The Facebook backlash is in full swing, at least amongst my close friends and acquaintances. I’m not talking about isolated cases, but a consistent trend (extending back to last year) of people questioning the value of Facebook, scaling back their involvement or flat out leaving the platform.
Perhaps this trend says more about me and the circles I move in than it does about society at large. Facebook is still growing strongly, I still get people trying to “invite” me onto the platform and increasingly I’m seeing parents allow their young children to join the site.
Many of the issues that inspired me to leave Facebook are captured in Zadie Smith’s excellent New York Review of Books essay, Generation Why? Smith’s critique puts the new film, The Social Network in conversation with Jarod Lanier’s book, You Are Not A Gadget (while drawing from Smith’s experience as a college lecturer). Smith manages to capture both the appeal of Facebook and the way the format of the site reduces and over-simplifies those who use it.
But, maybe the problem extends beyond over-simplification, to stupefaction. The Intelligence2 group recently hosted a debate here in Hong Kong entitled, “Is The Internet Making Us Stupid?” One of the speakers for the motion, Thomas Crampton, posted some his research online (and you also can read a transcript of his talk ).
Crampton outlines a number of arguments; the most compelling being the notion that the internet diminishes the quality of thought in society because it promotes a constant state of distraction and casual attention.
Normally, I’m not won-over by doomsday anti-technology arguments. All too often the prophets of cultural catastrophe get it wrong about the internet for many of the same reasons that previous Cassandras got it wrong about earlier disruptive technologies, like television, radio, telephone, print and even paper. Just because people do dumb things with a technology doesn’t mean the technology made them dumb.
However, there is a qualitative difference with digital media, in terms of pervasiveness and ubiquity. The modern office makes it hard for you to watch television but easy for for you to update your Facebook or Twitter. Making phone calls used to involve expensive, fixed location devices, but now we are hardwired into telephony via our mobiles, which increasingly flash, beep and buzz with communication and updates that are pushed to us, 24/7.
Moreover, the internet is becoming a social currency; not just the thing we bond over (like television, radios and books), but the thing we bond through.
We are heading towards something one might call the distraction economy. A lot of the time we spend on social media comes from moments of distraction (and companies are targeting this a source of revenue and market research). It’s the moments between things (or the moments when the current tasks seem to demand less than full attention) that people are filling with these digital interactions. Next time you go to a film, look around and see how many people are looking at Facebook, email or whatever even while the opening credits are rolling. Once upon a time we used to just sit there and watch the credits!
The 99 Percent blog that frequently looks at the issue of distraction and how it affects creative professionals. I’m indebted to them for pointing out how creatives often seek out distraction as a way to avoid confronting the more emotionally challenging aspects of their work, what Scott Belsky calls insecurity work. Or, they fall into the trap of reactionary workflow, where they surrender their focus to the “unyielding flow of incoming communication.”
Add to that a growing body of work that connects distraction to happiness, or more specifically, to the lack of happiness.
“We see evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness, but no evidence for unhappiness causing mind-wandering.”
That quote is from When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays by John Tierney (New York Times). Tierney summarises research that highlights distraction as an engine for unhappiness and dissatisfaction in our lives.
Facebook is just a part of this equation. It stands out because it so clearly embodies many of the problems of the distraction economy as well as being the most successful player in that field. I’m not sure the internet or even Facebook is making us stupid. But, I am sure that living in a permanent state of distraction and partial attention is far from smart.