You’ve got a friend

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Can you remember a time before the Internet, Facebook, Google, Instagram, and all those other ubiquitous aspects of modern life? It seems like they’ve been around forever. But the Internet and the very first web site have only been part of our daily life since around 1990 – that’s less than thirty years. In that remarkably short space of time, the word “Friend” has changed its meaning quite radically, and the ease with which we can communicate with each other is now almost taken for granted.

I remember that initial amazement when I got my first computer: there, on my desk, was a tool I could use to find information, connect with people around the world, keep up with family and friends wherever they lived, and all that without anyone getting in the way. Things moved so fast after that. Facebook celebrated fifteen years in existence on February 4, just last week. I find that incredible: it can’t be that recent, surely? (I know, “don’t call me Shirley”. Unavoidable response).

The concept was wonderful. Originally designed for students at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg’s invention came to a world-wide market in 2006, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fifteen years after Facebook’s birth, it has 2.2 billion users, and Mark Zuckerberg has a personal fortune of about US$55bn. In just the last three months of 2018, Facebook earned an astonishing record profit of US$6.88bn. Other social media sites, including Instagram (also owned by Zuckerberg), Snapchat and Twitter, are also doing very well indeed, thank you very much.

This, in itself, is not a problem: well done for inventing such a useful technology. But the impact of such sites on our lives is becoming increasingly worrying. According to John Harris, in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper: “A substantial body of opinion links depression and anxiety to social media use, something routinely traced to online bullying and negative self-perception caused by reading other people’s online posts. According to the Millennium Cohort Study led by the Institute of Education, London (which follows the life experiences of 19,000 people born at the start of the 21st century), almost 40% of girls who spend more than five hours a day on social media show symptoms of depression; research in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health recorded young people themselves suggesting that all the big social platforms had a negative effect on their mental wellbeing, something that health professionals said was bound up with increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety”.

That’s the personal impact; but there is also the very real effect on our political and economic spheres. The interference by the Russian Government in the American election in 2016 and the Brexit referendum that same year, was only the tip of an iceberg of what has been happening in the official and unofficial worlds of hacking, espionage and political manipulation.

Social media sites depend on algorithms which “watches” what you click on-line, assigns each story or site you visit a personalized relevancy score that’s different for each person that sees it, and puts the most relevant stories first. This is designed to provide you with only the most relevant news stories, web sites, YouTube videos, etc., based on your history of browsing. Makes sense, of course, something needs to do that. At the start of 2018, there were 1,300,000,000 using YouTube. 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day.

Here’s the problem: as more material is “chosen” for you by algorithms, you have less and less exposure to new content, new ideas, differing points of view. Your personal ideas and beliefs are reinforced, never being exposed to other perspectives. Is this a good thing? Is it educating us, bringing us together, or perpetuating differences and prejudices that keep us apart?

Personally, I would love to get rid of Facebook and other web utilities, but they have become essential for my work. I try not to feel guilty when I don’t let someone know I’m thinking of them on their birthday. I think it’s important to keep a separation between public and private life, whenever possible; to give myself time to reflect, enjoy things that don’t come via a computer or phone screen.

Other people, or at least their algorithms, are deciding what I will see on-line. It takes a definite choice on my part to deliberately look for other sources of information, social contact, perspective and opinions. I still get a shiver when I go to a foreign newspaper website and notice that all the ads are for Canadian businesses, or even for Ottawa-area ones. When I visit that Guardian website, based in the U.K., the weather forecast on the main page tells me what the temperature is in Ottawa, or even Kemptville. Big Brother is, indeed, watching.

People on Facebook or other sites tend more and more to “sanitise” their persona, only showing their best to the world. That may be understandable for a while, but it is vital that we get back to the real world sometimes, where we meet people every day; people who know the real us, talk about real things, share real interests and ideas. In the end, that’s what friends are for.

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