madrigal spoke to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of the book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.

From their discussion, I've come to better understand two of the things that make me antsy about a big social network like Facebook: that Facebook as a company doesn't listen, and that Facebook blinds its users by shoehorning itself as the best possible solution to a myriad of problems.

Promises and letdowns

Regarding the promises and letdowns of Facebook, one thing pointed out in the article I hadn't really thought about was that Facebook apparently doesn't actually take feedback into account as much as it tracks how people act given certain situations.

Vaidhyanathan said a universal principle Facebook takes into account is the principle of engagement. If people engage with Facebook, that's what's considered to be what works as a guiding principle for keeping Facebook healthy.

Vaidhyanathan called it one of Facebook's "core mistakes."

Instead of listening to criticism, Facebook tries to prevent itself from being criticized by focusing on the metrics that it says are important, from the 2.23 billion monthly active user count to the good it can do by being a monolithic structure for human communication – whether it's by its now-shuttered Aquila drone project or its internet satellite initiative.

"You could measure engagement and you can’t measure things like depth of thought or kindness," Vaidhyanathan said.

Indeed, as much as I love seeing shared pet photos and memes, adding an emoji or voting on the perfect reaction to a social media post doesn't tell me how people feel or what they're really thinking.

For many, though, Facebook may simply just be "there," a ubiquitous construct that exists and is used because it was built, not because it means anything.

Blinded by ideology

If "Facebook doesn't listen" is one major problem, then "Facebook blinds us all" is another.

Vaidhyanathan called the problem one of ideological blinders, with the ideology being that big problems can be solved by one thing. Facebook tries to simplify the world – with all its messy social spheres and ridiculously complicated processes – into data.

It's an oversimplification of the world by treating everything as a problem that can be solved by applying the correct and seemingly only solution to the data available.

This oversimplification can blind people, Mark Zuckerberg included, from seeing the ripple effects of small things, like bad actors taking over a small portion of the social media service.

The trolling conundrum, the United States election issues, and the Philippine fake news problem can be rolled into a section on bad actors ramping up over time.

Coupling that with the idea that Facebook doesn't listen to feedback and imagines itself a problem solving mechanism people should trust, and you have a rather worrisome social media machine.

Personally, though, what I hate most about the ideological blinders position is that Facebook imparts to people the assumption that there's just one way to solve the ills of the world.

More readily than a single solution, it is more likely to take a massive worldview shift and plenty of little, individual changes to enact real, lasting positive change.

Is there a cure?

Right now, Facebook is the dominant social platform of the world, a one-of-a-kind deal which Vaidhyanathan says is rivaled only by the ubiquity of WeChat in China.

Ideally, the only way to rid oneself of the ideological blinders is to impact Facebook by not using it. You're might be reading this, however, because it's been shared on Facebook.

One other way to overcome the problems of Facebook is to address deficiencies head-on by shining a light on them.

Increasing scrutiny and criticism of Facebook and its practices – from its dodgy attempts to manipulate emotions in 2014 to its current gamut of scandals involving Cambridge Analytica and others – forces the company to listen to feedback and keeps people from being blinded by the idea that Facebook will save us all.

More than anything else, now's the good time to take a look at Facebook and, if you have to use it, then do so with purpose...or at least the realization that social media is using you as much as you are using it. – Rappler.com

Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.