The great unifier (or divider): Facebook in 2017

Monday, October 23, 2017 - 10:37am

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I was 13 when I first made my Facebook account. I was so young I had to say that I was 19 just so I could make an account. But my little white lie quickly paid off. Scrolling through my sister’s and brother’s Facebooks, I was mesmerized by the social network’s vivid, true-blue aesthetic and the concept of a “wall” for my friends to use. I felt like I’d just discovered fire.

At the time, Facebook was largely reserved for high-schoolers and college students, so you can understand my excitement in joining this exclusive club. Simply having a Facebook made me believe I was ten times cooler than I’d ever been. I immediately devoted the rest of that cloudless August afternoon to designing my profile. Surely, I thought, everyone would want to know about my love of the Boston Red Sox, or how skilled of a Halo 3 player I was. After all, wasn’t that what Facebook was for — to share your personal life online?

While Facebook continues to satisfy this overarching goal today, the social network has shifted its focus to become much more than a platform to present oneself. Facebook has become a marketplace. Facebook has become a rolodex. Facebook has become a news source. And it’s done it all right before our eyes.

One of Facebook’s latest and most interesting features is its marketplace. Introduced in October of 2016, the Facebook Marketplace allows the social network’s users to buy and sell items with other users in their immediate area, similar to popular apps like OfferUp and letgo. The introduction of this secondary market provides an outlet for users to sell or acquire items for which they otherwise wouldn’t receive any sort of compensation, and it's one of the social network’s strongest new additions.

Beyond its official marketplace, Facebook has a number of unofficial marketplaces among its user groups. Every week, my Facebook feed is flooded with friends, or friends of friends, posting in the “University of Michigan Class of 2019” Facebook group to sell anything from concert tickets to coffee tables. At least among my friends, this is where the real business of buying and selling is done, since users on these informal marketplaces often have mutual friends with other members of the group. Not only does this make buying and selling safer, but it also makes it more personal because both users understand that they’re transacting with a real person that their friends likely know.

Personally, I’ve found these unofficial marketplaces to be excellent — only last week I sold one of my football tickets to a friend’s sorority sister in just a few hours and our conversation ended up as a debate over how much we liked the Yeezy clothing line. However, it’s also important to recognize that Facebook isn’t the most ideal site for users (see: 2016 presidential election), so the social network may ultimately have to modify its market features to avoid the fate of Craigslist, which has developed a seedy reputation due to “Craigslist Killer” Philip Markoff.

Along with assuming the role of a local market, Facebook has become an online rolodex. With more than 2 billion active users each month, it seems like everyone has a Facebook account. It’s rare today to search a person’s name on Facebook and come up empty — from children to great grandparents, every demographic is using Facebook. While other social networking sites like Twitter and Instagram boast similarly massive user bases, they don’t come close to matching the ubiquity of Facebook accounts.

To me, the fact that I can find nearly everyone I know on Facebook is incredible. It means that I can meet a person and immediately connect with them on the social network. I can even message them, or anyone for that matter — a feature which, critically, Twitter and Instagram lack — on these sites only already-connected users can directly communicate with each other. This is one of the least-discussed, yet most beneficial, aspects of Facebook. When my friend’s phone died and we became separated at a concert this past month, I relied on Facebook to message my friend’s friend to find them. Without Facebook, I would have had no means of communicating with either of them.

The other piece of Facebook’s rolodex involves all of the pictures, ideas and personal information it maintains for each user. While users may post some of their pictures, for example, on Instagram, they typically post all of them on Facebook, which has made the site into a repository for personal data. Although having to go to just one site to find all of a person’s digital life is convenient, I have serious misgivings about the misuse of this personal information. As we saw during the now-infamous 2016 presidential election, Facebook’s troves of data can be exploited by shady entities to further their nefarious goals. Using Facebook’s data, these firms develop marketing strategies that play up to users’ fears or desires and manipulate those sentiments.

Along with transforming into a digital rolodex, Facebook has become a news source for its users. Through its “Trending” section on each user’s news feed, Facebook presents relevant news headlines, complete with links to full stories on news platforms. Due to its prominent placement at the top right of each user’s news feed, it’s difficult for users to avoid reading Facebook-generated taglines for news stories. This location is a clear attempt by Facebook to promote its brand of news among its users and convince them to drop more traditional news sites in favor of Facebook’s aggregated stories.

Frankly, this section of the social network is highly concerning to me. Having such a mysterious and omnipotent corporation such as Facebook controlling news headlines that are seen by billions of users is downright terrifying to me. I hate returning to the same example, but, as we saw during the 2016 presidential election, the language and placement of news headlines can have a substantial impact on users’ interpretation of the news and their level of trust of the media. Considering Facebook has such low barriers to entry for its advertisers, who’s to say that that lack of a strong verification process doesn’t carry over to its news sources? My fears appear especially apt given that Facebook has been “slow to cooperate” with ongoing Congressional investigations into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.

Similar to its marketplace, Facebook has a more unofficial version of its news section, which comes in the form of users’ news stories and articles. Using a “share” tool, users can post news stories to each of their friends’ individual news feeds. While the intent of this feature is obvious — to promote users’ stories to their friends — it is seldom used purely for this purpose. Rather than simply inform, these “shared” stories, in my experience, usually create heated debates among users. As I’ve observed, users, especially recently, often promote biased or partisan news sources with headlines corresponding to their ideology. The result is news feeds clogged with controversial (even fake) news stories containing tense comment sections that can quickly become incredibly aggressive.

While not as troubling as Facebook’s aggregated news, these “shared” news stories remain somewhat distressing. Users only “share” the stories that truly resonate with them, and this endorsement frequently divides users on critical issues. Personally, my news feed is often inundated with news stories “shared” by my friends about President Trump, which regularly leads to aggressive debates and, sometimes, even derogatory comments and hateful allegations. While this is partially a result of the hyperpolarized political climate prevailing lately, Facebook is enabling many of these tense arguments by allowing users to parade the news stories they support on other users’ digital spaces.

As concerning as Facebook’s news platform is, I don’t see the $500 billion corporation scaling back any of these new features anytime soon. That’s why it’s on us, now, to overcome these challenges, to preach civility over conflict and to not allow a social network to divide us as a nation, and as humans.