Facebook finally wants to help humans build meaningful connections

Can Facebook become as cozy as a Cambridge cafe on a snowy day?
Can Facebook become as cozy as a Cambridge cafe on a snowy day?
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Facebook has just done an about-face. After turning the world into one big, aggressive, competitive, depressing, hyper-connected community that shares tons of information nobody needs to know about their personal lives, the social network is now emphasizing privacy.

On Wednesday (March 6) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a post outlining Facebook’s latest pivot, away from the town square model of very publicly sharing videos, pictures, and status updates with everyone, to something more akin to your living room.

After 15 years of homage to the idea that more connection is always better, Facebook seems to be waking up to the reality that quality matters and humans are not designed to be hyper-connected. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks,” he wrote, suggesting of course that we have been very much not-ourselves for the past 15 years.

The question is whether trying to connect people in more intimate settings can promote actual social connection, which appears to be fraying in contemporary culture. Connecting is a biological imperative, honed over millions of years to protect us from being eaten by lions, but also to help us thrive as humans. Indeed, the absence of social connection can lead to profound loneliness, which is on the rise and deemed a public health threat by some countries.

“Humans need others to survive,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Regardless of one’s sex, country, or culture of origin, or age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival.” Her research found that being disconnected posed comparable danger to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity.

The jury remains out on whether social media can offer a proxy for real connection. As social media use has soared, so too have rates of anxiety and depression. But no causal link has yet been established, and recent research shows that for many teens—the most social of creatures—the experience of social media is more positive than negative.

We do know that Facebook—and other social media platforms—have crassly and successfully attempted to hijack our dopamine, creating an insatiable demand for more likes and shares. And we know that this form of “engagement,” which is deliberately designed to be addictive, doesn’t quite satisfy our need for connection.

And we have not yet come to terms with the zero-sum nature of social media. Time spent on it is time taken away from other things, and there’s a cost to that. Smaller and more intimate conversations online may be better than broadcasting information to the avatar masses, but those exchanges are still just text conversations, prone to misreading and hardly a substitute for discussion.

As Rana el Kaliouby, CEO and co-founder of Affectiva—a company that spun out of the MIT Media Lab and works on AI that interprets emotions and cognitive states through expressions and tone—tells Quartz, more than 90% of communication happens through tone, inflection, and facial expressions. Language, the words we use, is just a small element. So, for those who have minimal physical interactions with their fellow humans, communication is stripped of its richness and a fundamental element of human exchange is missing. Eventually, those social media-savvy teens will need to go on a date, have an argument in person, and ask for help IRL when something bad happens, and they won’t be able to rely on an emoji to express their needs.

Power of conversation

Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, says conversations are key to being human. We care about the social networks we are part of, she says, and the way we know where we sit in the social network is who we get to talk to and who talks to us. “Conversation isn’t just an expression of language,” Scott says, “it’s the main way we express our social connection with other people.” Social media allows us to cast a wider net for that conversation, and to have it through a different medium. But size or construct—public or private—doesn’t change the fact that digital interactions will be more prone to misunderstanding.

“When we listen to each other, or talk to each other, we use facial expression and tone of voice and eye gaze to understand the intention behind the words,” Scott explains. Whether you are talking to 200 or two people, in text, it is missing something.

Also, online life is not what makes us happiest. As Paul Gilbert, a psychologist and the founder of compassion-focused therapy told the Guardian, “We are the most social of all the animals.” “Our brains and our bodies are built to be regulated through interactions with others from the day that we are born.” Research sows that eating meals together makes us happier; conversing in person makes us happier—we speak longer, and laugh more. And in a new paper focused on strategies people employed to try and be happier, engaging with others worked better than trying to self-improve (lose weight, exercise more). “Those people with social ideas became more happy,” said Julia Rohrer, a PhD candidate at the Max Plank Institute and author of the study.

Dunbar’s number

It may be that social media stresses us out and feels difficult because it’s more than our brains can take. Research by evolutionary psychologist Roger Dunbar of Oxford University has shown that most people only have about five intimate relationships, 11 close ones, and concentric circles of less and less intimate acquaintances amounting to about 150 people total.

This theory, also known as “Dunbar’s number,” is based on contemporary and historical evidence. The researcher has studied how many calls people make every day on their cell phones and to whom, the number of Christmas cards people send, and historical evidence of community size, among other factors. Surprisingly, he notes that not much has changed since back in the day—150 people in one’s circle is about the size of a village in Wales and England in the 11th century.

And perhaps “it takes a village” because that’s our limit. Dunbar explained his findings to NPR in 2017, saying:

It turns out that the reason…is it’s a problem with your brain. And we’ve been able to show with neuroimaging studies—in a series of neuroimaging studies, the number of friends you have is essentially a function of the size of this bit of the brain up here, right above the eyes. What this allows you to do is to understand how other people are thinking, the state of their minds, as it were. And it’s the number of individuals whose minds you can handle in this kind of way that seems to set the limits on the total number of friends you have.

Last year, a study by mathematicians at the Spanish University UC3M, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, tested Dunbar’s number based on a mathematical model. They found that some people with high cognitive capacity could theoretically have more intimate friends but noted that quantity is not quality. ”It is impossible to have relationships with 150 people and for them all to be intimate. Therefore, if one has a large number of relationships, it must mean that they are almost all superficial,”explains study co-author Ignacio Tamarit of UC3M’s Interdisciplinary Group of Complex Systems.

Self serving

Zuckerberg now seems to be implicitly acknowledging the limits of his system that connects everyone: He admits that flaws in Facebook are what made it so evident that privacy is desirable. Yet he also says that this same company is equipped to provide privacy. In his view, the consolidation of communication to smaller, more private settings, is just a recognition of the general direction that the internet is heading in. “I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” he writes.

In other words, Facebook didn’t finally realize it’s designed for humans and its design should reflect that. The market is pushing the company’s evolution, an evolution which is perhaps not as dramatic as Zuckerberg’s initial announcement indicated.

His vision includes enabling interactions that are more private, less permanent, and making sure all communications sent on Facebook services like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger are encrypted, end-to end, and more seamless in how they operate together. We should be deeply skeptical of any claims from Facebook about protecting our privacy after ample evidence of its willingness to capitalize on our personal data in any way possible. And as Quartz’s Nikhil Sonnad explains, Zuckerberg conflates a sense of personal privacy with the technical privacy required for secure internet systems.

Still, even if privacy concerns don’t deter people from using Facebook, it’s not obvious that this pivot will win back the public. Internet culture popularized the notion of “toxic” friendships. We’ve been told the solution is to purge poisonous people from our lives. And the quickest way to do that is probably to purge noxious platforms full of them. Zuckerberg may find himself the casualty of his new reality, with many more of us deleting Facebook.