How One Company Redefined Social Norms

In this episode we explore Facebook's impact on society – how it's changed mass grief and other social norms.

AIRED: December 05, 2018 | 0:10:01

I want you to imagine, for a moment, that the internet is a country.

For all of history humans lived in a physical location, but now we inhabit a digital space.

The country of Internet is a place you visit effortlessly.

You discover news, learn new things, make commercial transactions, find friends and

build communities.

No matter where you live, you can connect with anyone.

People from different backgrounds and opinions.

Some of its appeal is that you can make your own choices.

You are free.

It doesn’t feel like anything governs your interactions.

But... is this really true?

A handful of companies have built and control the infrastructure of Internet.

And one of these companies has the power to command our attention and influence our behaviour

at such a large scale that it’s arguably reshaping our culture and changing our society


As a citizen of the internet, are you just cool with this?

It may not come as a surprise that we’re talking about Facebook, a corner of the internet

where 2.2 billion people regularly spend their online time.

Facebook’s main goal, as its co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his 6000

word manifesto in 2017, is to be the social infrastructure for communities.

Engagement with traditional communities like churches and unions has declined in the past

few decades, Facebook says.

So it wants to step up and fill the gap.

With this many users, one single company has a huge amount of influence over how a quarter

of the planet’s population does things--

more power than any government or religion has ever had.

Is Facebook the new church for online society?

First, let’s consider one of the roles religious institutions play in society – influencing

cultural norms.

Amber: Cultural norms are very old historic concepts.

They've existed basically since humans have existed.

They are described as the grammar of social interactions and they really tell you how

you should act in certain situations and we have those very entrenched offline, but online

it's kind of a new terrain, a new space for us to start building these out.

Except that, is it really us building the new social norms?

By design, Facebook pushes us to act in certain ways without us quite realising it.

Take a simple example, the reaction emoticons.

The six ways you can express your feelings.

So are you angry or sad?

Do you like or love something?

Or is everything just… wow!

Facebook is basically saying to you, great, you've got reaction, you got to use those,

and that's really all you've got.

Of course you can comment, but you know, the convenience aspect of using those, those reactions

is very much there.

And so they lead you halfway down a path and it's your decision then to push back or to

continue with what they're suggesting to you.

And the problem is we're pretty social animals, right?

We're going to kind of go along with the convention.

And these conventions have spread.

As Facebook has implemented more and more innovative ways to bring everything we do

offline to online, along the way, it’s changed the way we experience things.

Celebrations like birthdays have become popularity contests.

Events that leave a trace on Facebook may rank higher in our long term memory because

the platform reminds you they occured.

Mourning over a loved one has become a trying quest to dodge untimely reminders in a minefield

of memories.

And for a younger generation, public memories are a new norm.

Teenagers: I'll leave social media and all, like I'll feel bad about myself

Something that's interesting, like my parents were telling me, my mom was like, yeah, when

I was younger, if there was like a party or if a bunch of people are hanging out, maybe

I'd care about it the next day on, Monday, but it'd be over.

It wouldn't be permanently in somebody's feed.

But now if one of my friends does something with another friend or like a bunch of my

friends and I wasn't invited now forever in that person's feed is this record of somewhere

I wasn't.

Beyond affecting us personally, these platform features are having a broader impact on society.

Or Consider how Facebook has changed mass grief – the way we publicly react to and

process national tragedies or deaths of public figures.

Once high profile deaths like JFK’s and Princess Diana’s drew masses of people to

on the street.

But now we have #RIP to express our sadness With profile photo filters and safety checks,

Facebook is showing us what the appropriate mourning behaviour is.

By deciding to when activate these features, It nudges us as to which tragedy to pay attention

to and take solidarity with.

I started my research back way, way back at the Paris attacks.

Most of Europe and in fact most of the world had suddenly moved onto Facebook.

They were quite settled in using it in their day to day basis.

And once the events happened.

