Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Facebook, Driving and Control

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

The digital isn’t magic. It isn’t mysterious. It’s regular human communication astride a new medium. There’s no need to make it more than it is. No need to lie or elaborate. Because in the digital, there’s wonder enough.

Sean Michael Morris 

This potentially rambling (but I have a hunch potentially enlightening) post is inspired by a comment Mike Caulfield wrote in response to a comment I wrote on his blog …anyway, where he compares the need for digital literacies in the age of fake news and Facebook…with driving and safety. What Mike says, I think, is that driving can cause death and one can try to reduce deaths from driving in two ways: train people to be better, more responsible drivers, or work on safer cars and roads. Obviously a combination is best. I am gonna take this analogy a little off on a tangent. I will explain in a minute.

This post also inspired by some recent discussion on Twitter around Facebook and what it means to stay or leave and how we should resist Facebook’s hegemony. (too many tweets and people involved to name, but initiated by Chris G, and includes Stephen Portell, Kate Bowles and Chuck Pearson among them).

So let me just say something about myself before I take Mike’s analogy into Facebook and all that

  1. I am a hypersocial person who is also an only child. This means I am really good at enjoying being alone, and simultaneously am energized by being with people. In my current personal circumstances with a young child (and previous circumstances of living abroad or being on maternity leave), social media is CENTRAL to my wellbeing. I understand this isn’t everyone’s situation 
  2. I don’t drive in Egypt but I drove almost every day for many miles when I lived in Houston and loved it. Driving in Houston was necessary. Driving in Egypt would have more cons than pros imho so I don’t do it and instead use my commute time to work to get lots of reading and writing done (that’s 3 extra hours of my day that you now know the secret to)
  3. I have a blogpost for DML CENTRAL coming out soon entitled Fake News Isn’t Your Main Problem (i put the link in when it went live). I won’t repeat the arguments of it here. It was written just before xmas holidays so that’s why it’s not out yet

On Driving

So here’s the way I am taking the driving analogy, ok? I will start w what I wrote to Mike as a comment on his blog

Egyptian women drive normally, but sometimes start late; patriarchal arguments against driving are “I trust you to drive well but don’t trust other people on the road”. Which is a fair argument, until you realize people who aren’t driving still trust someone else to drive FOR them, so that’s actually one more person you give control over to…so the argument breaks down and the solution would be to not go out at all (?). I went off on a tangent here but it might be a useful one. We don’t need to accept the premise of other people on the road, of course, or else we would all probably go crazy. 

Now…what I am saying here is that whether or not you drive, there will be others on that road. If you aren’t driving, you are still at some risk of being run over as a pedestrian or of getting in an accident no matter who is driving. Correct? You may not be as responsible personally when you aren’t behind the wheel, granted. So you could avoid blame. But harm, no.

There are probably a range of reasons why people kill others while they’re in the driver seat. I am guessing they have names in laws, but range from intentional murder/assassination to irresponsible (drunk/tired driving) to medium skill level given tricky circumstances (e.g. someone jumps ahead of u and ur reflexes are too slow, or icy roads or such) to things really not within the driver’s control.

My Analogy w Digital Literacies and Facebook 

Bear with me here and don’t blame Mike coz I just took his metaphor and used it for something else entirely.

I think Facebook has (as far as my knowledge goes) done some intentional harm in terms of fake news during US elections. For which it should be accountable and for which it should take responsibility.

I think there’s a lot of irresponsible behavior on Facebook by individuals. Posting things w/o checking its sources, posting mean things, bullying, creating negative social dynamics. There is also a lot of low-skill mistakes. Like not realizing even after you read a post that it’s not credible. Ok?

So now I want to say two things:

  1. Teaching people to detect fake news, focusing digital literacies on information literacies is important but only addresses the symptom. That will solve some problems of people who are normally responsible but didn’t have the skills
  2. The irresponsible people or those who intended harm won’t benefit from the digital literacies piece. Their problems are more deep-rooted

Facebook didn’t create people’s extreme political views, it didn’t create intolerance, or hatred. It gave people room to express them to wider audiences when before that, they were private or semi-private thoughts/expression. Because so much of it is public or as public as social media goes, people find echo chambers that help them believe they aren’t alone and helps them keep going, fuels them.  Sometimes to dangerous levels like recruiting terrorists.

Social media didn’t create any of these monsters. These monsters would have found some other medium one way or the other.

And so back to driving. It kills people. But for the most part, it doesn’t kill people. It doesn’t exist to kill people. Neither car manufacturers nor government building roads want roads to kill people. And still, as a person driving a car you have choices. Which car to ride. Which road to take. How responsiby to drive and how to react to other drivers not within your control. So much is not within your control.

Facebook isn’t as innocent as the car/road manufacturers.

But we, as users of the Internet and social media have to be aware of how much is within our control and influence and how much is not.

For the most part, I don’t fool myself about Facebook. It’s got some sinister behavior w some really weird, probably sinister intentions. I used to be more naive and am still quite naive, but I am more careful w how I use Facebook. But Facebook, like driving, gets me from point A to point B. My Egyptian PLN isn’t (mostly) on Twitter. It’s on Facebook. If I left Facebook my entire PLN would be Western-based. I couldn’t have survived 2011 w/o Facebook. I may leave sometime. I’m not married to it, and Mastodon opened my mind to the idea of someday having social networks of our own, without algorithms and commercial/political interests of others. At least we could set our own. Someday.

