Unlike Twitter, which has famously been used to rally protest, to aggregate political concerns and to promulgate initiatives - and which often aims to reach out to an audience beyond family, friends or fans – Facebook is almost exclusively social lite. It’s typically fluffy and cuddly, or sassy and bantering, engaging in what linguists call phatic interaction, with the emphasis on the social rather than the informational aspects of communication; and the images exchanged on Facebook are generally supportive of that social purpose. As Pariser says rather misanthropically: ‘The creators of the Internet envisioned something bigger and more important than a global system for sharing pictures of pets.’
But the fact is many millions of us are using the medium for just that sort of activity, and even more so now that mobile, hand-held and handy devices are becoming common. If we are what we share, then what we are sharing is on the whole pretty frothy stuff.
By making it fun and easy to do, the Facebook providers have encouraged us to entertain each other in this way, and some would argue they have added to the store of human happiness and fellowship as a result. Maybe so. But have they tilted our attention away from some of the harder realities of life? Are we in danger of becoming like the Eloi in H G Wells' TheTime Machine frolicking like children in the sunshine, unwary of the Morlocks waiting in the shadows, or rather in denial of them and the threat they pose?
Pariser points up one neat little device that may be contributing to a skewed, rose-coloured view of the world. Facebook has made it possible to press the Like button on any item on the Web. With one quick click we can let our Facebook friends know what we are enjoying, and by the same action we increase the likelihood of that particular item being seen by others, because our Liking it improves its ranking.
Now, what sort of thing are we likely to be Liking? Or, to put it the other way round, what are the stories that would seem inappropriate to Like? To use Pariser’s examples: ‘It’s easy to push Like and increase the visibility of a friend’s post about finishing a marathon or an instructional article about how to make onion soup. It’s harder to push the Like button on an article titled, “Darfur sees bloodiest month in two years.”’
The Facebook team that developed the Like button originally considered a number of options, including stars and a thumbs-up sign (rejected as a stand-alone because it’s an obscene gesture in some countries); they even considered Awesome, but chose Like eventually because it was more universal. That apparently minor design choice may have had major unintended consequences, for it is has almost certainly determined that we push the button on stories that are more friendly, less challenging, more emotional perhaps but less troubling, more likeable. So these are the stories that get more attention on the Web and subtly, steadily alter our world view. Like the Eloi, we prefer to face the sunshine.
Pariser asks us to imagine that next to each Like button on Facebook was an Important button. You could tag an item with either Like or Important or both. This one simple development could be a very useful corrective, could help to restore the balance to a certain degree. Not entirely, for it seems to be part of our nature to look for the things we are likely to enjoy - the entertaining, the humorous, the titillating. We will always want to share gossip and to seek out the stories of celebrity, of scandal and success. But we need to be aware of what else is around us, and to share that too. We cannot ignore those things that are important to sections of humanity who may not be part of our immediate social network (our comfort zone), because we can be sure that one day soon those things we've chosen to ignore will force their importance on us.