The benefits and costs of Facebook (and how to maximize surplus for self)

[Disclaimer: An earlier version of this post was published a couple of years back elsewhere. This is a revised and updated version.]

Facey is in the news again.

Apparently it shut down a huge and quickly growing (360,000 and counting) group of Trump allies that was used to organize protests against vote counting meant to promote Trump’s latest misleading narrative. A few days earlier, Facebook moderators were instructed to suppress a controversial New York Post story about Hunter Biden, according to leaked moderation guidelines seen by The Guardian. These two incidences are the latest in a long string of Facebook’s attempts to counteract the acknowledged ability of various actors to use its platform for various forms of mischief.

Predictably, plenty of social-media activity ensued. It always does.

There are indeed important issues here about freedom of speech and the obligation of Facebook, or twitter for that matter, to reign into posts of questionable facticity. For what it’s worth, Facebook’s and twitter, in my humble opinion, handled the election in the US and its ongoing aftermath in surprisingly effective ways. However, this is not the topic of this post which is of more personal nature and in which I try to reflect on Facebook’s usefulness from a personal point of view, weighing the benefits and costs of using it.

Facebook has been considered a necessary evil by many, its scope and usage continue to grow, with numbers a couple of years back suggesting that more than half of the Australian population have an account and on average spend 1.7 hours a day on it, qualifying them as some of the heaviest users world-wide. Here are the reasons it is for me.

Let’s get the costs out of the way first.

There are at least three costs and they are considerable, no doubt:

First, the Facebook business model monetizes the kind of private information that (all too) willing customers are providing by liking this and reacting to that in the various ways that it provides. Facebook uses these revealed preferences to customize the messages that it sends and the ads it presents. The more of these ads the Facebook user reacts to, the better for Facebook since that kind of activity translates straight into Facebook’s profits, click-through rates being an important success metric. For the Facebook user that does not only imply various annoyance costs but quite possibly subtle meddling with preferences and never-ending targeted marketing. Lots of attention costs on top of the opportunity cost that Facebooking brings about in any case. (Fortunately, their target marketing is typcially hilariously off-target, so it more a source of entertainment than annoyance.)

Second, Facebook presents a considerable invasion in privacy and security all the way to outright scams (google “skype video scam”). Reasonable pre-caution — for me, for example, not accepting the many requests by scantily dressed pretty young things who want to friend me — can avoid some of it but it is essentially impossible to escape the milking of emails that Facebook seems somehow be able to do. It is surely no coincidence (although it seems, as often, poor inference on Facebook’s part) that ads for some airline show up when I just made a booking on that airline for a trip.

Third, and possibly the most important negative thing about it, is Facebook’s addictive features. Like e-mail, or texting, it is now well understood to induce a form of neural addiction and, like e-mail, or texting that addiction gets triggered faster when its rewards are structured in an intermittent-variable way. This does not even take designers to do, it is a feature that is built-in. Your mind gets easily hi-jacked, the reason being the choice between the considerable effort a serious task takes– writing that article, or report, or preparing that lecture — or reading up on a couple chatty news item.

Relatedly, there are also health costs that come with it. Because Facebook is often read on mobile devices — in Australia of the 10 million that are on Facebook every day, 9 million are on a mobile device –, “text necks” have become a recent epidemic with serious consequences for those affected by it.

Now that we got the costs out of the way, why would anyone in their sane mind use it? Well, for starters, other social media platforms such as twitter are not much better.

I see at least three benefits:

First, it is an easy way to stay in touch with the large number of people I met over the years. Friends from kindergarden (quite literally), to peers at various educational institutions, and teachers and students as well. Then there is all kinds of social contacts, random and not-so-random encounters of various kinds, and others. Of course, this motley network poses interesting questions about what the meaning of the word “friends” is in this context. Some have argued that there is a natural limit to the number of meaningful friends one can have [Dunbar’s number]. To me these are very silly notions drawing on conceptions of friendship that are antiquated. Clear is, to me, that there is absolute no reason to lose friends as you age, as was claimed in one recent study (see for write-ups about this study here and here).

Of course that takes some serious curating of your set of friends but it is often worth it. Once you have more than a couple of hundreds of friends, Facebook’s default setting deals with the resulting information flow and overload on its own mysterious terms and it algorithm often leads to “friends” drifting out of the feed. So Facey’s birthday reminder — worth the price of admission alone if you are as forgetful about these things as I am — is a good trigger to catch up quickly with someone’s recent activities. Being pro-active in this respect, and using several of the customization functions and prompts, is a way to defeat the Facebook algorithms that run in the background.

Second, Facey can be a fabulous content aggregator. Many — literally hundreds — of my Facebook friends are academics. At any point in time, and on any topic (replication crisis in the social sciences anyone? academics cutting corners? politics in Straya?) –, I can count on them posting comments, or links to articles, that I would most likely not come across otherwise. All moderated by the credibility that they have with me based on often long histories of postings. In addition, if I try to recall something or need some pointers, typically abrief post suffices to get me quickly all the information that I need. And then some.

Third, Facey it is an excellent platform to explore ideas, to test-drive ideas that might just be of interest (e.g., this post essentially aggregates ruminations of myself and others on and about Facebook), even to test-drive ideas that might lead to publishable products. It is the nature of Facebook that you can throw out even outrageous ideas for commentary.

How to maximize the value added for self?

First, stay away every day for about half a day completely. This is a strategy to avoid the neural- addiction problem and a rather useful way to go about digital de-toxing. It is not the only strategy of course — others have chosen other ways such as writing cocoons (see here and here) but mine works well for me. Very well indeed.

Second, when you are online — whether every day for half a day or between writing cocoons, try to use it as reward mechanism. I.e., don’t leave it one because you make yourself susceptible to the kind of neural addiction discussed above. Set yourself a goal — like finishing a draft, or reviewing a paper — and then reward yourself with some Facebooking. Then repeat. It might take some serious convincing yourself that the latest Trumpland update can really wait but once you manage to do it, you should have tamed the neural-addiction beast. Note that this way you also deconstruct the intermittent-variable-reward mechanism problem. While the strategy is simple and straightforward, its implementation is less so: Facebook’s data scientists estimate people check the platform about 14 times a day.

Third, be proactive. That is the way to counteract Facebook’s deviousness; it is also a way of keeping your site useful for your friends. Don’t just post stuff; at the minimum — lest it is obvious — rationalize your posts by offering a summary or commentary, or at least some excerpts from the article that you post. Facebooking is an indefinitely repeated game with multiple players and gift exchange is a major driver of its usefulness. Do not hesitate to delete out-of-bound or irrelevant comments or their perpetrators. Too many will post and repost over and over again what they think is interesting, often even without bothering to explain why, and thus most likely will end up cluttering your site. Plus, there are many that specialize in proselytizing on sites that are better curated and where their posts might reach more readers. While digital assets of the Facebook kind are not exactly commons, they tempt many to treat them that way.

In sum then, Facey has important costs — from outright opportunity costs over various annoyance and attention costs to added privacy, security, and addiction risks as well as health costs — but it also can be customized to bring about considerable benefits. By revealed preference, I obviously believe that the benefits outweigh the costs. It takes some effort though to get there.

Consider following my on Facebook at “Andreas Ortmann” and/or on twitter @aortmannphd.

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …