I remember the sense of wonder when I first signed up for Facebook and Twitter. Facebook helped me feel more connected to my friends, especially as I was graduating high school and going away to college. Twitter helped me find like-minded people who were also obsessed about technology and encouraged me to pursue my career. Today, it feels like these services are pitting us against each other rather than helping us feel more connected. What changed?
As technology products grow and their user bases expand, the nature of our agreement with them subtly changes. I call these technological context shifts. When we are caught unaware or unable to update our approach in the new context, we feel like technology is pulling the rug from under us. I believe this is one of the primary drivers to why we feel so out of sorts today. I’ll trace three examples of technological context shifts — how Facebook changed the meaning of “friends,” how the Internet changed the meaning of brands, how social media changed social norms — and highlight how we struggle to cope with them.
“Deadweight friends” on Facebook
Facebook was great in 2006. I added all the new friends I made my first year in college so even when we eventually drift apart, I can still stay in touch using Facebook. In 2006, my Facebook “friends” closely resembled my real-world friendships.
Then Facebook introduced the News Feed, making is easier to keep up with friends because their updates now get pushed directly to my feed. In exchange for the convenience, Facebook removed a degree of control from me over whose updates I actually wanted to know about. This was the first time Facebook changed the nature of our agreement. I added friends assuming no News Feed, and then there was the News Feed. Now looking back, would I have defined “friends” the same way as I had before if I knew their updates were going to get pushed into my feed? At least for me, the answer is a definite “No.” I use Twitter for the feed and I don’t want to follow most of my real-world friends on Twitter. The News Feed changed the context.
Since it was advantageous for Facebook to own the “friend graph,” they were incentivized to keep the definition of “friends” vague. When Facebook started showing us third-party content that our friends liked, we didn’t get a chance to update our friends list to reflect which of our friends we cared enough about to see what they’ve liked. It would’ve been impractical to do anyway, so we let the algorithm decide. As a result, on Facebook we carry with us many “deadweight friends” from a previous context, and with every new feature that slightly changes the nature of our relationship with Facebook, we feel increasingly more discordant.
Not only did Facebook constantly shift contexts, they introduced new ones that we were eager to agree to. Facebook brilliantly pursued Facebook Login and Messenger, which made them a real utility on the Internet like email, and much harder for us to wrestle ourselves away from them. I am incentivized to continue to add people to my Facebook because Messenger is a great utility when I want to reach people, but if I use it that way, I am opting in to a new agreement with Facebook where adding a “friend” is closer to getting someone’s email address or phone number. When very personal updates from these “email address friends” show up in my News Feed, I experience context collapse and the my brain kind of also collapses.
I suspect this is why we are so angry at Facebook. They asked us to invite our friends to the party, and then they changed the party. Now we feel like the party is not fun anymore and we don’t even know what happened.
Reading the newspaper is no longer a good habit
When I was growing up, reading the newspaper was considered a good way to learn to read and also to learn about the world and our values. That’s no longer the case. Why?
When there were only a few broadcast TV channels and a handful of newspapers in your area, media was relatively scarce. Media companies needed to appeal to as many people as possible, and so they exercised strong discretion and only shared ideas that they think most people can subscribe to. This created a relative uniformity in our values. For example, an average of 29 million people tuned in to CBS Nightly News to hear Walter Cronkite, and when he retired in 1981, he had a 81% approval rating. As people who grew up in this context, instead of judiciously evaluating every idea, we placed our trust in our media brands and institutions to evaluate for us. If it’s good enough for Walter Cronkite, it’s good enough for me.
Then the Internet eliminated the marginal cost of distribution and our context started shifting. Today, as we are inundated with an unprecedented variety of ideas, we attempt to keep up by using old world signals like “brand” or “news anchor” to help us determine if an idea is worthwhile, but they fall short because old brands no longer mean the same thing (try looking up what happened to “Forbes” if you don’t believe me). Even when we use new world signals from social networks like “popularity” to help us, we are still left wanting because popularity rarely signify quality. When old lenses don’t work and new lenses don’t fit, we become disoriented and start to lash out.
The disappearing illusion of human consistency
Eugene Wei wrote a magnum opus called “Status-as-a-Service” in which he described how we’ve entered the “performative” stage of social media where it’s less about authenticity and more about looking good to others. It’s a great #longread and I highly recommend it on your next vacation. What Wei didn’t mention is that we are no less performative in the physical world. Real life contains friction in the form of social norms that keep the nature of our conversations relatively safe. For example, people rarely express extreme political opinions in social settings in order to not upset others. Under this real life context, we can more easily maintain the illusion that most people are consistent.
When social media removed the friction to sharing by allowing us to hide behind our screens and away from social norms, it shifts the context and exposes our illusion. We now have to face our friends’ bad political opinions full frontal, and we don’t know how to reconcile this level of increased transparency. Can we still be friends with someone and consider him a good person even though he shared an article from Breitbart on Twitter? The narrative inconsistency about this person makes us very uncomfortable.
Recently, a friend asked who is my favorite comedian, and I really struggled with the answer and eventually I said “it used to be Louis C.K., but now I don’t know.” My friend responded, “it’s okay to like Louis C.K. as a comedian, it doesn’t mean that you have to like him as a person and you definitely don’t have to keep supporting him.” Celebrities have always been subject to higher levels of transparency and we haven’t been kind to them when we find bad things. Now that we are all default celebrities, we are treating each other harshly like we treat celebrities because we don’t know how to operate in the context where we see people in all of their messy glory.
How to catch up and co-evolve with technology?
Given that I’ve framed the problem to be about context shifts, my recommendation to builders of technology would be to minimize context shifts and improve the context awareness in all of our digital experiences. Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Technology has a lot of great recommendation that I believe could be a competitive advantage of you want to build the next unicorn.
It’s interesting to see how Google and Amazon have gotten relatively less flack compared to Facebook despite being just as dominant and pervasive in our lives. One explanation is that we still use Google and Amazon’s primary services (i.e. search and online shopping) in largely the same way as when they were first introduced, so the contexts shifts have been less noticeable. However, we are now seeing Google giving us answers to searches instead of directing us to websites and Amazon selling us their private-label products, so we will begin to feel more of the shift (1).
While I know a lot of builders are working on building more “humane” technology, as users we also have to evolve. We have to get better at noticing when technology is outpacing our ability to operate within the existing paradigm. We need to slow down, focus on each other’s humanity, and regularly examine our values to figure out what we really think. It’s possible that there will never be another Walter Cronkite to help us know what to think, so we will have to be much more judicious than we ever needed to be.
Finally, I think there are massive opportunities for new paradigms of trust-building on the Internet to help us sift through the infinity of information. Search and social fundamentally relied on brand and popularity as quality signals. If you have a hypothesis for what a new paradigm could look like, hit me on up Twitter.
(1) When new contexts are introduced to us via new brands, it delays our ability to notice the context shift. For example, most WhatsApp users likely don’t know Facebook owns WhatsApp, Google knows way more about us because of Android but we don’t react as viscerally to Android, and Amazon sells private-label products through more than 70 private-label brands that don’t have the name “Amazon” on them.
Thanks for reading! What do you think? Please leave me your feedback in the comments section or tell me on Twitter.
This is the fourth post in the series where I deep-dive into topics that I’m interested in by talking to users. Check out the other deep-dives here.