They're very tragic, but increasingly straight afterwards we saw this outpouring of grief.

It was almost like a beacon lighting up the digital highway, right?

This hashtag Pray for Paris.

It came out of nowhere and suddenly had huge traction, millions and millions and millions

of followers...

So what’s in it for Facebook?

Why is a platform that originally started out as a tool to connect friends, interested

in becoming a place where the majority of our social interactions happen?

Well, by bringing offline activities to online, Facebook tightens its grip on our time and


And in return, we collectively increase the company’s revenue.

It becomes quite clear over time that there are these conscious decisions being made and

that for me is where I get a bit uncomfortable is we're outsourcing the emotional labor to

these corporate companies who are unfortunately are incentivised by bottom line and you start

thinking what are the decisions that they're making, why are they making them and how are

they funding them.

Facebook’s innovative tools have ensured you’ll be constantly alerted about a few

birthdays and then stay a little longer to send them a wish or stay glued to the screen

during a mass tragedy.

Now, these are just some example of how Facebook is changing how we experience all these different

aspects of life.

But for many people, Facebook has changed their whole reality.

Even if you don’t use Facebook, this is affecting you.

I’m talking about filter bubbles.

Which make the country of internet look entirely different to different people.

And they shouldn’t be called bubbles really because they are as tough as concrete to burst.

There’s no doubt that a lot of good has come out of connecting people online and growing


But Facebook seems to have an outsized effect on bringing about the worst in people as well.

Take, for example, a 2018 study that analyzed every anti-refugee attack in Germany (3,335)

over two years and found that nothing about the local communities -- not affluence level,

socio-demographics or right vs left politics-- mattered.

The only thing that stood out as a factor linked with number of hate crimes was Facebook


And this is far from what we all envisioned when we starting posting cute photos on Facebook

more than a decade ago.

So where did it all go wrong?

So the way these platforms work these days, somebody doesn't sit and say, let's make sure

people either see very cute, cuddly stuff or really outrageous stuff because those are

both things that engage.

What happens is you have an artificial intelligence system that operates by churning through a

lot of data.

It's a method called machine learning and after churning through all that data, it's

like, okay, this one works, this one works better, this one works better, and that's

what's picking up on human vulnerabilities.

So the way I explained this sometimes is that as humans we have regular cravings for salty

food and you've got this sort of artificial intelligence thing that's like, ooh, if I

put potato chips on their plate, they're going to eat it and it's designed to keep you eating.

So he just keeps putting potato chips on your plate.

Nobody's telling it to do that.

It's figured us out.

So we have a business model that's just feeding off polarisation and then the more polarised

we become, it kinda just keeps going at it.

Humans have always had a taste for this, so to speak.

We’re drawn towards sensational stories and news that plays off our fears and confirms

our beliefs.

The result of all of this is that Facebook can create a distorted reality.

People’s behaviours in the real world are influenced by what they perceive is social

norm in their community.

But Facebook can disrupt that process by throwing us into only like-minded groups.

You already know that social media hijacks your attention, it can impact your mood and


This personal cost, however, pales in comparison to the larger implications on society we live


Our personal matters, like the delivery of a birthday wish or the grieving of loved one,

have become public.

And to the benefit of the new institutions.

The impact of all of this spills out into offline, real society.

In all societies, culture is formed by exposure, repetition and acceptance.

But in the country of Internet, there’s no policy, or a citizen council to think and

decide if this is the way we want to go into the future.

It’s true that culture changes and societies evolve.

But the question for us is, are happy for corporations whose bottom line is funded by

the amount of time people spend on their platform, to guide the way?

Now if I still have your attention, I really do understand the irony in creating online

content about how, perhaps, you should be offline.

But the reality of modern life is that it isn’t so black and white and there’s a

lot more to discover – this is the third episode in a six part quest in understanding

the psychology of attention, persuasive design and how we can all have a healthier relationship

with technology.

I do hope you’ll join us, in your own time, at your own pace, to consider the impact tech


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