How Facebook Is Like The Mirror Of Erised

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My sister-in-law Susan said this on Facebook:
“So you know that delicious-looking recipe all over FB with the crescent rolls and chocolate chips?”
No.
No, I didn’t.
I have never seen a recipe on Facebook in my life.
I’ve seen penis cakes, and turduckopiggens, and elaborate food-sculptures weaved of cooked bacon, but I cannot recall seeing an actual recipe on Facebook ever.  Let alone this universal crescent roll with chocolate chips that seems delicious, but according to Sue even the dog wouldn’t eat it.
Yet that’s Sue’s experience: recipes.  She doesn’t even bat an eye at indicating that a recipe is all over Facebook, which if I noted it, I’d say, “Odd that I’m getting recipes in Facebook now.”  Which indicates that to Sue, recipes are all over her Facebook – maybe not as common as selfies, but a thing that crops up regularly.
Which is the terrifying thing about social media, really.  In the distant past, we had a handful of newspapers and three channels to watch the news on.  And the news was narrow, so narrow that whatever stories didn’t make it into those informational gateways might as well not have existed, but you knew what when you watched CBS, you were seeing the same Walter Cronkite story that the rest of America was watching.
Now, in social media – most prevalent on Facebook, with its algorithms that choose what’s of interest for you, but you can self-select to your liking on Twitter and Tumblr and Google+ – you can see an entirely different world, and never notice it.
To someone, Facebook is a place filled with recipes and cleaning tips and advice columns.  To someone else, Facebook is a welter of lamentations that their sportsball team lost, car photos, bawdy jokes and pin-up girls.  And to me, Facebook is a place of XKCD cartoons and cat macros and scientific breakthroughs.
And they’re all the same site.
I don’t know how many people realize that Facebook is such a customizable experience that each person sees a radically different thing.  I know a lot of people are confused when they posted something vitally important on Facebook – a death in the family, a graduation, a book sale – and I didn’t see it.  They’d assumed that if we were friends, and they posted something, I saw it.  So if my technologically-adept friends often don’t understand that Facebook doesn’t show their posts to everyone, how many of the general population understands?
And I think this effect is weirdly insidious.  It’s been shaping politics for years, an echo chamber kicked off by Fox News, and slowly everyone is being fitted for their customized bubble.  Everyone I know has heard of this latest sexist outrage in science-fiction… but quite literally, I may be in touch with all the people who know and care about it.  Yet to me, it seems huge, and there’s no easy way of objectively correlating it.  I don’t have easy access to web traffic (“This blog post you see as universally-seen has received 3,000 hits”), or statistics showing me how much of an outlier I am, or any of that.
Yet every morning, logging into the Internet, I am presented with a world.  A world that is, and continues to be, radically different from other people’s experience.  And that world shapes my reactions in ugly ways.  If everyone I know and see is calmly discussing Obamacare as though it’s a universal good, then I begin to think “Well, everyone believes this,” and a) my urgency in fighting for these causes lessens because I think it’s handled, and b) I get outraged and threatened more when I see someone attacking Obamacare (“Why is this person so unreasonable when everyone else understands its goodness?”), and c) my facts are skewed.  I am acting according to a customized illusion of the world presented to me not as the world exists, but according to what algorithms inside some server think would comfort and entertain me.
That’s a terrifying thought.  And yes, you can fight that bubble fairly easily, by broadening your news sources or having some friends in the opposition or just doing more Google searches.  Yet my point is that the bubble is enclosed around you transparently, without any warning of “DANGER: Opinions in this zone have been tailored to reflect your biases,” and if you’re not observant then you can wind up looking into a hall of mirrors.
Somewhere, there’s a person for whom Facebook has no politics; it is just recipes and kid pictures, a serene place because its owner wants nothing to do with conflict or debate.  In that same web page, there’s a person for whom Facebook is a continual stream of conservative cheerleading, a steady stream of triumphs of individual gumption.  In that same web page, there’s a person for whom the Trayvon Martin case was such a slam-dunk that it was clear to her that Zimmerman would be prosecuted, because she’d read fifty articles showing exactly how clear-cut this case was.  And to that person, Trayvon Martin’s case had to be the result of jury tampering or corruption.
None of them know they’re seeing different worlds.  All of them may be acting as though this was a universal world.  To them, Facebook is Walter Cronkite the news announcer, bringing them the day’s events, but Walter is whispering a different thing to each of you.
And slowly, surely, we all begin to drift out of touch.

3 Comments

  1. Carmel J.
    Nov 25, 2013

    Yes, this. FB is not a news site, it is a *social* site. I use FB to socialize. Period. Though I did learn a new way to tie a scarf and I have seen recipes, for me it’s mostly seeing what my relatives are doing, pictures of my New Baby Niece, and keeping up with old friends in other states. Cindy is doing more with theatre, Kevin’s on a business trip, Marcus makes horror movies, Shannon is raising her son, Joy and Teresa understand how I feel about my time as “exclusively Mom” looking like a waste to the rest of the world, and Keith passed away this week- whereupon I learned that Mary knew him too and I never knew. That’s what I’m on FB for, never mind what all those people believe- there would be riots if they all met because I’m pretty much what they all have in common.

  2. Carmel J.
    Nov 25, 2013

    Another example: Disney has a movie coming out this weekend featuring not one, but TWO princesses. I was only barely aware of the movie and not aware of any controversy at all until GeekMom posted an article defending the movie… on FB. This article is talking about a big controversy that I had no idea existed. Different worlds, indeed. 🙁
    (Liking the idea of the movie better now, too.)

  3. Sandra Tayler
    Nov 26, 2013

    This is not actually new. We have always lived in invisible bubbles of opinion. It just used to be dictated by region or neighborhood. I’m currently enjoying the snarky tweets of a friend who has traveled from a mostly liberal location to an extremely conservative and prejudiced one. I noticed the bubbles of assumption back in the 80’s when I was a kid from California and visited my cousins in Utah.
    But, even if the effect is not new, yes we should all be aware that it is happening. Just not terrified that it is ruining society.
    http://xkcd.com/1289/

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