On Tuesday, April 30 Facebook unveiled a major overhaul of their social networking website. This new design, moves away from being the “digital public-square” and towards private, group-centric communication. Facebook has faced numerous privacy concerns in the past several years, and the dangerous of social media in our culture have become more apparent. Social media has been in the spotlight for everything from its negative impact on mental health, a landslide of information privacy issues and its subersive influence in the 2016 election.
In this wake, Mark Zuckerberg vowed to take steps to ensure a safer, more secure Facebook experience for all people — quite a task to be sure.
Zuckerberg noted that private messages, groups and stories make up the fastest growing segments of social media usage. Users are increasingly interested in sharing information with their friends and families, but keeping their information private from the vast wilderness of the web.
With this in mind, he unveiled the next iteration of the landmark social media site at F8, Facebook’s annual developer’s conference. Here it is.
Clean, white, a shrunken news feed, and visual emphasis on groups, events, and stories and messages. What was your initial reaction to it?
While it may appear like a simple refresh, the ideological trajectory of the social media giant has shifted in a significant way. Facebook also owns WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram, and this philosophy will likely direct their future as well.
Visually, the sidebars may continue to grow as the news feed tapers off. Messages and stories take a more significant, and permanent position on the site’s architecture. Home is rooted in groups.
The move away from News Feed makes sense. Many of us have likely experienced the ache of seeing another article — another set of high-school acquaintances or worse, family members talking past each other and demonizing each other in the low-stakes public square. There is no question, this thing was tired. But let’s take a minute to asses not just what this means for us in the next roll out, but what this significant philosophical change might mean for our shared future.
“The future is private.” It even says it on the slide of the photo at the top of the article. One of the most significant things that a instantaneously connected global system has taught is that it can’t be trusted. Some people can, certainly! But there’s no telling who out there may be looking at your information, and the reality is that people… or bots… are looking. From co-workers to transnational identity thieves, to future employers, to your grandparents, someone out there is paying attention.
I’ve observed this bent towards privacy in people more and more. We hold our breath in large public gatherings. We look at our phones rather than risking a conversation with someone unknown. We keep smaller circles of friends. We want our business to stay our business. And in part, this makes sense. We’re constantly connected to a world littered with atrocity after atrocity. Seeing five stories in a week about a parent murdering their child, or a bombers in a church, or a shooting in an institution is enough to make anyone suspicious of the world around them, much less five stories a day. So we withdraw to the safety of our homes, our smaller gatherings, and increasingly for young people, to simply communicating through the saftey-glass windows of our screens. Private social media communication is the new way to feel “safe” in a world increasingly averse to the public square. That’s not to say that it is safe, but it certainly can feel that way. It is, however, private. Entire conversations and relationships can develop without a sound being uttered, going unnoticed by a parent or partner living in the same house.
Another facet of Facebook’s transition is an increased emphasis on groups. The idea here seems to be targeted at the constant political skirmishes we observe online. If you hopped over to Facebook right now, a few of them are likely taking place. Through this we’ve developed the “exhausted majority,” wearied by never-ending petty arguments, and hungry for meaningful connection. The move towards groups hopes to increase productive communication between people with similar interests and ideals. These groups will span the gamut of interests in the spirit of reddit and hashtags, while simultaneously propelling our culture further into tribalism. When meaningful conversations can no longer happen, we simply stop trying. Giving up discourse might be our most dangerous step yet.
Groups provide a safe harbor among the vastness of the internet. We can create boundaries to ensure that we only associate with people who think like us, or at least share the same interests. This is not bad in itself, by any means, the goal is to create communities. But these new communities are always a mixed bag and how they interact with each other is equally important.
It remains to be seen where this will lead, but Facebook’s new trajectory moves the social networking space toward smaller, more segmented communities for the sake of privacy and civility. This may dramatically reduce the amount of conflict that takes place in the online space, and will likely improve privacy, but it also brings with it a sense of secrecy, taking the lack of trust we already feel in public spaces a step further. It seems that this moves in a direction of further fracturing the public persona and the private life, which may just be why the public square is dangerous in the first place.