Gustafson: Are we losing face? Post that | AspenTimes.com

Gustafson: Are we losing face? Post that

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

I had a professor in college who used to remind us during his seminars on mass communications that if you get something for free, you should know that you are the product.

I've never been particularly active on social media. I missed — or avoided — the Facebook roll-out years when friend-collecting was as much a digital game as it was a popularity contest. But as the networks came of age, a compelling social movement grew as well, and it seemed to suggest to those of us who hadn't yet signed on, that we needed to get with the times and join the masses. So I set up an account, sent and accepted friend requests, "liked" stuff here and there and eventually everywhere, and I tried to get into it, but it wasn't for me.

It felt like a high school lunchroom wherein everyone was talking at top volume at once. There was a lot of bragging, some flirting and dirty jokes, people sharing funny stuff and cool things and some passionate rants and raves. But unlike in the school lunchroom, you were supposed to consume it all at once. It seemed to require a wasteful amount of valuable free time to gain social presence. It felt like slipping into a time-sapping, back-to-the-future vortex.

It all presented the illusion of immense social interaction but the reality seems to be masses of users sitting somewhere, often in solitude, staring idly at a screen. That doesn't seem social; it seems anti-social, almost by definition.

Still, there is such a movement, so I've tried time and again to be active. I occasionally post and try to respond to posts. Ultimately, though, I'm slowly pulling away again.

My feed unleashes a torrent of unnerving emotions, flooding my mind with a deluge of information. One moment I could be exposed to babies and puppies and announcements of happy news. Ahh cute (with a hint of questioning the experiences of my own life and wondering why I'm not doing more of, well, everything).

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And the next minute some tragic event pops up, or a social injustice I was unaware of is suddenly occupying a moment of my consciousness and I find myself ready to rally for the cause. Then — before I can even react to it — some silly meme catches my eye and I'm laughing before those upsetting sensations have a chance to settle. I catch myself going down any number of "Choose your own adventure" rabbit holes and I can't even remember what I started out trying to do. I'm wandering in a crazy virtual wonderland where everyone kind of knows everyone else but, like in a dream, it is intangible and fragmented. It is all very confusing. It seems like a prescription for encouraging attention disorders.

The notion that "Facebook is changing our brains" strikes me as a kind of historical cause to take pause. As we now know, from brain science and research, everything changes our brains. Even the words "like" and "friend" that were once concrete concepts are losing their very meaning in our current society.

I talk to people in real life and they expect me to know what they are up to, who they are dating, the ups and downs they are going through. And if I don't, I lose out on the brief opportunity to connect in the moment. The thrill of running into an old friend, in real life, is now complicated by questions; what do I know, what should I know?

"Once everyone is connected to everyone and everything else, nothing matters anymore. If everyone in the world is your Facebook friend, than why have any Facebook friends at all? We're back where we started. The ultimate complexity is just another entropy," said American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose work focuses on human autonomy in a digital age.

Can the technology community come of age? How can we each individually contribute to the solution, not assist in fanning the flames? Twitter, created for teenage girls to tweet gossip to one another, has become a political soapbox. Facebook, which is such a widespread, potentially corrupt platform for uninformed, unoriginal ideas, is spreading misguided opinions all seeped in target market opportunities. And we buy it, sell it and advertise it all with our kitten and puppy posts, further soaking the consumerism with personalized family-friendly obligatory courtesy.

At its wise old age of 14, rumor has it, Facebook is now for old people. But what rises up to take its place? Who is the next Heather? So we move to another place – a fresh start, right? Too late, our data follows us right over to Instagram.

Research shows that if people are talking and listening to like-minded others, they become more dogmatic, more unified and more extreme.

"Personalized Facebook experiences are a breeding ground for misunderstanding and miscommunication across political lines and, ultimately, for extremism," said Cass Sunstein while attempting to explain how conspiracy theories spread, especially online.

In his powerful farewell address Barack Obama offered a meaningful tidbit of online advice, "If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life."

But when I mention my criticisms of social media to my real friends, in real life, they nod, look up, contort and sigh, "But it's just so hard to quit." Perhaps that's when you know you've been got.

I guess my college professor was right: In exchange for free social-media, free self-promotion and the free-exchange of unfiltered ideas we may be giving up something far more valuable. What is it though? Could it simply be the ability to think for ourselves?

Let's exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.