The feeling has come slowly, I’m sorry to say—I wish I’d been quicker on the uptake—but now it’s here and it’s overwhelming: I am depressed about Facebook. Not the idiotic rebrand (as blatant an effort to interrupt bad publicity as I’ve had the pleasure of observing) and not the site itself, which I don’t use anymore (Twitter does a good enough job making me unhappy). It’s not even the barrage of recent revelations about exactly how much Facebook itself knew about its destructive effects, or how determinedly it incentivized divisive content anyway. That’s all bad, and the geopolitical implications of a corporation that started off ranking girls’ hotness and is now capable of swaying elections in multiple countries are dire. But they’re not even what I mean.
What’s hitting me just now is the grim story all this tells about the “human spirit” or whatever. How flattening, how insulting to whatever we humans hubristically imagine ourselves to be, that we’re all so obviously vulnerable to these algorithms. That our feelings and convictions are this easy to manipulate, that the shape of our day can be affected by a choice as vapid as someone deciding to weight the “angry” emoji five times more than the others because it maximizes engagement. This last is so monstrously stupid as a damning revelation that I almost can’t bear it: What forces brought us to a place where this counts as major news and must, because the effects of the angry emoji are humiliatingly undeniable? A few weeks ago, I spent some time looking at the Herman Cain Awards—a subreddit dedicated to documenting anti-vaxxers’ COVID cases as told through their Facebook posts. One of the many things it proves is the extent to which Facebook shapes not just lives but deaths.
The revelations in the Facebook Papers are insulting even to our divisions, which I have formerly preferred to think of as principled—or philosophical, or at least rooted in something other than dopamine hits from “shares” and “likes.” But reporting on Facebook confirms the extent to which Facebook doesn’t just reflect our polarization—it drives it. I’ve read all this before, of course, but I’ve found it hard to really take the measure of it without succumbing to its absurdity. “Facebook? Which Sex and the City character are you Facebook? Repository of vacation photos Facebook? The place that made “poking” your friend an option and “It’s Complicated” a relationship status? This is what’s radicalizing the world?” Desperate to reassure myself that ours is not the only stupid time in history, I’ve been revisiting the history of the Church of England. It seemed like a promising source of comparable inanity: King Henry VIII’s crush on Anne Boleyn veiled in the imperative to produce a male heir was an appalling rationale for an entire church’s founding, after all. A lot of people died over whether Henry ought to get to be the head of his own church so he could do what he wanted! But even those deaths don’t feel meaningless in quite the way these Facebook deaths do; those disagreements intersected with God and the Reformation and literacy at least.
What I mourn about whatever Facebook has done is that these conflicts are not interesting. They circulate through emoji and shares, the kindergarten symbology of five drawings of a face. Facebook and its ilk have reduced us, maybe irretrievably, or exposed us for what we always were. The erosion to our sense of ourselves as a species with higher aims has been slow. But speaking only for myself—and perhaps I’m alone, but I doubt it—what the algorithms have achieved above all is this: They have made me less interested in people, myself very much included. My opinion of us as worthy objects of interest has plummeted. This is new for me: I’ve always been the kind of schmuck who found our species pretty fascinating. I love talking to people and hearing what they think and (frankly) eavesdropping on them. I like hearing how they reason. I like how their personal histories inform their approach to a problem or a social issue. Before, I had this idea—and maybe it’s naïve—that if I talked to someone for long enough I could figure out where they were coming from, what shaped them, and why their life has led them to wherever they are. And that the effort was worth it.
These days, it feels like I could talk to someone for 20 minutes or even 10 and know what they watch and what kinds of social media they consume and make a fairly decent guess at what other things they likely believe. The human problem is solved, and it has much less to do with history or the pleasurable variety among individuals than anyone suspected.
This is an exaggeration, I acknowledge, but the success Facebook has had demonstrates that it isn’t that much of a stretch. Figuring people out is basically what algorithms like that do. They have proved it’s possible. Their aptitude for it has forced me to realize that the only thing that sets me apart is that, as a mere human, I’m not as good at it. Nor do Facebook and YouTube stop there; they expertly funnel people into profiles and patterns and groups. The end result isn’t as simple or as innocent as classification; it seems safe to say now that the groupings themselves build their own momentum and make us flatter and duller and angrier. “Echo chamber” doesn’t begin to describe the impoverishment of this.
Even as recently as a couple of years ago, I think there was some room for resisting this horrifying account of human malleability. The Stanford prison experiments had been debunked, and it seemed like our worst ideas about humanity had been off. “Everyone’s an asshole online, but people aren’t their digital performances,” one could say. Or people are more complicated than that. And sure, in certain ways they are. But there’s no denying that these online performances have had nontrivial and undeniable real-world effects: COVID proved that people will literally die of a horrible disease when good options are available because of the work these algorithms do. That’s how susceptible we are and how committed we can be to a meme enough of us “liked” with the angry face. I can’t get over it.
I’ll hedge here and say, sure, it isn’t just Facebook. But because I am merely human, and because that feels like a demotion just at present, I’ll resort to my own (basely unalgorithmic) subjectivity: It feels like the worst offender—at least when it comes to the sorry programmability of our puny human affect. I hope I’ll be able to take in the concrete and damaging effects Facebook has had on everything from politics to democracy to public health in the coming days and weeks, as more great reporting comes out on what the Facebook Papers actually contain. But I’m not sure I will or can; we human beings don’t seem equipped to respond to all this. For now, fueled by the shattering of whatever species-specific narcissism I once confused with faith in humanity, I’m mourning what it’s shown about us.
I’d love to prognosticate that the rebrand will be a failure and that humans will see though this massive public relations pivot. It is horrifying that a corporation that has been proved to inflict so much damage has decided to fix nothing and to in fact expand its operations to usurp people’s lives even more. I’d like to believe it won’t work, that Mark Zuckerberg’s cringey invitation to “connect” in virtual reality spaces where fish swim in the trees will appeal to no one. But let’s face it: Before we all started using them, I thought the emoji faces were lame too.