Sunday, August 27, 2017

Social soapboxing - the end of Facebook as a meeting place?

CC0 Public domain by sasint on Pexels
I have really enjoyed using Facebook over the years. It has helped me keep in touch with so many people who I could never have kept up with in the days of writing letters or making phone calls. It has also enabled me to get to know acquaintances I have only met briefly at meetings or conferences. I have built up an extensive network of friends, colleagues and contacts using various social media that have enriched my life and work. I have enjoyed getting glimpses of people's lives, what they had for breakfast, commuting problems, amusing comments on everyday routines, jokes, holiday photos, life events and so on. I have also enjoyed many spontaneous and often very funny chats that can suddenly come to life from an often innocuous post. On my side I try to provide a balanced mix from my own life, hopefully with a bit of humour. However, I sense that maybe the golden days are over.

My Facebook feed has changed radically over the last couple of years. There is now much more sponsored content which has moved from the right margin into the main feed and is sometimes hard to distinguish from real posts. The most worrying trend is the lack social contact. Most of my feed consists only of links these days and sometimes it's hard to find a single personal comment in the flood of links to news, articles, propaganda for various causes and of course cat photos (I'm one of very few people in the world who doesn't particularly like cats). I would like to coin the term social soapboxing, an arena where people talk at rather than with each other, all trying to convert friends to their view of the world. We all do it to some extent but I really miss the social and human elements - genuine conversation in a tone of mutual respect.

The dreams we had in the early days of the internet are fading fast. There were brave hopes of creating a platform where the world could meet and share ideas and that the more we discussed with each other the more tolerant we would become. The net would help to spread democracy, tolerance and creativity. To a certain extent it has but only in certain circles. Tragically it has also provided a platform where bullying, hate and extremism can spread freely and where dangerous lies and pure fantasy can be passed off as genuine news. The net is also now almost fully commercialised, largely controlled by massive global corporations who are monitoring and monetising our clicks. The result is that many people are now much more wary of what they post on platforms like Facebook and that could explain the lack of genuinely social content there. The best places to find social interaction are now closed or private groups where administrators make sure that groundrules are followed and remove all irrelevant advertising and soapboxing. Are we leaving the open arenas and moving towards more closed circles?

If Facebook becomes simply a channel for advertising and soapboxing then it will implode and die. I'm still there and most days I find some valuable interaction but the downward spiral seems increasingly clear. Can any other service take over Facebook's role or is there no realistic future in truly social media?


  1. First, thank you for that article that awakenes . Although I share your disappointment about a socializing place as Facebook turning into an advertising machine, I do not share your questioning about the next tool that would take Facebooks’ initial role. Rather, I wonder whether that role is not by itself some utopia, a service for something human are not made for (or at least not yet) which is: too much social connection. When Facebook opened at first, we were still bashful, modest. Hence, we only added the people we actually knew and/or cared about. The quality of the contact could then be maintained by just using another media for the same quality of contact.
    However, at least in my experience, little by little random people started to pop up my Facebook 'friend' list (and I only accept people I have actually met!). Basically, this is what often happened to me: I meet a person (of find an ‘old friend’), you become friends on Facebook and that gives us both the illusion of maintaining contact. By consequence, it is this particular illusion that breaks the contact and turns Facebook into a wall of friends and cats (on which I , btw, share your view). So, maybe one solution would be to set some rules for becoming Facebook’ friends (e.g., nb of face to face previous meetings, probability of meeting again, percentage of shared interests, rate of conversations…). One could argue that these criteria would somehow ‘fake’ the human contact but don’t we already have some unspoken rules about what is expected from a person before calling them a friend? …

  2. Thanks for your comments Sophie. I still think that many of my Facebook contacts are real and when I meet them at conferences or socially we are already updated on our latest holidays or interests. I feel I know them already and we can start to talk as established friends even if we've only physically met once before.
    I'm worried that the social side is disappearing and all that is left is a long list of links and ads. I agree that my wish for a new platform is only a dream.