Facebook and powerful actors

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ways powerful people interact with the platform differently compared to regular users:

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

This will likely get a lot of attention for the different approach to different kinds of users. That elite members are treated differently could get interesting in an era with an increased focus on inequality and the influence of social media.

I am also interested in hearing more about how much Facebook and other social media platforms rely on powerful and influential people. Celebrities, whether in politics, entertainment, sports, the arts, or other spheres, are important figures in society. Elite figures may not be like regular users in that they attract a lot of views and promote engagement among other users. Social media platforms want users to engage with content and elites may provide just that.

Going further, social media platforms have power users. For example, a small percent of Twitter users are highly engaged. Social media use and content generation is even across different users. Should those who generate more content and engagement operate under a different set of rules? Is having provocative users or people who push the boundaries (or even get away with breaking the rules) good for business?

This makes me wonder if there would be a market for a social media platform that puts users on a more level playing field. If we know that certain resources, statuses, and social markers lead to differential treatment, might an online platform be able to even things out?

Is the world worse off now or do we just know more about what happens every day?

The bad news seems to keep rolling in. A pandemic. The earthquake in Haiti. Afghanistan. Tropical storms. Tyranny. And so on. This raises a question I have asked myself many times in recent years: is the world actually worse off or do we just know more about global affairs and smaller events?

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Here are just some of the ways this question could be answered:

-In some macro trends, this is a great time to be alive. I’m thinking of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature or Hans Rosling’s Factfulness where they argue that by multiple measures, whether the percent of deaths by warfare or indicators of public health, we are better off.

-The scale of both mass media and social media means we can know more about the world and daily occurrences than ever before. With relatively little effort, we can see the bad in the world on a small and grand scale every minute (and find commentary on it). We are flooded with information.

-The world has changed so rapidly in the last few centuries that we collectively are still trying to catch up to the new challenges and/or the new ways that challenges manifest themselves. For example, pandemics are not new in human history but the way people respond to them in the particular conditions of 2020 and 2021 is.

-We now see the world differently or expect different things compared to people of the past. The social changes of recent centuries mean more individualism and agency, the rise of the self and the diminishing of some traditional forms of authority, and expectations about standards of living.

-Certain groups might lean in to the distressing news. For example, American evangelicals for decades have played up the connection between the apocalypse and current events. Or, political actors might use negative news to criticize others or promote particular policies.

-Humans can feel losses more than equal wins. It is hard to know whether we take in more positive or negative news overall but we might feel the negative news more.

-There really is more bad than good happening in the world.

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.

The rise of social media managers

More companies and organizations now have social media managers:

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Some 15 years after Facebook and Twitter opened their platforms to the public, social media is an established, mainstream career field. There are academic programs dedicated to its practice. Workers say it’s sometimes still treated as a job for rookies, both through pay grades and interpersonal dynamics from those who think it’s just not that serious. But that’s changing: Those in the field see more bargaining power and more full-time roles than ever before.

Many social-media specific jobs still offer lower salaries than comparable fields like marketing. The average annual salary for marketing managers is $102,496 and $109,607 for marketing directors on Glassdoor, according to a spokesperson for the jobs website. Meanwhile, the average annual salary is $67,892 for social-media directors and $47,908 for social-media assistants…

But Ms. Visconti notes that the field has become more professionalized in recent years. When she got her undergraduate degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2015, she says, “It definitely wasn’t seen as a career path.” Today, following work for clients including Hyatt and Puma, she believes she can dedicate her whole career to social media. “What I love about it is that it’s the way to connect most directly with consumers,” she says…

“In the beginning, it was all about the need for businesses to create content specifically for social media, which was an insight that I had somewhat early,” he says. “Now it’s much more about understanding how algorithms work, and I just don’t understand things like what time of day to publish a TikTok video on a deep level.”

My colleague Peter Mundey and I found similar things in our 2019 study “Emerging SNS Use: The Importance of Social Network Sites for Older American Emerging Adults.” These 23 to 28 year olds found that social media could be part of their work life. We found: “Mentions of job-related activities from the Wave 4 respondents included corresponding with potential employers via Facebook, making professional connections through LinkedIn and showing work-related activities and progress through other SNS platforms, helping firms promote themselves via social media and responding to other users, and even working for social media companies.” We found that this work was not necessarily for everyone, even if older emerging adults were regular social media participants.

There could also be an interesting study in here about the development of a new career, role, and/or industry. Marketing, for example, is well known and emerged over decades in the twentieth century. Social media manager is new, utilizes newer technology, is more familiar to younger members of the workforce, and is developing its own professionalization processes. Will it firmly established in terms of status, pay, and training within a decade or two and how will that happen?

