Matt Gurney: Facebook is fun again
Thanks, Trudeau. (But like, sincerely. Thanks, Trudeau, in a nice way.)
By: Matt Gurney
There's no way around the fact that Meta Platforms Inc., the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and a heap of other things, is currently just a wee bit polarizing in this country. The company's ongoing dispute with the federal government, centred around C-18, the Online News Act, has been well covered here at The Line, and you'll be relieved, dear reader, to be assured here at the outset that we won't be going over all that again. It's just a bit of necessary context that must be addressed: Meta is polarizing now, and there are genuine public policy reasons behind that.
So with that said, I'm going to make a statement that is going to sound like a comment on the above-mentioned issues, but really isn't. I've had my say about C-18 — I think it's a bad idea, badly executed by a government remarkably oblivious to its own growing incompetence.
The only point I have to make today is unrelated to all that, albeit adjacent to it.
Facebook is fun again.
My relationship with Facebook goes way back. When Facebook first came to Canada, a woman I knew well was a student at U.S. college, and "The Facebook," as it was then known, was all the rage for those my age south of the border. She had frequently asked me if I had it yet and wondered when it was coming to Canada. So I checked regularly. In those days, Facebook was limited to college and universities, and finally, mine was added. I was the sixth person at my university to create an account there — the entire school directory just showed my face and the faces of five other people. That didn't last long — dozens joined, then hundreds, then basically everyone.
Thus began what I think of as Facebook's first golden age. You made new friends. You reconnected with old friends. You stayed in touch with your buddies even if they'd moved across an ocean for school, work, love or even war. You had silly in-jokes. You posted cryptic, vague "status updates" — the precursor of a tweet, I guess. Old crushes were contacted and, uh, well. We were all in our early 20s, after all, unattached and with time to kill. It was glorious.
It didn't last, not in that form. It grew fast, and we all grew older. The next thing you knew, your university days were over, your boss was on Facebook and had added you, and then your parents and even grandparents were on it. The in-jokes fell away. You stopped posting pictures of yourself half in the bag at some dive bar. (Or, at least you posted fewer of those.) It got boring.
But then it got fun again! My generation started having babies, and that was the new craze. Baby pictures! Baby stories! Gently used baby clothes, who wants 'em? It wasn't all babies — there were other life milestones like weddings and new pets and the like. Some of us (I know I'm dating myself here) even bought homes and shared pictures of those. Growing up became a shared, collective experience, and it was fun again. A second golden age!
And then the last few years happened.
First, there came the growing awareness that the social media companies were not always acting entirely honourably (ahem!) with the information they were collecting. We all learned about data scraping and algorithms and bots and suddenly I became very conscious of just how much information a younger and dumber version of myself had carelessly handed over to a big tech company. The Trump presidency, increasing political polarization here in Canada, the pandemic, the convoy ... the hits just kept on coming. Facebook stopped being a place for baby pictures and old friends, and became a place you had to watch people you normally got along with say some truly bizarre and horrible stuff. It was like the worst of Twitter, but instead of dealing with a bunch of anonymous accounts, you were dealing with people you really knew and maybe even had to hang out with sometimes in the real world.
Allow me to practice some of my fledging Spanish on you, to concisely summarize how things became on Facebook: Esta no bueno, mis amigos. Muy no bueno.
One day, I'd just had enough. I decided not to delete my profile. It still held value to me as an archive, a kind of virtual diary, and it retained use as a communications platform. So I kept my profile, and it's usually open as one of my browser tabs. I glance at it once or twice a day, typically, when I'm at my computer (I deleted the app off my phone long ago). But I haven't added content to my profile in over five years. I stopped in June of 2018. Since then, other people have added content of me, so there's some fresh stuff there. And I've edited my profile to keep my professional affiliations and contact information current, in case anyone needs to get in touch with me.
But that's it. Facebook got bad. I got out.
Then the news went away.
Yes, yes, I know. This will all sound like some backhanded way of lauding Meta's stand against Trudeau. Dismiss as such if you want. But that's really not what I'm trying to do here — all I want to say on that, I've said plainly already. What I'm saying now is that as an unintended consequence of the fight over C-18, my Facebook experience has gotten way, way better.
The constant culture-war hysteria? Mostly gone. Watching old friends and relatives post news articles and then insane conspiracy theories about what the real story is? Entirely gone. Watching people I know and I like square off on opposite sides of some story and go at each other like it was their first day on the internet? None of that. People posting my own articles on Facebook, tagging my account, and then opening me up to several days of weirdos showing up in my Messenger feed to argue every point I’d made? Not a hint of that.
What am I getting instead? Star Trek memes. Lots of Star Trek memes. Cute dog posts. Tons of hockey trivia and clips. Photos of actual people I know doing actual things. Clips of amazing musicians playing shows, either in the present or from way in the past. I'm also getting some semi-relevant ads in the "Marketplace" online classified section. For the first time in years, I find myself actually deliberately opening Facebook to be entertained, instead of just briefly scanning it to check for messages. I’m even using it on my phone again.
This is what happens when the algorithms lose access to the news content and have to find other ways to keep me engaged. "Well, shit," you can see the algos thinking. "We can't just throw a bunch of news at him anymore. But man, he sure keeps clicking Play on those Geddy Lee interviews and photos of Federation starship bridges. Let's just give him more of those!"
Again, this is unintentional. Meta isn't doing this to make my life more pleasant, it's doing it to avoid writing a big cheque to the Canadian government. I get that. And I'm not blind to the big, big problems we still have with the Big Tech companies. I really do think we'd be better off in the long run if we just turned the damned things off.
But for now, Facebook has weirdly become the anti-Twitter. No crazies. No fights. No one wanting me to reiterate to them directly, in some bespoke personal performance, an argument I just made in a column shared with literally the entire world. It's just starships and dogs and hockey and music and posts about vinyl record collections for sale, recipes and a bizarre number of ads for camping RVs. (I don’t know what’s up with that, but they are impressive.)
It's fantastic. It's a refuge from reality at a time when one is much appreciated. It is, dare I say, an accidental safe space on the internet. One that it’s fun to spend time in.
It probably won't last. But this may be, through dumbass coincidence and late-stage Trudeau government overreach and arrogance, the making of a third golden age on Facebook. Let's enjoy it while we can. And if Meta is smart, they’ll lean into this. Right now, this weird online oasis is a fluke. Why not actually try and run with it?
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