Tom Webster is Senior Vice President, Strategy and Marketing, at Edison Research, the preeminent media research company addressing how people listen to audio. He is a frequent keynote speaker at podcast and digital audio conferences. This column was originally published in Medium.
This week, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testifed before Congress that Facebook harms children, stokes division, and is actively damaging our democracy. Worse, Haugen said, they know it, and have chosen to pursue profits over the mental and in some cases physical health of its users. It remains to be seen what Congress may do about this — have you been friended on social media by a Senator lately? — but now the problem has a human face, and Haugen’s testimony, combined with the recent publication of The Facebook Files from the Wall Street Journal, have put the problem squarely in view of the American public.
A cynic might believe that ultimately, her testimony will change nothing. I would submit that her interview on 60 Minutes was actually an important step in the changing of hearts and minds. After all, the circle of people who already believe that Facebook is a pressing problem, and the circle of people who watch 60 Minutes, may not overlap all that much, and this may have awakened a whole new cohort of Americans to an issue they had heretofore been untroubled by. Still, there remains a gap — a yawning chasm, even — between believing there is a problem, and doing something about it.
Here is that gap, in the form of two questions:
- Do you think Facebook is a problem?
If you do not agree that there is “a problem” with Facebook, that’s OK — the rest of this article may not be for you. But if you do, then you are ready to tackle the second question:
2. Do you have a problem with Facebook?
Surely you do not, right? You are smart, capable, and good, as my wife Tamsen always says, and far too mentally strong to be sucked into the seething vortex of Facebook’s malignant algorithm. No, the problem is that other people are succumbing to Facebook’s wiles, and we need to stop them from further slipping into the slough of despond.
It is this belief, that Facebook is a problem, but not my problem, that is the real gap that has to close before change can occur. It’s a variant of the empathy gap that the differential response to COVID-19 vaccination has exposed. No one has a problem with COVID — until they do. But the damage done by COVID is visible, clear, and revealed by a simple diagnosis. The damage done by Facebook is not so clear. Often, it is only revealed by therapy.
We recently quantified the scale of this gap at Edison Research as a part of our ongoing Social Habit research project, a weekly tracking study of the habits and beliefs of American social media users 18+. We took snapshot of the data (1190 online interviews with social media users 18+, conducted in August 2021, weighted to our nationally representative Infinite Dial dataset) and looked at how American’s perceive the “problem” of social media. We will have a lot more to report about these data in the coming weeks, but one obvious finding jumped out at us immediately:
Keep in mind, these are all persons who regularly use at least one social media service (Facebook continues to be the leading platform), and two-thirds of those respondents say that “people” spend too much time on social media, while a little over a third say that they spend too much time on social media. This is the Lake Wobegon Effect writ large: when most people believe they are above average, they can’t all be right…
Somewhere, in the gap between those two numbers, lie tens of millions of Americans who think that social media is a problem, but not their problem. After all, you and I are doing fine, right? Well, how would we know? The late David Foster Wallace, in his commencement speech to the class of 2005 at Kenyon College, left us this story, which feels appropriate:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
For so many of us, Facebook is the water we swim in. It’s the label on the outside of our jar that we can’t read. And to admit that you, personally, have a problem with Facebook — that Facebook is doing you harm — can feel like an admission of weakness. It’s other people’s problem. Not yours.
Well, like you, I am also smart, capable, and good. I have three really good degrees from three really good schools. I am way too smart to be influenced by social media. Not going to happen. Except it has happened. The pandemic cemented Facebook’s place (and for some, that of Instagram) as the mortar that holds the fragile bricks of our social life together. I do have a problem with Facebook. When the service went down for hours on Monday, October 4th, I was in the middle of responding to a Very Important Post by one of my Very Good Facebook Friends with a Very Witty Comment and it infuriated me that I couldn’t post it. I must have hit refresh 200 times throughout the day. I wasn’t happy with myself about that.
I’ve thought about deleting my Facebook account any number of times over the past two years. I see what it has done to my friends, my relatives, my classmates. And I have to be honest, I see what it has done to me, too. I don’t want to delete my account, because I don’t want to snip the threads on the hundreds of weak ties that hold up my net. I’m worried about retreating fully into introversion. I don’t want to be alone.
There, I said it. And I don’t know what to do about it. But I do know that Facebook will not be forced to change unless more Americans recognize that it isn’t just a problem, but their problem. There won’t be any right-wing talk show host deathbed recantations of Facebook usage, like there have been with the COVID vaccine. There aren’t dark patches on our chest x-rays, like smokers get. It may be that the way to finally bridge the gap from “problem” to “your problem” will be through our children, and being able to recognize the signs that they, too, are being affected by social media in how they think about their actions, their identity, and their appearance. But that gap has to be bridged, or little will change.
Last weekend, my wife and I attended an “open house” from a greyhound rescue society — we are thinking about getting a Good Doggo. We got to meet seven or eight Very Good Doggos who were all in foster care, waiting for new homes, and ask the volunteers questions. Shortly after we arrived, a woman pulled up with another greyhound that we assumed was also up for adoption, but it turns out that she was just a happy greyhound mom, and she wanted to meet other greyhound parents, and for her dog to socialize.
In the moment, it seemed weird to me — a thing I wouldn’t think to do, or have maybe just forgotten about. She looked very happy.