The Facebook Eye, Twitter, and Social Media Addiction: Thoughts on Jacob Silverman's Terms of Service

Jacob Silverman's book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection made me radically rethink my participation with Blogger and Twitter. I've despised Facebook for years, perhaps in direct proportion to how much my wife, Dr. B loves it. In comparison to the relatively instructive world of film blogging, Facebook kept reminding me of a party that I didn't want to join (even as I might be real-life friends with some of the "friends" otherwise), full of distasteful agendas and opinions, family pictures I didn't want to see, and alarming efforts at self-promotion. Worst of all was being privy to the sad developments in old acquaintances who keep posting cheesy homilies that betrayed all kinds of despair. Facebook comes across as a semiotic wasteland for people seeking importance in increasingly hopeless and disturbing ways.

Still, in the same dubious vein, I have a weakness for writing blog posts and composing link lists. I value writing, and it's a way to get a small readership for something like the kind of newspaper work that I used to do (which paid me a little). As an instructor, I'm often busy during the regular semester, but the summer hiatus gives me much time to brood on precisely who am I stupidly writing for and why. Silverman's book clearly lays out how social media platforms exploit our desire to interact on them, our "informational appetite," and our desire for attention. Silverman explores the drawbacks of getting psychologically caught up in the Pavlovian mini-rewards (all of those likes, retweets, favorites, etc. that we seek) as we try to rise in the media hierarchy of whatever platform we happen to indulge in.

Speaking as a tweeter who has over 3000 followers at the moment, I am not proud of the amount of time I have spent on Twitter for the past 6 years, posting over 17,000 tweets, many of which do link to the worthy work of writers and filmmakers. After reading Terms of Service, I'm seriously considering deactivating my account, especially given the condescending way Twitter now forces me to see a "promoted" ad tweet for every 10 regular tweets on my feed. Silverman gets one to consider why one might spend so much time on a social network, what kind of ant heap one finds oneself trying to climb on top of, and how the entire system is rigged. As he phrases it in his introduction, "Mostly, we're only surrendering ourselves, in the form of data and personal autonomy, to oligarchic platform owners, who sell us to advertisers, data brokers, and intelligence agencies" (x).

Some of Silverman's key points:

a) When we feel like we are playing around on a network, we are actually working, providing content for others to capitalize on.

b) Soon enough, our machines will know us well enough to suggest what we want to purchase next. Thus, what was once a tool will become increasingly and subtly prescriptive.

c) People seek to make a viral video, and thereby become famous (of a sort), but usually these videos end up leaving its participants subject to mass mockery and trolling. The trade off in media attention is not worth it.

d) Social media keeps trying to redefine privacy so that people willingly share most details of their private lives so that the platform owners can profit. You develop the "Facebook eye," where the recording of the life event is more important to you than the event itself. You learn to experience the world in order to publicize aspects of it. Your appreciation of a given moment becomes corrupted to provide content to enhance your ever-slipping identity on the social network. Social media keeps redefining your relationship to your experience (and other people) in all kinds of insidious ways.

e) The desire for attention changes journalism and other forms of media so that clickbait becomes an near-universal condition of postmodern life. I wonder how much people shape their identities to become a human form of clickbait. One also wonders how much attention people sacrifice for their phones (and by extension social media) at the expense of more human interactions. Noah Baumbach's excellent While We're Young betrays the distinct sense that the director was concerned with having his movie keep the attention of an increasingly distracted audience. For instance, in one scene, Ben Stiller's character unsuccessfully makes a pitch for a movie to an executive who can't stop himself from glancing at and then plunging back into interacting with his smartphone.

f) Likes, favorites, hearts and such guide the digital serfs to live in a world of pseudo-positive marketing for others. Disliking is divisive and does not suit the social media agenda. Social media encourages us to live in a consumerist paradise, always quick to point out to advertisers behind the scenes what kind of products we might want to buy in the future.

Meanwhile, Dr. B and I argued about all this (politely enough) over lunch just now. She says that she likes Facebook (with her 800 plus friends) because she enjoys keeping up with old friends and acquaintances. She gets much of her news from the service. In comparison to some, she does not post all that often, but when she does, she gets many likes and comments. And she doesn't mind liking other people's posts. When she pointed out that she was going back to Facebook after lunch before returning to a book on the iPad, I said "Aha! You must admit that that's addictive behavior, and you easily spend more than an hour a day, sometimes several hours a day on the network." To that, she replied, "You are always getting caught up in somebody's theories in some book. Have an original thought."  Then, she returned to her Facebook feed.


Anonymous said…
I agree with your wife, I find being on Facebook mostly rewarding. Or rather, through Fb I regularly come across all kinds of interesting info and ideas interesting debates so I'd say that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

One of the problems with Fb is that most folks don't bother to learn how to use it. They'll post pictures of their small kids to all and sundry instead of defining a target group for this stuff (their immediate family and close friends). And they'll post pictures of their grandchildren, nieces, nephews. They'll post pictures of their pregnant bellies. BBQs with friends, anniversary party pictures. Series of pictures from their hiking tour in Tunisa, or whatever. Daily updates from their wholly uninteresting holidays in some foreign land. Deadly boring stuff.

