Earlier in the year, Facebook announced a series called Hard Questions. The goal of the series was to enable the company to talk more openly about difficult issues of personal privacy in the online sphere. They were also doing this to try to be more transparent about the difficult questions it faces. Unfortunately, there aren’t always easy or even right answers for this. The most recent question they are tackling is whether social media is good or bad for us. Depending who you ask, or what research you look at, you’re going to get a different answer. I am personally on the fence about this as well. On one hand, I can see the benefits of that social connectedness. But on the other hand, the internet can be an extremely cruel place, so maybe it’s not?
What does the research show? If you’re using Facebook for its intended use, then there are likely benefits. What is its intended use? To connect with others. But if you’re using it in a more passive way, and mostly just reading content – then you might run into some negative effects. In one study, researchers showed that students who read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood by the end of the day than students who posted or talked to friends on Facebook. In another, people who sent or received more messages, comments and Timeline posts said they experienced improvements in social support and fewer feelings of depression and loneliness. I was a “passive” Facebook user, and ended up deleting my account. So maybe it was passively making me unhappy and depressed?
I’m not sure that I buy that argument, though. So if you post a photo and someone likes it, is that social engagement? Could you then make this same argument about Instagram? To dig a bit further, the research indicates that this social engagement is linked to envy and self-affirmation. If you look at someone else’s photo, and you’re envious, you’re likely to be unhappy. I can understand that. But if you look at your own profile, apparently that means you are going to experience greater self-affirmation. Which I don’t buy. Doesn’t being envious suggest that you’re unhappy with yourself? Which makes me wonder why looking at your own profile would help you feel better about yourself?
Why does this matter? Facebook is taking this research and attempting to implement its findings in order to create a better experience for its users. Facebook states:
“We employ social psychologists, social scientists and sociologists, and we collaborate with top scholars to better understand well-being and work to make Facebook a place that contributes in a positive way.”
They point to features like a better News Feed, the Snooze option, their suicide prevention tools and their “Take a Break” feature. But will this help? I am normally pretty hard on Facebook, but this research might actually help them to build a better platform. Which is definitely something I can get behind. Not to mention, this is a different approach than what former Facebook President Sean Parker described. He suggested that likes and comments were how Facebook drew in more users. The whole idea, according to Parker, is to play on people’s vulnerabilities. He also stated that both he and Zuckerberg knew about this – and did it anyway.
I certainly think that this is something that will help Facebook. Maybe not specifically answering this question, but actually doing the research. There are so many questions that Facebook needs to think about and even ask. I’m really happy to see that they’re doing it. It would seem that Facebook is taking some social issues seriously. Especially when Facebook might be to blame for these issues. I don’t mean it in a point fingers kind of way. But they need to be cognizant of what their platform might be doing, and then use that to prevent it from happening. Keep up the good work, Facebook.