This week, Facebook unveiled a massive update on its most well-known feature: the ubiquitous thumbs-up icon called a Like. The company announced that it will now allow users to nuance their appreciation for a post, video or status update, by not just Liking, but opting from a range of other emotions.
Love , Haha, Wow, Sad and Angry are the new Like features that users can employ to convey what they feel. Facebook said it was doing this so that users can better express themselves on the world’s pre-eminent social platform. Indeed, the restricted usefulness of Like is a story much talked about. Liking a post about the death of a friend’s relative just does not cut it. Similarly, just Liking a video of a furry kitten making love to a ball of wool makes one look like a grump.
For all that though, Facebook’s new bouquet of emoticons is another attempt by the social media giant to get inside the minds of its users. Facebook has long understood that its longevity in a tech-fickle world will rest on its ability to give its 1.5 billion users what they want. If that means understanding what they like (and Like), the company will make every effort to work that into its algorithm.
In a piece published in January, Slate’s Will Oremus went inside the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California to study how precisely Facebook achieves this seemingly impossible goal. He came across an army of highly intelligent men and women whose sole purpose is to track what users are doing on Facebook and to use the humongous quantity to data so generated to tweak the site’s offerings.
This can have unintended consequences. For one, the more Facebook knows what I like, the more it is likely to offer me stuff similar to it. While this is entirely welcome as a need-fulfilment strategy, it omits to consider a crucial aspect of social media: their tendency to become echo chambers where one’s views get incrementally approved without any possibility of repudiation.
So, if I am a Trump supporter, and Like any article that features him, Facebook would likely offer me more Trump pieces. There is the caveat that a Trump piece need not necessarily be positive — which is a problem Facebook is continually working to solve, the latest iteration asking its users what kind of Like they would prefer to use.
This can lead to a situation fast obtaining in the physical media, viz. consumers visit those media properties that support their politics or ideology in a self-reinforcing loop of adulation and condemnation. In these highly partisan times, both abroad and back home, such a climate cannot be salubrious for the public discourse.
The more grievous charge against Facebook is invasion of privacy. The more Likes we click, the more the company is able to build a profile about us, and the more we open ourselves to becoming lab rats in an online (and yes, much darker) version of the Orwellian nightmare. In a widely criticised move, Facebook acknowledged in 2014 that it had bombarded the news feeds of some 700,000 users in 2012 with negative stories to study the impact on and behaviour of the users after the fact.
In this regard, Facebook has a sinister advantage over other tech companies that are more hardware oriented. Apple has been in the eye of a storm after its CEO Tim Cook publicly refused to cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over unlocking the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the mastermind of the San Bernardino shootings that killed 14 people last year.
Cook’s widely circulated memo evoked memories of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency contractor’s revelations of the security agency looking into the call details of ordinary Americans: “This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”
Facebook, with its ability to manipulate its offerings in the ethereal world of bits and bytes, does not face nearly the same challenges. Already, it has become a force to reckon with in the journalism space. Last year, it unveiled Instant Articles, a platform that stores news pieces on its servers, rather than have the user visit the parent media website to read the piece. Presented as a solution to slow loading of content on mobile, the arrangement took Facebook deeper into a media ecosystem of which it is already king.
So, is Facebook all set to rule our lives? While it may seem so, the company has not always tasted victory in its plans to dominate the Internet. Its most recent failure was its inability to convince the powers that be that India is ripe for Free Basics, its plan to provide cheap but restricted access to the Internet in rural areas. The aftermath of this decision sparked, among other things, a Twitter war in which the word “colonialism” was bandied about.
That may be stretching things too far. But if there is one thing the Web has taught us, it is that its immense power can be channelled not just to expand access to knowledge and take forward the fight for liberty, but also to drive power into the hands of a few and turn corporations into money-spinning behemoths. To have range as we click that cute blue-coloured button is undoubtedly a tactile and psychological pleasure, but we must not stop questioning how much we are giving away as we return, again and again, to get our Facebook fix.