Reconsidering social media and Internet use after an online-filled COVID-19

The Internet and social media were critical tools for many during COVID-19 with uses ranging from connecting with family and friends to work to activism to going to school. As COVID-19 winds down, does this mean we should reconsider how much time we spend with these technologies? Here is one conclusion:

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Two years ago, I was deleting and undeleting my Instagram account, begging every expert I could find to tell me exactly how to live healthily with the internet in my pocket. In 2021, to do the same would seem a little silly. Netflix’s subscriber growth may be slowing, and Tinder videochats may soon fall out of favor, but it’s hard to imagine that a Great Offlining is really in the cards. Instead, we could be heading for a Great Rebalancing, where we reconfigure how we do our work and how we organize our time on the internet. We’ve grown more aware of how we rely on one another—online as well as off—and of the tools we have or could build for responding to a crisis. The biggest tech companies’ accrual of power remains one of the most serious problems of my lifetime, but I no longer talk about the internet itself as if it were an external and malignant force, now that I’ve lived in such intimate contact with it for so long.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind about everything I’ve just said, but sometimes you just need to time-stamp the moment. Going back through my essays from 2019, I was struck by how easily I had misremembered what the cultural conversation was about back then. Jenny Odell never argued that people should go offline completely. Rather, she told me that deleting your apps or throwing your phone in the ocean would represent a failure to recognize that “we actually really need something like social media.” The desire to go online is human, and “there’s nothing wrong with that part.” We just have to keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing it.

I think it is always a good idea to ask this question about many things with which we spend this time: how important is this to me? Is my time use what I want or did I just fall into this pattern? For better or worse, sometimes it takes a drastic change or crisis to ask this question. It is one thing to use a computer for work or browse social media, another to be on Zoom for hours because you cannot be in the office or go to school. If COVID-19 offers people the opportunity to step back and think again about what they want to do with their time, that would be good.

And I would hope that many would say they do not need social media or the Internet as much as they did in the past year. There are many worthwhile things to do, ranging from movement and exercise, reading, pursuing a non-work project or hobby, playing a game, interacting with the people around you, among other options.

More broadly, it is relatively easy to slip into particular time patterns during the day that may or may not be desired. The average American watches 4+ hours of television a day; is that planned and/or desired or does it just happen? Do people take the time they want to eat or not? Is work more time-consuming that people want? If you add up all of these hours across days, weeks, months, and years, it can be shocking to see how much is spent on certain activities. If people have priorities in what they want to do in life, it should be evident in their time use.

(On the other hand, I do not think it is that useful to micromanage your time to the level some have. I recently read about someone famous who scheduled their day in five minute increments in order to make sure things got done. There is a level of attention and time needed to do this that I would not find worthwhile.)

People using localized social media for an edge in searching for homes

Scroll through local Facebook or Nextdoor groups and there is a more common request these days: does anyone know of an upcoming listing for a 4 bedroom home in a desirable neighborhood? Or, perhaps a three bedroom townhome or house for rent at a reasonable price?

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It is hard to know how many good leads are generated by such posts. They often ask for DMs. Generating more competition for such housing is probably not the goal – though landlords or sellers might be interested in drumming up more interest (also evidenced by pictures of homes soon to be on the market). The more direct interaction cuts out some of the middle actors.

Judging by the posts I have seen, the housing needs seem to be present. Even with economic instability during COVID-19, homes in desirable neighborhoods and communities have held their value or increased in value. The housing supply is limited. At least a few people have looked to move out of cities to quiet suburbs. Stories of bidding wars abound. Finding places at reasonable rents is hard.

I could imagine some broader partnerships between the socials and real estate websites. Imagine a special Zillow add-in to your Twitter feed or a Realtor.com bonus for Instagram. All of the real estate websites are competing and so are the social media platforms; which one can truly integrate real estate into their daily feeds beyond the posts of individual users? Say you are looking for a home with particulars and the social media plug-in can alert you to matches and you can get an exclusive bidding window; potential buyers could feel they get an in and realtors might like the added competition among buyers ready to spend.

All of this might matter less if there is more housing supply in the future. Yet, if real estate is truly so lucrative because there is only so much land in the first place, why wouldn’t it permeate even social media.

Love and mass transit in 2021

Combine online dating and a love for mass transit and what do you get?

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As a single person wandering through the world, it can be difficult to find someone who loves all the right things: parks, subways, bike lanes, human-scale buildings, high-density housing, debates over the ideal length of a city block. Even on a dating app, you can’t always tell from a profile who might be thinking, behind their smile, I hate cars.

