Facebook Fatigue and Privacy Panic: Has the Golden Age of Social Media Ended?
For years, we have been deluged with stories about the dangers of online social media. But in the last several months, a new kind of story has suddenly swept the mainstream media and the blogosphere alike. This new type of story highlights burgeoning discontent amongst the user-base of social media sites and, at least implicitly, questions whether mass exhibitionism on social media is just a faddish blip on the cultural radar.
For example, recent articles discuss how high school students have grown cautious and are adopting pseudonyms to avoid having their profiles examined by college admissions committees. More broadly, social media is being problematized for its infinite capacity to absorb attention, which makes it, at minimum, a potential distraction, and, at worse, an object of obsession. Most prominent, however, is the issue of privacy. We know that Facebook continues to expose more and more details about us, while they have made it increasingly complex to adjust our privacy settings.
What are we to make of the media’s newest infatuation: Does 2010 really mark a major turning point in the history of the Internet? While an answer to this question would be speculative at best, a more manageable, and decidedly more empirical, question lies at its core: Is there a real mass movement afoot to reduce or terminate exhibitionism on social media, or is the media imposing a sort of baseless, top-down narrative on the millions of people who have integrated social media into their everyday lives?
All the disparate issues being raised in the media are manifestations of a deeper contradiction at the heart of the dominant for-profit models of social media: Because the profitability of these businesses is directly proportionate to three factors – frequency of use, accuracy of information provided, and the extent to which information is made public – they tend be structured to encourage behaviors that are incongruent with people’s own wants, needs, and goals. Moreover, we are seeing that as these companies evolve in order to make themselves more profitable, they often do so at the expense of users’ interests. Zeynep Tufekci recently described the radical nature of the conflict users experience on Facebook, saying “[t]he correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors.”
If we are truly in climate of increased user alienation – a question that demands future surveying – I think it’s very possible that social media sites operating on a different model (perhaps based on the soon-to-be-released open source Diasporia platform) may very well be able to capitalize on this discontent by providing a more privacy-friendly and less attention-demanding alternative. A not-for-profit site might lack the same conflict of interest that appears to afflict the dominant social-networking sites like Facebook and Myspace.
So, is the golden age of social media ending? Doubtful. But mass frustration, if it exists, would create an opportunity for innovative new systems to challenge the dominance of Facebook, Myspace, and perhaps, others. In this case, it may be that the golden age of for-profit social media is threatened.