Photograph of a sign in a store window that reads "FREE WIFI & INSPIRATION"

Seen at the REI Store in Roseville CA

Back in May, I talked about some of the hyperbole that constantly surrounds social media trends. If you follow these trends at all, you’re always hearing that [fill in the blank] is now the hot platform, what you know already is obsolete, and there’s something magical that will answer all of your needs just around the corner, especially if you’ll fund my kickstarter account!

In the meantime, the most popular and commonly used platforms are constantly changing things, seemingly to maintain hipness and interest plus deal with constant lawsuits over privacy violations and patent infringement. Less popular ones do the electronic equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

I used to think that a lot of this stuff is done just to tick me off. I really loathe it everytime a platform innovates, and Facebook is the nadir of this annoyance, I guess because it’s the most pervasive platform out there. I hate it for the same reason I hate video games. I never get the doggone thing totally figured out! Just when I feel like I know what’s going on, here comes a shift; a new reality.

Much as it might annoy me, though, these platforms have to innovate constantly. Part of it is litigation. It’s common knowledge that Facebook, Instagram, Google and other platforms are constantly being sued for privacy violations. As a result, they change the way they collect, display and use information.  It’s not benign or necessarily corrective, by the way. Rather than really address privacy issues in a way that most people would be happy with, the changes often just provoke frustration and tick people off. Most recently, privacy settings have changed on personal pages. This and several other things have been explained by Information Week.

They like to change how information is laid out on the platform too. It was just a couple of years ago that Facebook did a major redesign to incorporate cover images. and switch over to a two-column layout. Milestones also appeared, allowing you to highlight significant dates. Nearly everyone I talked with about these things hated them, but we adapted.

Another reason for this constant innovation is to better monetize the platform. It’s one of the things that virtually all of us, I think, totally disregard about social media. Regardless of whether we’re providing content as an individual or on behalf of an interpretive site or business, we are performing unpaid labor for the platform’s owners.

Let me rephrase that. Without our content, Facebook, Instagram, Google +, Foursquare, Tumblr, or whatever has no content to draw viewers. No viewers, no eyeballs, no advertisers, no Silicon Valley, no Mark Zuckerberg, no… Hey, wait! This could be just great! I’m going to set up a Meetup group so we can plan this, and then send out evites, and…

DANG!

Al Jazeera has a great opinion piece written by E. Alex Jung called Is It Time To Quit Facebook? where he makes his case pretty well. You may have heard about the research project that Facebook used us as Guinea Pigs for, Emotional Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks. You can read the “editorial concern” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for yourself to learn some of the details, but essentially Facebook played everyone who uses the platform by selecting post types that you and I would receive, determining (duh) that happy posts make us more engaged, while sad or non-happy posts decrease our engagement. This might sound kind of silly and obvious, but it’s not if you understand that we are not only an audience, but also unpaid content providers for some of the richest and largest content providers in the world. The study, while verifying something that seems obvious, also gives license to social media platforms to target what we will see, to drive more engagement and therefore sell and charge more for ad content.

How does this concern us, aside from the obvious? Well, for those of us who provide content on behalf of an employer or a beloved interpretive site, perhaps some of our most intellectually important posts are not “happy” enough, and won’t be seen by a large part of our desired audience.

The work we do as interpreters is not at all related to feeding tame deer and reveling in nature’s beauty. Well, part of it is, I guess, but in addition to the “happy” stuff we also interpret tragedy, death, greed, horror, accident and natural disaster. If we don’t, but they are part of our story, we do a disservice to our audience and stakeholders. Who is the world is Facebook or whoever to censor or diminish distribution of what we feel is important to get out to our audiences? Who gave them the right?

I’ve previously opined that social media is the equivalent of a public utility. They are pervasive, ubiquitous, and necessary for a lot of people to keep up in a fast-paced and modern world. I was wrong. A public utility normally provides a level of service commensurate with our ability to pay for the services. My water service won’t be diminished by my mood or the colors of the flowers in my garden. My electricity won’t be cut off if I like to burn lights all night, and my satellite provider won’t change my channel lineup based on what they think I should see. How can social media providers then, filter what I see versus what’s put on the platform and offered for viewing?

They are the owners. We are the unpaid employees, and we are at least partially, suckers for agreeing to be in servitude to them.

I’m not quitting social media; it’s simply too much a part of my life, and it’s definitely a part of my work. I’m not happy about it though.