The problem is not really with my Facebook friends per se; the problem is with social media. It isn’t social any more. What it now is is a place where second-hand content is ceaselessly recycled. I rarely see anything original on Facebook any more; and what original content there is is usually of the “Had a beer with my friends, it was awesome!” type, which may be a true statement but is utterly devoid of meaning or import.
I know, I know, it’s hard to come up with witty or interesting content of your own, and I should know, given how rarely I manage to find anything worth blogging about here. But even so, you have to agree that if, in real life, you met one of your friends in the street, you wouldn’t greet them by shoving a photo in their face and saying, “Juicy steak, nom!”
I am no doubt going to be unpopular for saying this, but perhaps the most egregious Facebook user is George Takei. You might think that a veteran actor — and, to boot, one who famously doesn’t get along well with one of his former co-stars — might have a lot of stories to tell. Instead of that, he employs staff to scour the internet for other people’s content and then repost it — I don’t mean “share”, I actually mean “repost” in the sense that a copy is re-uploaded to his Facebook account — without either permission or attribution, which is not only dishonest, but actually illegal, together with a lame one-liner, usually in the form of a pretty weak pun. Somebody like George Takei really doesn’t need to use other people’s work for his own personal gain, but he does. Whenever I raise this point, a small army of people rush to his defence by saying that “that’s how the internet works”. Well, no it’s not, it’s how the internet is misused. If George Takei is too busy or too lazy to create his own content, he should use the mechanisms Facebook puts at his disposal to share third-party content legally, and in a way that automatically, without you having to do anything else, attributes it.
The following list illustrates the problem. This is a summary of the first fifty posts on my feed just before I started writing this blog. “Original” means the person who posted it actually formulated and wrote the post himself or herself; “Quote” means a photo or montage with a caption added to it; “Article” means a link to an article on an online blog or news site.
Original (Game app high score)
Original (One week until trip)
Original (Request for movie recommendations)
Original (General observation about relationships)
Original (Single-line comment)
Share (Disguised plug)
Article (News, satire)
Original (Thanks for birthday greetings)
Original (Watched a movie)
Photo (Family, vintage)
Original (Went to party)
Original (Hung out with friends)
Photo (Friend was tagged)
Share (Tumblr image)
Original (Birthday greetings)
Original (Going to get a tattoo)
Photo (Friend was tagged)
The “disguised plug” was a reshare of a Facebook post that looked innocuous enough, but was actually an advert for a business.
All of the posts not described as “Original” were accompanied by little or no input from the poster — perhaps a comment like, “I agree!” or “LOL”. Some of the articles are interesting enough, but I can think of only one of my Facebook friends — who happens not to feature on this list — who bothers, when sharing an article, to add his personal analysis to it. It only needs to be a sentence or two, but it shows that he has an original thought of his own about it. I may disagree with his original thought, but I respect the fact that he has an original thought. I prefer to lose a discussion with him, than to pick on a glaring hole in some article only to have my friend say, “Oh yeah, I never noticed that.” Well, if all it took for you to change your mind about an article was for me to query the integrity of the second paragraph, you obviously didn’t read it.
Shared articles are bad enough. Quotes and photos are worse.
Photos... don’t get me started on photos. I occasionally post photos of my own, but I keep them to a minimum. Yes, it’s nice to see the people I’m talking to, and their families, and the places they live. But when I was growing up, the concept of boredom was epitomised by the middle-aged couple inviting their friends round for a slide-show (“This is me on the beach... this is Mary on the beach... this is me and Mary on the beach... this is the beach without me or Mary... this is a picture of my feet, because I pressed the button by mistake...”). We don’t need slide-shows now: we’ve got Instagram instead.
At least we now have the option of just not clicking through all the pictures, but that doesn’t stop a lot of them appearing in my feed: baby’s first T-shirt, a hotel room (seriously?), a glass of beer, a cake, an underexposed photo of mostly bluish-white which, on closer inspection, represents a back yard with four inches of snow on it. Life is way too short. Unfortunately, my Facebook feed is much longer. “Don’t look at them if they irritate you so much,” I hear you cry, but of course I still have to scroll through my feed to find something I’m actually interested in.