Some friends and acquaintances of mine have read somewhere that Facebook can be a powerful marketing tool. Not being habitual Fb users they'll only duck up when they've got something to plug, their new book, some event or another. And they'll link to reviews and whatever. Attempt to be their own amateur publicists. Which is basically an affront to their friends who are on Fb to stay in touch (in some meaningful way) and who are mindful of the fact that they've got to have something real and substantial to offer in order to be interesting to others.

And then there are the cheesy homilies that some people are so intent on sharing.

I've got something like 500 Fb friends and they're practically all real friends or acquaintances, newish or from way back. Or they're family. Or old half-forgotten schoolmates. Or people I'm somewhat acquainted with. Or friends of friends. Or people I've brushed shoulders with at some point in life (and don't quite know if I know them or not). Or people who are sort of operating in the same circles as I am (professionally speaking) and I've been operating in a lot of circles; I don't really know them but I know who they are and they know who I am. I'm not inclined to accept friend requests from people I don't know and have never met and can't place.

One thing I find interesting about Facebook is the psychological aspect. Because often there is a certain disjoint. You meet a person in real life and get a certain impression. You encounter the person on Fb and you get a different impression. Often more revealing, I'd say.

I think it's necessary, if you're on Facebook, to construct a persona. Savvy Fb-users do. Your constructed persona should be basically true to your real self, but more interesting, hightened, controversial. Less given to dwell on the day-to-day boring aspects of life and minor inconveniences.

Facebook is a "community" and posting on Fb amounts to publishing. So what I'm saying is that Fb-users need to decide how to present themselves to the world.

And thanks for your great blog! And your interesting links. I always look forward to your links.

Thanks, Anon, for your comments.

Silverman goes after Facebook the most. Zuckerberg and co. do more than any else to deliberately wear down any vestigial notions of privacy, and I dislike the feeling that one's pleasure in Facebook is in part the result of carefully calculated algorithms designed to hold your attention, those dark arts of subtle manipulations that feed off of the social instinct. I especially dislike it when the social media platform gradually includes more and more ads. I used to like Twitter for some of the reasons you mentioned above (especially the professional ones), but then Twitter's increasing usage of ads became a matter of not looking at what's in front of you. If it becomes so much of a struggle to get to the good stuff, why bother? Of course, Blogger provides another social media way to profit off of my work, but it also encourages writing. Old bad habits die hard.

I deactivated my Twitter account, and it feels like I just freed up an hour per day. My favorite social media as of late has been a Moleskine notebook, lots of books, and the twitter of actual birds just before dawn.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for responding to my post!

I haven't read the book. And I know I won't, I'm not interested enough. I think that Facebook isn't going last for much longer. At some point in the near future people are going to leave Facebook in droves for something else, the only question is: where are they going to congregate? What's going to be on offer in terms of social media? The internet is practically brand new, how things will evolve is a total mystery.

I'd say that Facebook is pretty crude.

Facebook has been useful to me in a limited way. But I'm very much aware of the fact that I'm endlessly being manipulated. I'm prey to algorithms I can't even begin to understand. I don't understand the rules that govern my newsfeed, the whole thing boggles me. I'm aware of the fact that Facebook is getting ever more invasive and dictatorial. The whole venture is predatory in nature, that much is perfectly clear. One day I'm going to snap and everyone else is going to snap too.

The real question is: what's going to come after Facebook?
Snapchat? I was just reading in the new Vogue that Jason Segel (after terrorizing the world with his version of David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour) has "cut way back on social media." Perhaps reducing one's social media participation will become the next dieting craze. In the attention economy, what one pays attention to and for how long will become as carefully calibrated as the nutritional info on a box of Special K.
Ochoa said…
Hi FilmDr,

I totally agree with your post. I hate facebook but I spend hours in it. I hate the marketing approach behind it and the blindness of the masses. I don't consider myself addicted to it because whenever I have free time, I don't use; but I do depend on it. My work depends entirely on social media. So in a way it has freed me from a corporation through another wicked corporation. I still remember the times when people wondered how was facebook earning money. How naive we were... But I don't believe they'll be able to anticipate our desires, I don't believe they'll be able to kill our souls entire, but maybe I'm just being naive, again.

My way to respond to all this digital absorption (since for the moment I can't get out of it) has been learning more about it. I started to learn how to code and I've been trying to understand coders, how they think, what they desire, since they are shaping some of our thoughts. And I'm amazed of the self confidence they have, the blind optimism that guides them. I'm amazed of how younger generations grow so accostumed to it. How they develop a very different idea of intimacy. So, while I'm in it, I'm trying to enjoy the ride knowing more about it, without ignoring the reality of the business.

But what I really wanted to say is that I miss your twitter account. I hope this decision is making a good difference in your live.

Thanks, S. Whereas one's Facebook account seems to continue forever even if you have deactivated it, Twitter gives you a month before to consider before deleting all of your tweets. Tumblr just zaps everything at the outset. I like it when the social media platform asks "Are you SURE you want to get off?"

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