thoughts on social networking: active engagement vs. reactive consumption

Mike Carlson
Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”.

I continue to think about my relationship to social networking as offered by ad-driven, for-profit corporations. While I focus heavily on Facebook at the moment, the truth is I think we should be thinking about all of the services we rely on where a powerful and ubiquitous corporation has wormed its way between us and the people we care about and/or want to engage with, offering us a ‘free’ service where the cost is our privacy and the details of our lives. To paraphrase a recent read, our lives and our data are the product, the customers are corporations reaping the analysis of our data, and the social network is effectively a pimp. I read a couple of useful pieces on the broader topic here, one pro and one con in their views, on whether to jettison Facebook — they’re worth a read: and

I had a long conversation with my sister this evening — via Facebook Messenger voice call, and not without awareness of this irony — in which I further developed my thoughts. To be honest, I’m pretty lonely at 50 years old, and the passive engagement offered by Facebook does nothing to offset that. We all desire to be sought out, to have someone want to seek us out and engage with us. The kind take on this is I think it’s not so much for lack of desire that people don’t, but more that most of us are overwhelmed by our lives, filled as they are with the mixed consequences of family, information overload, the demands on our time and attention presented by urban life, and that most of us are well-trained in reacting, to the point we’ve forgotten what it is to act. We grab our phones and flip through our Facebook feed because it’s a convenient, one-stop aggregation point — Facebook is the Walmart of social connection.

Before I continue on the titular angle though, I want to present two other toxic aspects of social networking in its most prevalent and successful form:

It encourages us to keep connection to people who have no desire to meaningfully engage with us, a situation motivated by a focus on quantity over quality (more friends is better, right?) and nostalgia.

By Facebook standards, I have a modest number of ‘friends’, but really only around 10% of them have commented on or even reacted to anything I’ve posted in the last year, and maybe 2–3% of them have gone to the effort to directly post something to my timeline. Many of those on my friends list are individuals I bear nostalgic goodwill toward, but with whom I now have profound disagreements, and seeing the gulf that’s opened up between us over 30 years is like a painful little jab each time I nostalgically browse their timelines. We are next to nothing to one another in the present day, and I imagine they may have similar conflicted feelings about me, given how far down Satan’s path I have ended up, and how I have been so woefully poisoned by critical thought, secular humanism, and general godlessness.

So, why do we bother? Nostalgia is a powerful thing. As our lives accumulate the baggage and scars that are unavoidable marks of survival and character, it can be enjoyable to think back to a time when things were less complicated, where our ignorance was a degree of bliss, and the most troubling things we grappled with were parentally-imposed curfews and whether this or that person liked us. Unfortunately, living in the past only distracts from the present, and so every time we spent even a few minutes in nostalgia-land, that’s time we are not present in our current lives. We can take those moments back.

The Feed sets corporate messaging equal to snippets from the lives of real people.

This is a hidden and sinister element I haven’t read about or heard mentioned so far. However, let’s consider that the Feed, in terms of design and layout, places roughly equal value on advertising, content from things we’ve ‘liked’, and posts from friends. The Feed places corporate messaging on equal footing with our selected interests and our friendships. This is insidious, as the psychological effect suggests that ad content is equal to, if not superior (due to the well-researched reality that ads are constructed to psychologically and emotionally manipulate us), to anything we like or any person we value. In short, if you are against Citizens United, you should probably consider getting off Facebook, because the same message — corporations are equal to people, and equally entitled to our time and consideration — is at its core.

Real friendship is based on willful and voluntary engagement. We do not consume friendship like vampires and, if we do, then we and the people in our lives need to get some help. Constantly reacting to others, and pre-meditatively trying to present ourselves in such a fashion as to elicit desired reactions from others, is not friendship — it’s called codependency. Friendship is not about poking each other all the time to get a reaction. Poking seeks to annoy, offering a negative stimulus in the hope of compelling engagement where it wouldn’t happen otherwise. Is this the foundation you want with the people you care about?

To me, active engagement requires the ability to stop, establish where we are and how we feel, then act with creativity and initiative toward others. When we actively engage with others, they feel seen and cared for — active engagement is generous, and furthers generosity in the world. On the other hand, passive and reactive consumption of one another as ‘friends’ reduces our lives to content that is only worth consuming if we happen across it as we participate in the low-investment and ding-driven Pavlovian behavior of scrolling through an app. I would rather have 90% fewer ‘friends’, and know who really desires my friendship, today. That’s why I’m deleting my Facebook account.

Mike Carlson

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I'm an atypical middle-aged white mountain-man with a strong interest in social justice. I answer to 'intellectual', 'introvert', and 'INFP'.

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