So don’t get me started on photos. But quotes are worse. Much, much worse.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am simply a magnet for people who think that engaging in political debate means parroting other people’s soundbites. I suspect, though, that the problem is considerably more widespread.
It doesn’t matter what the issue is, everyone does it. Everyone. Theists, atheists, socialists, conservatives, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, gun control activists, gun rights activists, it makes not a jot of difference. I get a photo (which is either absurdly flattering or spitefully unflattering, depending on the point being made) with a quote and perhaps an explanatory gloss. The quote is nearly always taken out of context or misrepresented in some way, but since it’s a short soundbite, this is pretty much unavoidable. It is why soundbites do not make any kind of basis for proper debate.
Sometimes the quote is actually made up. More often, though, the explanatory gloss contains factual errors. For the record, then, and to pick two random examples off the top of my head, it is not true that Swiss law requires all citizens to be armed, and Sarah Palin never claimed she could see Russia from her house.*
You see, it may well be that some eminent scientist said something about some philosophical concept, and it may even be pithy. But a pithy quote that relies on a cute piece of irony to make its point adds nothing to whatever debate it is you think you’re having by posting it. It’s a pithy soundbite, but without knowing the context I still don’t know what he actually believes. More to the point, I still don’t know where you stand on the issue, because you didn’t say. In some cases, the quote, once you get past the cute piece of irony, actually contains a logical fallacy of some kind or makes no point at all, leaving me with a nagging sense of doubt: did this eminent scientist actually say this? And if he did, did he mean what you seem to think he means? The point was made by one satirical image that resurfaces from time to time: a picture of Patrick Stewart captioned, “Use the Force, Harry — Gandalf”.
This isn’t debate. This is people hurling quotes at each other. “He who hesitates is lost!” — “Oh yeah? Well, a rolling stone gathers no moss!”
To drive the point home more fully, here’s a quote: “I have no objection to faith and belief. I have faith and belief myself. — Isaac Asimov.”
So what do we get from that? That Isaac Asimov had religious faith? That would come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Isaac Asimov, an atheist. That quote comes from his introduction to a book called Counting the Eons, a collection of essays he wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the early eighties, although the essays were actually about science fact. In this introduction, he explains that while he will concede that he himself has faith in things he cannot prove (those things being “that the universe is comprehensible within the bounds of natural law and that the human brain can discover those natural laws and comprehend the universe”) and must therefore allow other people to do the same, he is nevertheless enraged at what he calls the “Moral Majority” trying to force unscientific beliefs onto the school curriculum in the guise of science. Specifically, he is talking about “scientific creationism”, which these days is usually called “intelligent design”. Towards the end of his introduction, he says this:
If the creationists had their way, this book and many others would be burned, and we would all be compressed into the narrow, narrow bounds of their tiny and unthinking view of the universe. Well, I, for one, refuse to cower before them, refuse to truckle to them, refuse to compromise with them, and intend only to fight them — in order to preserve my simple right to think.
But don’t take my word for it. Find a copy and read it for yourself. For all you know, I could be making all this up just to make a point.
So basically, while Facebook has done me a great favour by putting me back in touch with old friends and gives me a relatively easy way to stay in contact with them, my feed is a dispiriting cocktail of dull non-information, recycled junk and generic photos. It’s not really your fault, friends, but these days it is all just a blur as I dutifully scroll through.
* If you want the facts, which you’ll have to check up on in your own time, here they are: In Switzerland, most men between the ages of 20 and 30 are conscripted into the militia, and keep their service weapon at home; however, the ammunition is kept at the armory and the weapons are to be used only when the militia is called upon to defend Switzerland against invasion. And although Sarah Palin did say, not completely inaccurately, that it is possible to see Russia from Alaska, the quote about seeing it from her home originated in Tina Fey’s parody.