But while we are on Facebook we have some amount of control. I (mostly) don’t check the algorthmically decided timeline, I just check my notifications (reverse chronological i presume). I do the same for Twitter. 

I understand that exposure to headlines that are fake even if we don’t click on them may be subliminally influencing me. I get that. But the problem is much deeper.

People who want to leave Facebook because they don’t like what people are saying on it? Those people EXIST. Half of the US voted for Trump (even if he had lost, that statistic would have been similar). Same for Brexit.

The problems are deeper and they’re in our societies and they are HUMAN problems. They aren’t digital. It’s just that digital is the medium of our time, and so the shape of our human interactions are influenced by it. But the ugliness and ignorance are there and they are real, and it isn’t because of one guy called Zuckerberg. 

During Egyptian political upheaval we had similar controversies on Facebook. People unfriended each other in droves. But you know what really matters? The conversation we can no longer have at dinner tables because people’s views are so divided and no one wants to listen to the other. 

And I don’t want to lose sight of what Facebook currently does to help me connect with people. For the most part, I tolerate it because it has its pros. When I find alternatives or its cons drive me nuts enough, I will leave. Or they may kick me out like they did to others. You never know.

 i have to go. This isn’t fully finished… But partway. Willing to listen to critique 

10 Comments

  1. Facebook fake news problem is as old as Facebook itself, it has done lots of harm to Egyptian politics and politicians by spreading all kinds of rumors and misinformation about January 2011 uprising. It might have come to focus in the US election but it is old.
    Social media will continue to have drawbacks, just like everything else in use by billions. One can’t blame food for obesity, or salt for hypertension or roads for accidents.

  2. Totally agree that human problems are rooted in our deepest demons, and an attempt to pinpoint single source blames (Fake news, social media) really understates the incalculable complexity of social systems.

    Driving though is a choice, with complex factors of economics, location, etc. And while I get your analogy to mean that we make large and small independent decisions behind the wheel, from our choice of vehicle, routes, music on the radio, our fast or slow we go, the little inflections of control on the steering wheel. You are also driving a weapon, a machine that, mis-handled, not attended to, is one of potential death to yourself or others. I think often on a busy two lane highway how much trust we must put into others we do not know, to be attentive and stay on their side of the line.

    And that you can think inside Facebook, you can make decisions too about who you talk to, what you click or do not, what you favorite or not, I don’t see that as really nearly as independent choices. It’s not your car, nor are your roads all open. But what get’s lost in all of our apprehensions or criticality of being “in or out” there is the money.

    You think you are driving, steering, turning but actually you are in controlled vehicle.

    Facebook makes an insane amount of profit (billions http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/27/technology/facebook-earnings/ “The new features don’t just keep people on the site for longer, they help Facebook learn more about its users. As a result, the company has been able use advertising to target people much more effectively.”)

    That money comes from harvesting and selling your data. No matter how carefully you drive there, you are a product. And yes, other social media companies do the same, but not at this scale. With a complete veil of opaqueness. If you live in the US, your value to them, your life, as something to sold at $48 per head http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/11891353/How-much-money-do-you-make-for-Facebook.html

    But we ignore this. Or the fact that Facebook somehow recommended that a psychiatrists patients friend each other http://fusion.net/story/339018/facebook-psychiatrist-privacy-problems/ They cannot claim “We just provide cars, people drive”

    I have no doubt, and have heard my share of stories, about how much goodness happens in Facebook. I have zero criticism of people who engage there. I miss seeing the banter of what happens from friends there.

    But it is an extremely serious problem, and in mind, a failure to teaching information, technical literacy, that people feel that Facebook is essential, that there is absolutely no way to hear from friends and family without it. And *that* is dangerous, as much as smart, thoughtful, critical people like you and others are in this place of struggle to consider the idea of being without it – disregarding the many other means of communication that take a tad more individual effort. Any medium, technology that is that essential is dangerous.

    Yes, it looks like driving. But you are not driving, you are being driven.

    PS- Small note; it’s not true that “half of the US voted for T***” He won from *half of the half* of the people that actually voted, that’s 27% of the voting public.

    • I need to change my WP anti-spam settings to know to accept comments from cogdog even when they have tonnes of links 😉
      Why doesn’t WP give me more control over my anti-spam algorithm? Which gets back to part of what you’re saying re lack of control… Cathy O’Neil in her WMD book talks about transparency, control and it all being personal to end users.

      Will read your comment again and click the links

      • You are using Akismet? If you can find it in the marked as spam area, there is a link where you can say it is not. If you have done this, it could be a problem on their end– I submitted a request for them to review my email to see if I was flagged as a spammer

        • Ok so i had probs w Akismet before and i know i need to turn it back on. Sigh. My spam filtering and notifications for stuff are messed up and actually the only good thing that works to notify is my phone app..but its approving comments is faulty so i use the browser. Yeesh. I need to clean this up someday

    • P.S. Re half. Of the silent ppl, I suspect half didn’t care to stop Trump. And the other half didn’t care to get Clinton. The silent ones are just as guilty. But i say this as one who nullified my vote twice. Once coz I couldn’t stomach either candidate. So I can kind of understand some ppl feeling that was the case (and the fake news helping them).

