I’d been talking to my dad about the Cambridge Analytica story. Dad, a proud social media dodger; Dad, who fixedly nurses an image of Facebook centered exclusively on people posting photos of sushi. His position is part caveat emptor and part—perhaps harshly—’if you lay down with dogs’.
It’s not that I completely disagree with him—I recently wrote that Facebook’s true (and eerie) success lies in cajoling us to part, happily, with the kind of data we’d fight tooth and nail to keep from the government.
More interesting than just a scandal involving a company more concerned with their bottom-line than protecting users from themselves though, is the insight provided into our fraught and fascinating relationship with Facebook in 2018.
Nobody wants to be thought of as a cultural dupe. We want to look like—hell, we want to feel like—we have agency, autonomy, that just because everyone else is jumping off the cliff doesn’t mean we have to. And our resistance manifests in a range of ways. For me, my revolt against cultural hegemony centres on not watching reality TV. Dad’s, seemingly, is not sharing photos of his hot cross buns on Facebook.
And just as we’ve all encountered someone who flaunts disproportionate pride at never having owned a TV—whose identity is defined by all the years they’ve spent skirting the small screen and inoculating themselves from idiot box brain rot—similar attitudes are vocalised about social media. People proud to claim that they see through it, see it for all its fakeness, FOMO, folly. And the Cambridge Analytica tale only bolsters such righteousness; validates that resisting the pressure to like, to share, to join was somehow so supremely savvy.
I’ve also been talking about Facebook to people who aren’t my dad. In the last week, I’ve had conversations with academic colleagues, broadcaster colleagues, journalists. A theme in each chat was the other person being both highly critical of the platform but wholeheartedly believing that they can’t just walk away, much as they’d like to. For work reasons. Because there’s a career penalty to be paid for a tinier electronic footprint.
Feeling a need to justify our internet usage only make sense in a world where admitting to liking Facebook is now considered naff. If we fancy ourselves as shrewd critical thinkers, confessing to enjoying the site paints us as variously living in the past/being brainwashed/being without a rich and full off-screen life. So instead, we claim to be staying only because our jobs demand it.
I’ve left stores in a huff when there’s nary a cashier in sight. I’ve left restaurants when a menu hasn’t turned up in the first quarter hour. Leaving Facebook in a huff over their use of my data however, isn’t something I’ve considered.
Back in 2013 I watched the excellent documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply. Had I not previously understood the risks of using Facebook, Google and iTunes, the doco laid it all out. Terrifyingly so. That, combined with my TMI, highly-confessional writing style and my default of never posting anything that I wouldn’t publish under a by-line, I’ve long assumed the worst and just left it at that. I do use it for work. But I suspect I’d use it regardless.
Facebook discussions with non-academics and non-media folks unearth a range of other justifications for perseverance. Instead of just professional networking, people have divulged that they appreciate the one-stop shop offered; that they like the way Facebook offers them news, invitations and connectivity; that they’d lose contacts, however tenuous if they left; that they don’t know what they’d replace it with.
Research on social media often mentions ‘weak ties’: that the 12,431 or 979 ‘friends’ we have on Facebook aren’t the kind that will bring you chicken soup when you’re ill; that they aren’t real relationships.
I’m distinctly antsy when anybody positions themselves as the arbiter of ‘real’.
Telling an introvert, telling someone isolated that the connections they have with people online aren’t real or that someone’s long-distance love affair isn’t real is not only a kind of gas-lighting, but overlooks that ‘real’ is completely subjective. It also eviscerates the value that people find in the gamut of human connections, not just the ones where you’re looking into a person’s eyes over a shared plate of nachos.
Sure, I’m on Facebook for work. I’m also there because I’ve curated quite the excellent balance of puppies, pandas and politics. I’m there because it keeps me in touch with people I don’t live near, people I don’t see regularly and people who I’m happy to have in my life in a very moderated capacity. None of that is meaningless. It comes at a cost, sure. Because convenience always does.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of nine books and is a co-host of ‘Stop Everything!’ on Radio National.