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Mark Zuckerberg is under fire from Congress for failing to protect Facebook users’ personal information and for its inability to prevent Russia from using the social network to influence the 2016 presidential election.
While the site’s privacy troubles are recent, users have known about its other shortcomings for years. That Facebook can make us miserable is old news: so many research studies have concluded that it negatively affects our well-being, last year the company conducted its own such study and largely agreed. “I’ve been impressed by the consistency with which the scientific literature has uncovered negative links,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, whose oft-cited 2013 research concluded that Facebook use predicts a decline in users’ well-being.
Sowhy are we all still using the service, really? What do the experts studying our behaviour on Facebook have to say? A few of the less obvious reasons…
Better versions of ourselves
In her bestselling book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT’s Sherry Turkle notes that we often use Facebook to “reflect the person [we] want to be, [our] aspirational self.”
Some researchers theorise that we can benefit from interacting with this better, shinier self. “Yes, we filter and lie by omission on Facebook,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Catalina Toma. “But we tell the truth, too. A person can’t say they just got engaged if they didn’t just get engaged.” Toma’s research has found that when people spend five minutes viewing their own Facebook profile, their feelings of self-worth are boosted. Like an Oprah-endorsed gratitude journal, Facebook’s pristine rendering of our past can remind us of what’s good in our lives.
Turkle believes that Facebook encourages what sociologist David Riesman called the “other-directed life,” wherein a person measures their own worth through what others think. “We curate a self online that is the self we want other people to see,” Turkle emailed me. “We preach authenticity but practice self-curation. We alienate ourselves from who we really are.”
Facebook makes us feel in control
Control has massive appeal in the context of complex human interactions.
In Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle details an online romance between Adam (whom she meets at a conference) and his partner Tessa, noting Adam’s tendency to archive all of Tessa’s texts so that he could expertly craft his responses. Ultimately their relationship failed, with Adam later reflecting that his hyper-attention perhaps created unsustainable expectations for Tessa and her view of him.
“Online communication makes us feel more in charge of our time and our self-presentation,” Turkle writes in the book.
We haven’t given up hope
Facebook is a work in progress, and Facebook fulfills important functions: it connects us with others, lets us easily exchange information between each other, and helps us get social support when we need it.