How Facebook can turn you into mindless drones?

I had a chat with a friend of mine the other day. He seemed down so I asked him if everything was OK, to which he replied that his week had gotten off to a bad start and it was making him depressed. Treading carefully, I asked if he would like to share. His answer shocked me.

“My friend defriended me on Facebook”, he replied.

He elaborated further, saying that this friend, whom he had known since high school and whom he had been contact with on and off throughout the years (as opposed to regular contact) had one day decided to reduce his Facebook contacts to only those he often stayed in touch with, and since he only met up or talked with this guy once in a blue moon, he ended up in the dreaded “Defriended” list. And he wasn’t the only one. A few other school buddies also didn’t make the cut and were equally depressed.

I thought this was utterly ridiculous but sensing that his sadness was genuine, didn’t make a fuss about it. But seriously, getting depressed because you were removed from someone’s contact list on an online app?

Wishing for Wisdom of the Crowd?

This over-reliance on Facebook doesn’t just end there. Another friend of mine relies on Facebook for news feeds. I’m not talking about entertainment news or gadget releases, but rather on national and political news. I mean, we have evolved from having just mainstream media to having alternative media portals like Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider etc where we can expect to find balanced news reports but rather than refer to them, we rely on Facebook for news? Never mind if it’s an unsubstantiated report based on one person’s views… if it’s on Facebook it’s gotta be true, right? Sigh…

Have we truly evolved (or devolved) to the point where an online app actually controlled our lives?

I’m reminded of that scene in Pixar’s Wall-E, where our beloved robot is brought upon a ship where the remnants of humankind are depicted as complacent and obese, relying on automatons to ferry them around and feed them while they busy themselves IM’ing each other.

With our increasing over-reliance on apps like Facebook, is this the future we’re condemning ourselves to? It would appear to be so.

Are you the user or the app?

This is one of the critiques presented by Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, which is a collection of his Internet columns and postings where he directs most of his ire toward the “anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups” that flit through our browsers and Twitter feeds, and the “hive mind” in general. Having read it, I found it to be a passionate exploration of the state of the human/machine relationship from the perspective of someone intimately familiar with the subject (Lanier is considered a pioneer of virtual reality and an early star of Wired magazine).

On the issue of Facebook (and social networking, in general), Lanier writes “the only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.” How so definitely true. Of course, the sad part is that we the users are the ones allowing such violations in the first place. The case of Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, comes to mind.

Lanier further writes, “the real customer is the advertiser of the future, but this creature has yet to appear at the time this is being written. The whole artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship (emphasis is mine), is just bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers—we might call them messianic advertisers—who might someday show up”.

The only thing that would prevent this from becoming a reality is a little common sense. Facebook has its uses. It allows users to connect with other users through networks and groups of like-minded individuals. Heck, even world leaders use Facebook, and in those cases, Facebook does a good job in helping these people gauge the opinion of the public.

But common sense would tell us that this is just an application that we as users should manipulate, and not let it manipulate us. A little common sense would tell us to adjust your habits to make our time spent networking safer and more rewarding. Checking actual news feeds from reliable media sources rather than blindly accepting “news” sourced through Facebook or Twitter feeds would make us less susceptible to rumors. It’s not like one needs to actually open a honest-to-goodness printed newspaper to find out the latest happenings; you can easily find online news portals.

And Twitter was meant to update your “followers” of interesting developments you’ve encountered, not to tell everyone you just went to the grocery store to pick up some cabbage or that you just went to the bathroom for the fifth time today (you also tweeted about the previous four visits).

As Lanier pointed out in his book, with services such as Facebook, “life is turned into a database [following the] belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships”, and notes that “algorithms don’t network people: people network people”.

Sadly, there are too many “mindless drones” out there who are oblivious to this concept; the same “mindless drones” who feel obligated to update their Facebook or tweet their current activity, no matter how droll they may be, as if their whole lives depended on it. These “mindless drones” are disconnected from their real-life social streams and rely on online apps for their daily interactions. And their numbers are increasing, thanks to the lack of common sense.

The groundwork for the future seen in Wall-E is being laid as we speak.

(Image credits: Jaron Lanier and Pixar)

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  1. It’s even worse than that. Social Media generally is shallower than a fly’s swimming bath. People don’t want anything with any depth or anything profound, they want childishly obvious “flavour of the moment” and very short posts or, preferably, images to amuse them for all of 5 seconds. Not so pithy statements meant to amuse or “inspire” in a very limited way.

    If this is the best humanity can do, then Wall-E is indeed the future.

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