Thursday, 6 February 2014

Facebook's birthday and our narcissism

This week Facebook turned 10 and to celebrate it created a short video montage of every user. These montages featured things like the most liked photos or comments that had been posted on the site, accompanied by some saccharine sweet music. After watching this video users where given the option to share it in their timeline along with a link that enabled other users to make one of their own. The video was also hash tagged meaning that it quickly became a trending item on Facebook's new Twitter-esque feed.

Suffice to say, the personalised video went viral as more and more people noticed that users where sharing something that supposedly encapsulated their time spent on Facebook during the last decade (or however long you'd been using the site with your current identity).

In some ways this is what Facebook does best: it speaks to the narcissist in us. When we see our friends or our contacts posting something personal that they've liked, and by default, recommending that you do the same (or else why share it?), then you have the perfect ingredients for user engagement. Or so we may be led to believe.

The reaction to those video montages has been interesting. Some users, having seen their montage and liked it have then gone on to share it, hoping that their friends will also like it and share their own. This led to a cavalcade of spam in people's newsfeeds as more and more people posted their personalised video.

Several of my friends were quick to complain about this process, and with some justification. These videos are individualised and perhaps not really relevant to anybody other than the individual (or perhaps their significant other). When faced with this 'feed spam' they admonished other users for being so vain or narcissistic.

This highlights two or three interesting and interlinked facets of social media:

  1. relevance
  2. personalisation
  3. authority

Iggy Crop
For many users, seeing a news feed full of montages about other people's 'best' Facebook moments was not relevant to them, primarily because they were personal and relevant only to a very small circle of people. If a third party doesn't appear in the 'best of' montage the they are looking at random images selected by an algorithm with deep data mining powers, but very little individual consideration.

One of my 'highlights' was a picture of Iggy Pop with his stomach cropped to be his face - a funny joke from B3ta but certainly not a highlight of the 7 years I've been using the site. Some of the other selections where downright bizarre and included one of those games early (2009?) Facebook users used to play where they tagged you in post, then you had to find a random image and a random Wikipedia post and make an album cover - clearly not a significant part of my life but something that Facebook's algorithm misunderstood as 'relevant' because of its virality.

Fake album cover (2009)
I'm sympathetic to those people who were sick of seeing the video appear - perhaps they'd watched a few of their friend's montages hoping to see themselves feature more prominently? Or perhaps they were irritated that their personal video was made up of irrelevant photos? Or perhaps they were sick of that twee tune that played over the top? Regardless, they sought to exert a sense of authority or mastery over their environment by berating other users for sharing their montages. Clearly, these people didn't have to click play on their friend's videos and many of them probably didn't, yet they still felt the need to complain about them.

This exertion of authority is another aspect of the narcissism that social media can encourage. Expressing dissatisfaction with what others are doing is a classic strategy for asserting that your way is the right way - that you are superior to others. So, by both sharing the personal montage and by berating others for doing so, we've demonstrated some of the most egotistical behaviours that humans are capable of.

The best response is to say nothing. Don't feed the data gathering beast. Perhaps we've had enough of social media and it's time to say goodbye?