In light of the relentless news about Facebook these days, it can be easy to forget the site's more humble origins: as a way for college kids to connect and meet. Even before that, it was simply a way for them to rate each others' attractiveness.
Nowadays, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal dominating headlines and the social network home to billions of users, those more humble origins can feel a universe away.
In response to the controversy — in which the data firm is alleged to have accessed the private information of millions of users without permission — we have seen understandable calls for something to be done about Facebook. Critics say tech companies must adjust how they harness data, a problem to be addressed by something like a Digital Protection Agency. Others demand that Facebook be regulated.
These are all perfectly reasonable reactions. But overlooked in the focus on data is also how we use Facebook — that is, the social norms that govern Facebook's place in our lives.
Consider: The scope and scale of the Cambridge Analytica scandal stemmed from an academic survey that pulled data from people's many contacts. Put another way, what enabled the misuse of data was not just Facebook's then-lax privacy policies, or even its profit motive to use data in certain ways. The problem was how many connections we all have. And as we now face how to deal with the problems of the digital age, we need to rethink the social norms that govern our digital lives just as much as we're considering regulating how our data is used.
Those early days of Facebook, when it was just for college kids, shaped how we think of the site. University is a time when loose connections are the norm — those "friends" a student might have in class, but not outside of it, for example. It's also expected that you are there to meet people, and the collectivity that emerges from a certain year or school can foster a rough sense of community. How Facebook works thus made sense for a certain demographic — those for whom connecting with weak social ties was normal.
But even as Facebook expanded — it now has over two billion active users — those norms that first defined the site never really changed. People still add casual friends and acquaintances, or a mix of social and work connections, or both family and complete strangers. Many users have far more "friends" on the site than they do in person. There's also the simple fact that the invention of the social network allowed users to have an audience — their own sort of media platform to speak to those they were connected with.
Moreover, unlike other networks like Instagram and Twitter, which defaulted to being public, Facebook was a strange hybrid of public and private. When you connect with both close friends and acquaintances on the same platform, you're left in a sort of purgatory; you can either share a great deal of personal information with people you don't know well, or you can retreat into a sort of online silence — while still being exposed to Facebook's data mining.
That hybrid nature of the site had consequences. The sheer number of contacts led to a glut of posts, which encouraged Facebook to create its News Feed, which sorts posts not chronologically but by what Facebook thinks we want to see. In a lucid post, media analyst Benedict Evans argues that the current system easily leads to overload, suggesting that this is why messaging apps have grown faster than Facebook recently. After all, one-to-one chat can't overload you in the same way as dozens of posts from your hundreds of friends, all at once.
In his post, Evans also suggests that Facebook may end up moving to a Snapchat-style "story" system in lieu of the News Feed, to offer a more manageable user experience. But while his focus is on how companies can make engaging, compelling products, such a change would require an accompanying shift in the assumed rules around social networks. If you actually had to flip through all of your contacts' stories, it would suddenly become untenable to have hundreds of friends, and stranger still to have those friends be people you barely know. For Facebook to actually function better, you'd need to start over new, making sure that the only people you connect with are, well, those you genuinely want to connect with.
This is a key difference. Having a social network composed of weak ties has lent itself to certain types of behaviors. For example: The perfectly normal desire to share parts of your life with your friends and family has become indivisible from performing a version of yourself online, given that everyone is clamoring for attention in the same space. It also means there's a built-in pressure to amass followers or likes, making moments of genuine interaction increasingly fleeting.
Writing in The New York Times, Tim Wu argues that we don't need to fix Facebook, we need to replace it. Part of this requires us to correct our original sin, in which we all decided to hand over personal information so that we could talk to our friends. But we'd also need a new set of social rules to go along with our new social networks: that they be small; focused on our actual connections; and structured not to game attention, but to maximize interaction.
In that sense, Wu is right — fixing Facebook is like trying to lock the barn door after the horse has bolted. What we need is a new structure, one that allows us to rethink the idea of social networks from the ground up and build them around humans, not algorithms.
After all, if Facebook's own juvenile phase now seems light years away, perhaps it is time for us to also grow up — and reimagine what a social network might be.