When Facebook was down for most of the day on October 4, 2021, did you miss it, were you relieved or something of both? Social scientists have compiled an extensive body of research that shows how people have come to develop a love-hate relationship with the social media giant with nearly 3 billion users.
Many users have felt that their relationship with the platform has turned into a messy codependence surrounded by ambiguity and mistrust. For others, the reliance on the platform is taken lightly, if at times appreciated in moments of pandemic isolation.
And then there are revelations that the company is lying about applying its rules differently to important ones, intentionally harming teenage girls and there’s a huge vaccine misinformation problem. Adding insult to injury, Facebook locked his keys in his car and didn’t show up for more than five hours. In short, Facebook is a hot mess.
All of this leads to an extremely high-maintenance relationship, leaving users to wonder whether they should move on with healthier friends. But it was not always so.
At the time of its launch, Facebook was one of the most authentic social networking partners. Existing online networks, such as MySpace, had influential parent companies that followed their platforms, harassing users with advertisements and gimmicks. But Facebook promised something different: a real connection. It was an untapped social space to live your best life – before anyone hashed it out.
Even today, friendship with Facebook comes with a lot of benefits. Most importantly, it is the friend who brings everyone together. Participating in this community has been shown to strengthen ties between close friends and casual acquaintances. Individuals can engage with community causes, share identities and engage in entertaining videos. Facebook has been credited with helping organize coalitions that toppled dictators and raised millions of dollars to fight the disease.
Adding to Facebook’s popularity, it lets users carefully curate a public image, while emphasizing the best parts of their lives. The site has become a central source for information not only about each other, but about the world. More than half of US Facebook users report regularly consuming news on the platform.
Academics also befriended Facebook. I led a study revealing that it is the most researched topic in information and communication technology since 2005. This focus has led to advances in online interaction, digital activism and understanding human psychology.
But Facebook’s surprising success has come at the cost of the privacy of its virtual friends. Its “we sell ads” business model may sound benign, but the platform collects more data and information about users than they may knowingly know about themselves.
By sharing users’ data, enabling disinformation campaigns and election interference, Facebook has shown its allegiance – and they do not include protecting users. The carelessness of user data, or what increasingly looks like deliberate misuse, has made it difficult for people with even the most intimate of relationships to trust the platform.
In the meantime, the company continues to change the information people view on its platform, which has consequences. Research has found that changes in Facebook’s algorithm can affect users emotionally. This has made the public more politically polarized and less likely to share minority views – implications that could derail democracy.
Algorithms promoting day-to-day social comparison have also had an impact on mental health. Recent research clearly shows that Facebook use lowers individuals’ happiness – both immediately and in the long term. Facebook use is linked to depression and so many other negative psychological outcomes that it prompted a summary report of 56 studies on the topic.
enemy for now
Despite widespread calls to #DeleteFacebook, most users have maintained their profiles and found themselves disrupted by its most recent outage. Why? Because staying away from Facebook means leaving a network that has social currency and value. The site claimed 2.8 billion active users at the end of 2020, more than a third of the global population. As members of Congress have pointed out, Facebook has few market competitors, which means it serves as the primary, if not the only, way to connect large groups. It holds users together (or sometimes hostages) by building relationships with all of their friends.
Those who love Instagram or WhatsApp know that Facebook owns it too, and is working to solidify the technology behind them. These platforms were also down yesterday. Even those who have the will to unfriend Facebook will still find their data flowing into the content that other people add to the platform and its affiliates. It’s nearly impossible to escape Facebook’s orbit.
Still, it will require significant changes to regain public confidence. Options for unchanged news feeds, transparent advertising, and user control of data and metadata would be good places to start. But at the moment, it is not clear whether Facebook will make these changes to save its billions of friendships.
Meanwhile, most of Facebook’s friends are updating their privacy settings and just trying to coexist.
This is an update of an article originally published on January 30, 2019.