      Re driving vs driven. It’s neither complete agency nor complete brainwashing. There’s something in between. What i mean to say throughout all this is that the in-between space needs more work than digital literacies. It needs more HUMAN work of empathy and building connections and such

      • Yes the silent ones are very guilty. I refuse to take his claims of a landslide or mandate. And yes it needs a lot more work. I’m afraid though, that like non voters, most people don’t want to do that work. It’s uphill in all directions

  3. Great topic Maha. To take a similar, but slightly different tack from Alan’s – driving takes place in a civic space but Facebook is a commercial one. It’s the difference between being in a public square versus an enclosed shopping mall. I don’t have to tell you that being in a public space doesn’t *guarantee* freedom of expression, but in a commercial space there’s generally not even an expectation of free expression – the owner makes the rules. Yet, as you point out, Facebook can have some wonderful benefits – I have reconnected with old friends and made new ones in a way that I can’t imagine happening without Facebook.

    So that’s why it’s so important that we keep having these conversations so that we can think critically about the space we’re in and make intentional choices about where we want to be and how we want to communicate, and why your comments are so timely and valuable.

    Just one other thought, on Sean’s quote. Some people (not you or Sean or most present company) go from “the digital isn’t magic” to the “it’s just a tool” myth. A medium is not a tool – a medium acts upon us as we act upon it, in ways that can be very difficult to perceive. Facebook is more like a space than a tool, and it’s intentionally designed to encourage us to walk to certain places, look at certain things, think in certain ways – just like a shopping mall. Even when we think we’re making choices, we are pretty good at deluding ourselves about how free we really are.

    BTW it’s just wonderful how you keep writing interesting stuff – it is a great contribution!

    • Omigosh Michael I LOVE the Facebook as shopping mall analogy. Every analogy breaks down at some point but let me run w parts of it (including addressing your point about medium/message which we all know is a both/and not either/or and I realize sometimes it sounds like I am saying Facebook is *just* a tool but yeah….we all know it isn’t just that)
      So Facebook as shopping mall. Both are a “third place” (social space. Neither home nor work) that is commercial. You go there for leisure and to get things done, and your path is partly under your control and partly not. You don’t control which shop is where and which smells from food shops waft your way, but you have agency over which direction to go, whether to enter a shop (how well to resist the sales sign, the person offering samples, the beautiful decorations, etc). There’s a lot done by the mall to tempt you to behave in certain ways but you are agent. You have agency. The more aware you are the better. E.g. If u know where Nordstom is u can park near it if it’s your destination. If ur dieting and u can’t resist the smell of Cinnabon u can avoid passing by it to get to wherever ur going. Right? And sometimes around xmas time the xmas music playing at Macy’s will make u stay there longer than expected and buy silly things u know u didn’t need. And u will bump into ppl u know coz everyone is doing xmas shopping. But you choose to stop and say hello or rush right by. You choose to browse at leisure or ask a salesperson for help or do an internet search for what u want.

      There’s a heck of a lot that’s not within ur control but a heck of a lot that *is*

      Now. If there were private spaces to meet some friends inside the mall where u could congregate relatively privately and freely… But the larger mall had issues… Would you still go? It depends on how valuable the private spaces were and how horrible the mall is otherwise.

      I don’t want to go down the slippery slope path of “they are harming X and X isn’t me, but eventually they will go after me too”. I was once offered a funny (as in HIGH) amount of money to write for Facebook some short pieces. I refused because I do not approve of much of what they do. I refused to consider Google sponsoring vconnecting even tho we use hangouts (not really endorsing them, but actually inevitably doing so, right?)

      So it’s i think here about two things
      A. Where is the line? That’s different for each of us. Where the line is. Because also
      B. What are the limits of our agency?

      The last one is critical and the point I made about music is v personal. Most ppl would probably remember the xmas decorations at malls during xmas time. I enjoy them too. But they don’t tempt me much. I am a morw musical person and music can stop me and keep me captive and influence me so much more. Smell of food doesn’t annoy me if i am dieting – i pass by Cinnabon for the beautiful smell and most days i can resist it.

      Do you get what I mean? I think dealing with attention and info overload and worse things that Facebook helps happen (ugly political discussions, to me, are almost worse than the fake news) – we all have different strategies to deal w them. And we are differently invested in different spaces so we will make more effort to make some work for us.

      Many of us work at institutions who do ugly things. To us even. Definitely to ppl more vulnerable than us. We buy products made by entities that don’t always follow ethical codes we agree with.

      And that’s why alternatives matter. I don’t have a better alternative than my institution right now and its pros far outweigh its cons (it’s a non-profit btw). Facebook is currently something whos cons haven’t (yet) outweighed its pros but I am always on the lookout for alternatives that may some day be viable and allow me more control. Like the idea of Mastodon 😉

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