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[Outreachy] · · 5 min read

Some loose thoughts on commercial social networks

Note: this text is more of a vent than anything else. I still intend to write more seriously about my perception of the changes provoked by commercial social networks, but not today.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth.” — Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook executive

I would really like to start this text by talking about how I have not had a Facebook profile for years, but we all know this is not true. Despite my choice to delete my account, Mark Zuckerberg’s company never failed to find out who I am, how I live or with whom I interact. As a social network with the goal of collecting information with the highest level of fidelity to reality possible, it is well known that Facebook encourages the user to give them to their list of contacts and applies controversial policies such as the real name policy. So my exit in the end might have been more of a symbolic act than an effective action to get my data out of there.

My dissatisfaction with Facebook and so many other contemporary social networks, however, stems not only from their use of personal data but from major changes in the way we view the world, we measure our worth, interact with other users and connect with people.

For example, I’ve been using Twitter for almost 10 years - it’s possibly the social network I’ve used the most in my whole life. I remember…

And it is with great sadness that I note that this no longer corresponds to the current reality.

I even feel melancholy when revisiting these memories because, when I was younger, I believed that these products were developed for the benefit of the users. I would get outraged when they would introduce new features that I had never asked for, and I was really vocal when unsatisfied. “This social network only successfully exists because of us,” I thought. “They need us to survive, so they need to hear us, right?”


Like I said, I’ve been using Twitter for almost ten years. I keep coming back, in spite of everything. Because…

  • everyone is there. If I turn my back on Twitter, I’ll be distancing myself with multiple friendships, important people, precious contacts.
  • … I may be missing out on something. An important announcement, a professional opportunity, a news that will change the world.

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, LinkedIn: these products have already established themselves as references in our daily lives. We need to be seen. We need to be remembered. So, in the end, it is not they who need us - all of this, little by little, has become essential in our eyes.

So we accept to be measured and judged by metrics. We feel anxious about this, but there are still benefits, right? That funny joke, that unmissable controversy, that connection with that third-degree cousin we played with once in childhood and we’ll probably never have a conversation again, but if we have to, it’s within our reach. We allow them to choose what is most relevant to us. And even though it has frightening consequences…

… we let this pass. And, as we spend more time entertained in these mini worlds, we lose the connection with a more diverse universe.

To say that this is a barrier for me as an Outreachy intern is an understatement.

Choosing not to be part of these social networks means, to some degree, experiencing social isolation. Rather than being accessible through more universal media such as telephone or e-mail, people prioritize their attention to closed platforms. To reach them, you need to play by the rules of these commercial networks - and often, they will be invasive.

New Facebook functionality to confirm users’ identities. No selfie for them? No account for you.

And even if you compromise, there is no guarantee that you will have access to that audience. Organic reach is declining. You need to build a reputation, create a unique way to talk to the public, an incredible visual identity. Reaching a large number of people with scalable strategies consumes an unbelievable amount of time and energy, and there is little room for improvisation.

So this constant search for ways to reach people to do my job made me once again question many of my choices and opinions. Am I exaggerating all of this? Am I worrying about the wrong things? On one hand, this widespread reliance on commercial social networks makes me feel my existence slowly fade away every time I refuse to be a part of it, and it scares me. On the other hand, to what extent is it acceptable to ignore my discomfort for a social status that is increasingly difficult to achieve and which requires extensive maintenance?