But if this is exactly the sort of partner—or friend or fling—you’re looking for, there is a solution: Join the wildly popular Facebook meme group and leftist community NUMTOTs (“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” which isn’t really just for teens) and request access to its private spin-off group, NUMTinder. With about 8,000 members living mostly in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, NUMTinder is a makeshift dating environment for those who consider liking public transportation to be a core part of their personality, or those for whom a lack of interest in urban planning is a deal breaker. Almost everyone in the group posts at least one selfie with a bike or a subway entrance, to demonstrate their commitment to the lifestyle, and when a new member introduces herself, it’s not uncommon for her to brag about the fact that she doesn’t have a driver’s license. (A second spin-off group, called NUMThots, is for sharing the spiciest seminudes that Facebook’s content moderation will allow. But transit-themed!)

The primary advantage to online dating is that it expands a person’s options beyond geography and their immediate social network to a much broader pool of people who can be filtered by particular traits. In this case, limit the pool to people who care about mass transit and those with that interest can search for partners.

While this may seem strange to the general public, is it really any different than numerous other likes people care about? Just as a comparison, plenty of people like cars or specific cars. At races, car events, clubs, and more, people with these interests could come together. Or, take people who regularly watch trains. Through different communities, these people could meet up and interact. The primary difference is that more Americans might like cars than mass transit.

A final thought: I imagine this group might be more useful in and around cities with a lot of mass transit. Of course, it could also be helpful in other places where few people even think about mass transit because it is not as present.

Facebook continues to claim it is about “meaningful social interactions”

Members of Congress questioned leaders of social media companies this week. In contrast to what legislators suggested, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook has one particular goal:

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Focusing on the attention-driven business model seems to have been a coordinated strategy among the committee’s Democrats, but they were not alone. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio, compared the addictiveness of social platforms to cigarettes. “You profit from hooking users on your platforms by capitalizing off their time,” he said, addressing Dorsey and Zuckerberg. “So yes or no: Do you agree that you make money off of creating an addiction to your platforms?”

Both executives said no. As they did over and over again, along with Pichai, when asked straightforwardly whether their platforms’ algorithms are optimized to show users material that will keep them engaged. Rather than defend their companies’ business model, they denied it.

Zuckerberg, in particular, suggested that maximizing the amount of time users spend on the platform is the furthest thing from his engineers’ minds. “It’s a common misconception that our teams even have goals of trying to increase the amount of time that people spend,” he said. The company’s true goal, he insisted, is to foster “meaningful social interactions.” Misinformation and inflammatory content actually thwarts that goal. If users are spending time on the platform, it simply proves that the experience is so meaningful to them. “Engagement,” he said, “is only a sign that if we deliver that value, then it will be natural that people use our services more.”

Zuckerberg has said this for years; see this earlier post. Facebook and other social media platforms have the opportunity to bring people together, whether that is through building upon existing relationships or interacting with new people based on common interests and causes.

Has Facebook delivered on this promise? Do social media users find “meaningful social interactions”? The research I have done with Peter Mundey suggests emerging adult users are aware of the downsides of social media interactions but many still participate because there is meaning or enough meaning.

I suppose it might come down to defining and measuring “meaningful social interaction.” Social interaction can take many forms, ranging from carrying on social media mediated relationships through simply viewing images and text over time to less personal interaction in commenting on or registering a reaction to something like hundreds of others to direct interaction to people through various means. Is a negative response meaningful? Does a positive direct interaction count more? Can the interaction be more episodic or is it sustained over a certain period of time?

One possible path: ask for the evidence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat users (among others) having meaningful interactions alongside evidence of how these platforms count and measure capturing attention. Another: ask whether these companies think they have succeeded in creating “meaningful social interactions” and what they would cite as markers of this.

Does social media make your life better?

It is a simple question. It may not have an easy answer.

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As I teach undergraduate students ages 18-22, the topic of social media comes up. It may be during a class break when many go to their smartphones. It may be during conversations about social interaction or the media or technology. It may be in discussing my research in this area. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, these students would be right in the iGeneration that grew up with iPhones and smartphones. They are often immersed in social media.

In two research studies (one from 2015 looking at 18-23 year olds and one from 2020 looking at 23-28 year olds), Peter Mundey and I examined how emerging adults interacted with social media. The vast majority participated. But, they also expressed reservations ranging from privacy issues to negative interactions to new demands on their. On one hand, they enjoyed maintaining connections to people and described participation as necessary to keeping up with people. On the other hand, it would be hard to not participate at all as it is connected to multiple life domains.

My sense from this data is there is not a total endorsement of social media from emerging adults. Their responses are differentt from singing the praises of the positive benefits of social media. And when I ask my students the question in the title – “does social media make your life better?” – it can provoke some thinking.

Perhaps this is a good question for many people to ask. It could be a more domain-specific question: is social media good for our national political life? Does social media encourage spiritual growth? Does social media promote learning? Or, it might be better as a larger question: does social media improve the lives of its users? This is at least a question worth pondering and then acting in response to the answer.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

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That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.