One of the most prominent features of the past decade — the meteoric rise of social networking websites — has changed the way we communicate and interact, both online and in that other place that’s like the Internet but with sunlight and consequences. Facebook stands alone as by far the largest and most expansive social network, registering nearly 800 million active users. That’s roughly two and a half times as many people on the entire Internet in 2000. So yeah, they’re kind of a big deal. But like any one person, company or government becoming too powerful, they’ve inevitably turned a little bit sinister in some pretty evil ways.
Facebook Makes You a Worse Person
To start this out, it’s important to say that the realm of studying social networks and their effects on people is notoriously difficult. How do you measure the value of time spent on Facebook relative to other time? In one person’s view it might be frivolous “OMG YOU LOOK SO CUTE” commenting on duck-faced pictures. In another person’s view, it’s valuable networking that will pay dividends in employment, education and general happiness later in that person’s life. It’s also unfair to single out Facebook and online social networking in particular since it’s not entirely clear that, if Facebook did not exist, a person wouldn’t instead spend their time socializing elsewhere instead of doing their homework. That said, anything that we do more frequently on the internet than look at porn requires us to admit that it’s probably having some sort of effect.
So with all those caveats out of the way, an early study of Facebook’s effect on teenagers has found that it turns them into narcissistic, impatient, entitled little cretins. While this kind of sounds like the critique every old man or woman has had about the younger generation since the beginning of time, in this case it kind of makes sense. Imagine a world where heaping praise on your friends was free, cheap, and a hell of a lot easier than physically tracking them down and saying awkward compliments to their face. Ten years ago if a kid went through the halls of his or her middle school telling everyone what they had for breakfast, they’d receive a heap of much-deserved indifference and scorn. On Facebook, they’ll probably get a small number of “likes” and perhaps even “I luv capn crunch omg so random!!!” simply because it’s so easy and there are no consequences.
Now imagine starting every day thinking that people actually care about what you ate that morning, and tell me that doesn’t sound exactly like the entitled self-centeredness that crafts many a classy, celebrity.
There’s a small amount of emerging evidence that high users of Facebook score lower than their non-Facebook-using counterparts. As mentioned earlier, there’s a definite chicken-and-the-egg problem to drawing too much from these studies. Most importantly, it’s difficult to tell if the people using Facebook heavily wouldn’t just waste their time getting high and awkwardly hitting on Freshmen if Facebook didn’t exist.
But in an environment where educators are already desperately trying to shut out social pressures to get the little terrors to focus on a few equations for just a few precious seconds, a world where their minds are constantly a buzz with the latest gossip delivered instantly to their smartphone can’t possibly be helping. Sure there is some evidence that the drop in grades is not really attributable to Facebook and it might actually increase social acuity, in a world where America greatly in the hard sciences a few more engineers over therapists might be helpful.
Probably the most publicized instance of Facebook being evil is their numerous, numerous scandals involving user privacy. As end-users, we trust Facebook with a lot of personal information, and to a certain extent the age-old maxim of “don’t put anything on the Internet you wouldn’t want the world to see (because they will)” holds true. That said, Facebook has repeatedly violated agreements with users, changed agreements without warning, and hidden privacy controls deep within the annals of a user’s profile. They have a very strong incentive to get as much of your personal information on the site as possible because, despite their insistence to the contrary, they sell it to third parties.
This all wouldn’t be so bad if Facebook was the least bit up front about how much information was actually private. Or if they kept promises to users to do a better job of protecting personal information. Or if privacy breaches didn’t continue to happen, one after the other, again and again. It’s no wonder that Facebook is one of the most reviled interfaces on the web, ranking below even the IRS.
Envy and Stress
You know how everyone has one of those friends that are so full of shit, but you wouldn’t know it unless you spent a little bit of time with them? These people end up utterly impressing anyone they meet for under a few hours, and completely alienating almost anyone else. Now imagine these people were able to carefully tailor their image, controlling not only what people said about them, but—through the selection of photographs—how they actually looked. And imagine that the image that everyone tries to portray to the world was just a little bit more easy to get away with, and you have one of the most insidiously evil things about Facebook. Since no one is going to post pictures of them vomiting and crying in the bathroom about how no one will ever love them and they’re still in love with their ex, everyone seems much more happy, actualized and lotsa-sex-having than you.
In a word, Facebook breeds envy untempered by all those times we caught our friends writing whiny poetry and masturbating to unspeakable things. The worst part is it feeds off itself in a Pleasantville-esque manner that seems a little out of place in the second decade of the 21st century. Everyone thinks everyone else is perfect, and is therefore less willing to admit their faults, etc… etc…
But just when you thought the mental trauma a calmly blue-tinged website would inflict was over, there’s also the fact that it’s been shown to increase stress in users. How this works is a little silly, but intuitive. Essentially think of all your social obligations before Facebook, and how much trouble you had remembering everyone’s birthday, anniversary, party, relationship status etc… It seems like Facebook would make managing these things easier, and perhaps that’s true for Luddites with a few dozen friends. For the rest of us, ante-Facebook we had maybe a dozen close friends and acquaintances to think about. Now we have 500. And we’re expected to remember everything because, hell, who’s too lazy to post on someone’s wall on their birthday. It’s both the scale and the perceived ease of performing these actions that stresses users out.
There’s also the common “Oh Shit My Mom’s On Here” reaction that has lead to more deleted comments than auto-corrects of the word “cope”. You’re not just managing 500 friendships and relationships, you’re managing 500 relationships and friendships as they relate to one another. Every comment to a friend requires forethought of how 500 other people will respond and view you. You may never be forced into an awkward in-person conversation on Facebook where you have to think of responses on the spot, but your social network just exploded by several orders of magnitude, try not to let it stress you out.
Impossible to Escape
In the ultimate twist to this horror story that has dominated our social lives for the past 4 years, we, the plucky heroes, go to exit the haunted house only to find it is locked from the outside. Like some sort of internet Hotel California, it takes less than 15 minutes to check into Facebook, but you can never leave. The herpes of the Internet, Facebook even tracks users activity after they’ve logged out of Facebook and closed the window. That’s admittedly more like the evil computer coming back online after being unplugged, but the point is Facebook doesn’t just violate your privacy and turn you into a narcissist, it does so apparently by watching Frankenstein, The Shining and The Ring and thinking “You know what, this would be a great way to treat our users.”