Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President of user growth, blasted the social network’s fundamental premise in an address to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business this month. Palihapitiya, a Facebook employee since 2007 who subsequently founded his own venture capital firm and is an owner of the Golden State Warriors, expressed “tremendous guilt” about the role he played in influencing a company that is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He faulted Facebook for encouraging “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that leave the general populace more vulnerable and open to manipulation from unregulated forces. Hearing such a scathing critique from a supposed insider is jarring, especially given the scrutiny to which the company has been subject in recent discourse. Facebook is often dismissed as a waste of time, an addictive nuisance, an ominous behemoth whose CEO changes the subject uncomfortably every time he is asked about privacy concerns. Given all this criticism, I’ve been contemplating the question of why I have an account at all, and whether it is time to take the self-protective measure of exiting this ubiquitous but sinister platform.
Facebook, and social media platforms at large, exert an undeniable influence on our mental health. A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted an indisputable amount of data showing that millenials are more depressed and anxious than any other generation, and spend far less time than their parents did on going out or spending time with friends. The article goes on to point out that a causal link between hours spent on social media and increased unhappiness may exist, corroborated by a number of behaviorally-focused studies. For young girls in specific, this problem is especially rampant, as depressive symptoms in girls have risen by more than 50% from 2012 to 2015 alone. Researchers Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis elaborate in the Harvard Business Review that, “while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.” They defined well-being using measures such as self-reported life satisfaction/mental health, physical health, and body-mass index (BMI). If researchers are so certain that Facebook is detrimental to our happiness, what value could it possibly add to our lives?
Sociologist Mark Granovetter’s seminal theory about social networks provides us with some insight into the benefits of maintaining these online networks, despite the unease they may cause us. He established a distinction between “strong” and “weak” connections, defined by parameters such as time, intimacy, and emotional intensity. Social media platforms often allow us to maintain these “weak” connections through low-effort engagement, such as posting a birthday message on a friend’s wall once a year. Amassing weak connections can be emotionally exhausting, and often feels futile to those of us who crave deep emotional bonds. But we cannot bury our heads in the sand and deny the advantages of such a strategy. Granovetter’s survey of job seekers ultimately found that a majority of individuals found their jobs through weak connections who they saw infrequently or even rarely. He also found that weak connections were more likely to broaden one’s perspective and worldview, a factor that could help offset the echo-chamber criticism that many attribute to Facebook’s algorithms. If we consciously seek out new connections through our social media platforms, we can combat many of the inherent biases it reinforces.
It is also worth pointing out the inherent hypocrisy that one of the very individuals who oversaw Facebook’s rapid expansion and made billions doing so suddenly decided to express his regret, but has taken no tangible steps to mitigate the impact of the societal breakdown he allegedly fears. This is not a reason in and of itself to discount Palihapitiya’s concerns completely, but even a former Facebook exec’s words should be taken with a grain of salt. Even he has not gotten rid of his account altogether, but said that he has posted “less than 10 times in seven years.”
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion the answer does not lie in deleting Facebook and swearing off social media altogether, but rather in playing a more active role in tempering its risks and reaping its benefits. As conventional wisdom tells us, the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have one. The world is changing more quickly than our ability to manually chronicle its transformation, and I certainly don’t want to be left behind, but I also don’t want to be swallowed whole by technology. In this inevitably interconnected world, perhaps individual acts of consciousness, however mentally taxing, are our only means of independence.