Facebook wants to be liked. Will that be enough to make it change?
Facebook-- appropriately-- just reminded me that it was a year ago that I wrote one of the most trafficked stories we published all of last year. It was called “Lean Out: The deafening post-November silence of Sheryl Sandberg.”
Rapidly after my story ran, Sandberg posted publicly about women-centric issues, made a donation to Planned Parenthood, and did a friendly sit-down interview explaining why she missed the Women’s March. Her oped on the #metoo movement was hardly a full-throated support of those women coming forward, instead warned of a backlash and said HR should do more. Her brand of careerism feminism was radical when she published “Lean In.” It now reads a little too pragmatic for my taste in 2018.
Facebook maintained the timing was purely coincidental, but whatever it was, it was a rapid about face. I’m not sure it’s one that was backed up in Sandberg’s actions throughout the year though. For one thing, she once again neglected to post anything about the Women’s March, despite it being one of the largest acts of feminist activism in American history and she gained fame writing a bestselling book arguing women should link arms and stand up for one another. Perhaps she meant it metaphorically.
This year, it’s Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg under fire for Facebook’s role in various elections and the possibility of Russian manipulation of those elections. Not only that: But multiple early Facebook insiders and investors-- even including its founding president Sean Parker-- have openly described why the company’s addictive service is bad for society, democracy, and children.
Mark Zuckerberg has pledged in 2018 to get to the bottom of everything toxic about Facebook. He’s acknowledged that some uses of social media are bad. And he’s made some decisions already in what will show up in the newsfeed that at least sound as if they are putting decency over profits.
And yet, a year from now, I wonder how much real change we’ll see?
In the same time it says it’s taking all of this seriously, Facebook has also announced a social network aimed at children as young as six. Children’s Health Advocates have written an open letter to Facebook asking them to shut it down.
From the letter:
At a time when there is mounting concern about how social media use affects adolescents’ wellbeing, it is particularly irresponsible to encourage children as young as preschoolers to start using a Facebook product. Social media use by teens is linked to significantly higher rates of depression,1 and adolescents who spend an hour a day chatting on social networks report less satisfaction with nearly every aspect of their lives.2 Eighth graders who use social media for 6-9 hours per week are 47% more likely to report they are unhappy than their peers who use social media less often.3 A study of girls between the ages of 10 and 12 found the more they used social networking sites like Facebook, the more likely they were to idealize thinness, have concerns about their bodies, and to have dieted.4 Teen social media use is also linked to unhealthy sleep habits.
Indeed, a paper published in Clinical Psychological Science pointed to an alarming change in teenagers over the time iPhones reached the mainstream and soared to 73% of all teens, and with them always on access to social media.
Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.
And it isn’t just doctors and childhood advocates that are worried. The drumbeat of tech leaders calling out Facebook keeps increasing. Marc Benioff has openly compared it to smoking, repeatedly, Tweeting this today:
When I was a kid I remember cigarette companies providing cigarettes with their logos that were made of bubble gum. You blew out powdered sugar smoke! The idea was to get kids interested in smoking early! Reminds me of questions about when kids should start using social media! pic.twitter.com/ceDUFvjy7J— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) January 30, 2018
This is the tech story to watch in 2018. Unlike Uber, which relished being hated and saw lawsuits as a sign of success, Facebook and its leaders are people who want to be liked. Facebook became as powerful as it did, because the companies that could dethrone it admired Facebook enough to sell.
Will Zuckerberg do a better job convincing us he really does care about these issues than Sandberg did with women’s issues over the last year?