Let’s take a trip back in time to the spring of 2007 and my first and only semester at a Christian college. These were the middle ages of the internet, between dialup and the ubiquity of the smart phone. There was no web browser in your pocket, getting online required you to sit down and fire up your laptop. The web was a place you did research, send emails, read the news, and maybe online gaming. It was seen as a tool and nothing else by the majority of the populace. The fall before I created a Myspace page but really found no use for it as I already saw my friends in person frequently. When I moved away to attend school, I needed a less clunky means to keep up with them than email. Myspace was blocked by the restrictive firewall at the school however so that was out of the question. One friend at the college suggested I try this site called Facebook. It was allowed by the college as it was deemed cleaner than other social networks. On January 11, 2007 I officially created my profile.
The site wasn’t anything close to what it’s mutated into. For one, it wasn’t open to the general public, you had to have a college email to obtain a profile. Upon logging in you would be greeted with your home page. There was a mini feed but it generally only displayed what you’ve done on your own profile. You had your wall, a photo album, notes, events, and groups. You would also send private messages to other individuals but these was no chat or messenger. Your status update was preceded with “is” by default and most importantly, there was no like button. Basically, it was just an extension to normal every day social interactions. For the first few weeks of obtaining an account, I hardly touched it. I still didn’t see much of a purpose to it.
It was only later in the year when it became a tool for staying in touch with friends from other schools and coordinating events with friends. Sometimes I would write a note commenting on some current event or a sermon (this was deep into my religious days). I found myself frequenting the site more, sometimes mulling over the photos of someone’s trip or events. Even so, it was still just a tool and nothing more. I simply didn’t have time to sit in one place during the day and stare at the screen. That same year, the company introduced a chat feature to the site (but it was yet to be called messenger and personal messages were a separate inbox). This was the first of a binge of feature creep that would occur over the next decade. Just a year later, the country was deep into the 2008 election season and I began to see the first signs of online political polarization.
Fast forward to the present and you can see where those two trends have led us. Facebook has long ceased to be a tool but instead an addiction. It incorporates design elements that trigger dopamine hits in the users mind. The like button and push notifications are good examples of this. It’s now with us all day in our pockets. People get actual withdrawal symptoms when their access to the site is restricted. Furthermore, there was a missed opportunity that could have steered society towards a better place. You would have thought that unrestricted communication between everyone would have led to an exchange of ideas. Society should have been balanced out to a reasonable, moderate position of ideology. Instead everyone is caught in their own echo chamber, everyone is in their own little group sharing memes that bash the other side. Instead of sharing the best of humanity we have chosen to share the worse. Lets not overlook the studies that have linked constant social media use with depression on top of that.
Personally, the site has been a double edged sword. I have made close friends who I would have never met otherwise. I have also lost others in moments of weakness. I decided to take a two long week hiatus and realized that I didn’t miss it. The way that I interacted with friends changed to the way it had been in the past. I actively checked up on people and asked them how they were doing. They appreciated this more than just casually seeing them on my news feed. I began to focus on one person at a time instead of trying to engage with everyone at once. Furthermore, I disconnected myself from the echo chambers and began to form individual conclusions on certain topics. Perhaps the net detriments out weigh the benefits overall, perhaps I need further time off the social network. I must ask if it has any further value in my life? I wonder of society needs to ask the same question.