An interesting trend has recently emerged among Facebook users. One might refer to it as the ‘Facebook fatigue’. An increasing amount of users are opting to take a hiatus from the otherwise addictive social media website, while many choose to be online ghosts, logging in every day, observing the activities and updates of their relatives and friends without letting their own presence felt. Furthermore, few users have even created more than two profiles in order to filter their ‘friends’ and hide from those whom they don’t wish to see online.
The aforementioned example is funny and ironic at so many levels because not too long ago, people would escape from their daily lives, for brief as well as extended moments, to find refuge in the unfamiliar, yet comforting arms of the social network. And unlike life, one online profile was enough. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity that made it more exciting. But as is with everything, there comes a moment when an event or a series of events shatters the bubbled glass of perception we surround ourselves in. And suddenly, there is an ultra-high-definition of clarity all around.
Facebook was once the definition of coolness! Back then, asking, ‘Aren’t you on Facebook? was as de rigueur as poking someone with, ‘OMG, You don’t watch Game of Thrones’ nowadays. It used to be a virtual hangout where people would flock to, in an attempt to shun the realities of life and the exacting demands of the world at large. They made their own online pristine precincts, impregnably guarded by privacy and security settings, where things were just as they wanted, with people and content of their choice.
Then, as if in an act of harakiri, they themselves opened the back doors by liking, commenting or sharing something that wasn’t exactly in their own comfort zone. As FB (as Facebook is colloquially called), acquired more than a billion users, the world at large – that bully in school, that ghastly colleague from office, an ‘ex’ or an ex-boss, the nagging aunt, or those forgettable nameless acquaintances whose faces one can neither place nor would like to see – quietly snuck into their lives, online. And to an unimaginable extent, offline too! Striding along came this new bunch’s choices, tastes and ‘opinions. Soon, as if taking a cue, the Modis, the Kejriwals and also the press made its inroads. And with them, they brought in the deluge of all that is wrong with the planet we inhabit.
Other than being cool, Facebook became many things. Currently, it serves the daily news (factual or not depends upon which political ideology one sides with), it shows you pictures and videos of entertainment, it gives phenomenal advice on food, travel, music and dance. It even provides the ideal platform to satiate your inner narcissism! Click that selfie, show off those culinary skills or DSLR captured escapades to your friends and extended family. You don’t want to see their faces, but what on earth would you not give to shove that Eiffel Tower from your latest Parisian sojourn down their throats! Facebook enables you to exist in a parallel universe, even if for a while, where everything is just perfect, much like that filter enriched photoshopped picture.
Today, it can hardly be considered a refuge, certainly not when the people, issues, and ideas that you avoided all your life are part of your daily morning brief! No matter what the privacy settings are, they just show up. After all, Facebook would lose business if you continue avoiding contact with them. The newsfeed itself has evolved over the years. The feed which was once filled with witty, motivational or plain funny messages is now muddled with politics, hate and sheer negativity, each of them complementing the other. Artificial intelligence (AI) induced ‘suggestions’ have been almost clandestinely injected into the system, so subtly, that at first, they are simply unnoticeable. If you wish to get a load of what ‘cookies’, ‘trackers’ and ‘crawlers’ can do, just google something as ordinary as a pencil or a water pump and check your Facebook page after two minutes. The right side of the page and the news feed will be filled with suggestions of five different brands of pencils and sponsored content from ‘Tullu Pumps’ from Ludhiana! They just magically emerge from the vast sea of the worldwide web, except that it is not magic, but creepy AI slowly extending its pervasive tentacles into our private lives.
So, where does FB go from here? If users are so fatigued that they avoid the website or frequently go on a hiatus, and more fake profiles are unearthed, what does this mean for Facebook, the company? Should this spell the end? No, it won’t. On the contrary, it will continue to expand its empire. It might indeed have been the end as early as 2012, if not for the slew of shrewd and calculative acquisitions the company made, starting from Instagram, Whatsapp and then the Oculus VR, all for a very large amount of money.
The acquisition wasn’t as much about the intellectual property and data mines these hot startups offered as much as it was about the acquisition of competition itself! Facebook is not a social media company pitted against MySpace, Friendster or Orkut (remember it?) anymore, but a technology firm competing with Google, Microsoft and Amazon with projects that vary from its cash churning online advertising business to augmented reality, cloud computing, internet-beaming, AI home assistants and so on. The website would soon be suggesting job interviews to its users, taking on established players like LinkedIn and Monster.com. Mark Zuckerberg, who is currently the fifth richest person in the world according to Forbes Magazine, could well be on the top of the list in the future. As for the users, fatigued or not, they have no option but to return to the ‘grid’ at some point in time. As much as you may abhor it, shunning the social network altogether gives one a feeling of being left out. It is like a party you decided not to got to, but can’t stop thinking about while you try to sleep.
The current state of Facebook is not very different from the usual landfills where everyone simply dumps their garbage and vultures and trolls hover above looking for prey to feed on. From Narendra Modi to a common Indian, today, everyone has this innate urge to dump his opinions on the social platform. Just like this writer! It is, after all, the enabling of a vibrant democracy, as some would argue. As participants and often the beneficiaries of the social network, we must understand the deal we made with modernity, wherein, we willingly traded off our privacy in exchange for the abundance of information, troves of data and the sea of knowledge, before it came back to haunt us in the form of views and opinions that are essentially not our own. The problem lies there.
To be fair, I’m not against free speech, nor am I deriding the will of anyone to express their opinion. In a liberal world, we are taught to respect each other’s opinion. But humans often feel differently and have contradictory desires.
As an individual, I do not wish to be a part of the socio-political jamboree. I have no interest in the elections or wars or the refugee situation and just want to watch cat videos and sift through the latest shade of lip gloss, can I not do it in peace and privacy of my social media account? I am simply piqued at the mere absence of my free will to be able to censor what I don’t wish to see on my own Facebook page. Is it that difficult to achieve? I don’t think so.
Facebook was about the best pictures, thoughts, and online behaviour; your wittiest, funniest and most compassionate self. That was the whole idea of being online in the first place, to create an alternative reality about yourself. Then, somewhere in between, niceties gave way to provocation, till this became the norm. Facebook is not dying anytime soon. It is far from that stage. So where does that leave us, the users? Addicted or not, given the fact that we will continue to return to the website, do we have a choice in controlling what we see on our Facebook page, thus making it cool for us all over again? A popular Japanese saying aptly sums up the conundrum. “If you want a better picture, go get yourself a better face!”
However, the newsfeed is a mirror and its content, mere reflection of our own activities, opinions, likes and dislikes. What we and our online avatars need are a relook and reboot.