In a Facebook post on Jan. 11, Mark Zuckerberg announced a new focus for Facebook’s algorithm: facilitating meaningful human-to-human connections.
This shift in focus means fewer advertisements, cute videos of animals, and memes and demarcates a reclamation of social media’s most positive function — connecting people in meaningful ways.
Facebook’s announcement elicited mixed reactions from the public, including everything from joking demands for the company to refund stock investments to sincere endorsements of the platform’s refocus on what many deem to be the positive potential of social media.
Certain social media platforms have a greater capacity for fulfilling this positive potential function than others. For instance, the breadth of Pinterest is reposted images; usually images of items that are available for purchase. Users design boards that are meant to reflect ideal rooms, appearances, and possessions.
On the other hand, Instagram has more potential for self-expression and connection than a more repost-based platform. Many artists use Instagram to gain traction behind their art and Instagram can give you some (albeit, handpicked) information about what acquaintances and friends are up to.
However, much of what determines the “best” social media platform is dependent upon how we use the platforms at our disposal. The same expressive power of Instagram that can be extremely positive can also be channeled into the expression of hateful attitudes or to promote unrealistic beauty standards.
Social media has the potential to spur advocacy around hot button issues; often, with change as a result. For instance, Twitter became a tool of centralized political organization during the Ferguson riots. Solidarity on certain issues can be achieved through mass expression.
Additionally, meme culture has prompted candid discussions surrounding anxiety and depression. By locating humor in suffering that was previously taboo, memes have made many users feel less invisible in their struggles with mental health.
Despite its merits, social media also has many drawbacks, including a dangerous potential to be an arm of corporations.
Facebook (and many other social media applications) can track what you look at and do within the applications. That information can be a powerful segway into feeding you advertisements.
Many social media apps are also connected to other social media apps; for instance, Facebook is connected to many of its users’ Tinder and Venmo accounts. This consolidation of information can make social media platforms an irresistibly powerful tool for money-motivated exploitation.
All social media platforms have the capacity to spread misinformation. They can be a tool for verbal assault and allow people to compare themselves to others easily, both of which can have corrosive effects on self esteem. They can function as instant gratification, at the expense of more substantive interactions.
Facebook’s decision to change its algorithm is an acknowledgement of the fact that social media can be used in detrimental ways and as a result, have negative effects on society. The company, along with other social media titans, faces the difficult balance of maintaining an open platform, while simultaneously protecting that platform from its high potential for abuse.
However, the responsibility to facilitate the best of social media should not and cannot be only in corporate hands. As consumers, we are partially responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse social media. We can choose to utilize its positive potential or to allow it to become a source of polarization, instant gratification, and ignorance.
We can use Facebook as a tool to connect with friends from the past or as a distraction in lectures we pay thousands of dollars to attend. Instagram can be a platform that we use to compare ourselves to others or we can use it to stay peripherally updated on people we’re interested in. Deeming information we read on Twitter as fact and reacting to it as such is also a decision we can choose to make or not.
Facebook’s announcement that their algorithm will be reworked to favor human connection should be applauded. Additionally, it should spark discussions about our future use of platforms. No matter how many social media platforms decide to emphasize human connection and positive potential, we as consumers have to choose to seize that.