You’ve had this experience before: driving dangerously through an ugly strip of suburban sprawl littered along a 10-lane expressway. It’s not pretty or fun. You might even look for a detour along the small roads. You’ve probably also engaged in its Internet equivalent: scrolling through your Facebook feed.
If you think about it, your Facebook feed has the same garbled yet weirdly coherent aesthetic as that mess of glowing neon and faded plastic, big-box warehouses, and decaying kitsch that too often passes for a retail district. The Facebook feed similarly consists of an endless scroll of friends’ statuses, shared posts, ads, and sponsored content. It is “I was sexually assaulted too” squashed between “Check out these tiny donuts from Japan” and the newest image from “crispy doggo memes.”
Here are simple “how to” videos involving impossibly obscure materials and machinery, and “do it yourself” tutorials that require a day trip to a tool shop. There is a video of a man sitting in a bathtub full of French fries (“Fries is life,” it proclaims, in the pseudo-English of the millennial internet), next to a bit of agitprop encouraging men to cry, with high-def videos of the brawny bawlers that resemble nothing more than ersatz glamour shots. Here is a cartoon of an animated grumpy cat that is supposed to remind you of your girlfriend when she is hungry, and over there is a guy pouring molten metal into a coconut, straddling, one supposes, the “how to” and “check this out” genres of share-bait nonsense.
From Hypnosis to Something Worse
As with the monotony of the highway strip, the Facebook feed leaves one’s consciousness ebbing away, replaced by a kind of hypnosis leavened only by a vague discomfort. You are left wondering: Why does this exist?
The most alarming thing is the feeling of disorientation, in what is in theory merely digital space to hang out with one’s friends. It is nearly impossible to find the same bit of nonsense twice, due to the Facebook algorithm, which mixes new and old posts a little bit differently each time you log in and scroll down.
Yet you are sure to find something similar enough. It is the same feeling as walking into a Walmart in Phoenix, Arizona with the same floorplan as the one in Bangor, Maine. It is “The Geography of Nowhere” for the Internet.
There was a time, many years ago, when your Facebook feed actually consisted of things your friends had posted. Now at least half of it is taken up by the ads and sponsored posts––the digital equivalent of the highway franchises and chains––from pages you have never followed or even heard of. And, as we found out recently, many were and may still be various forms of undisclosed agitprop.
Jumbled Feeds Make Us More Distant and Alone
Everyone’s feed is a little bit different, of course, but it is a safe bet that all of them are a pretty accurate picture of the fractured, haywire American mind. The highway strips and the Levittowns sliced and diced the physical settings of our lives: Social media ensures that the same thing happens to our digital spaces. We long ago abandoned the idea of design and its attendant considerations––harmony, proportion, scale, civic-mindedness––when it comes to our built communities. We can hardly expect our online platforms to embody such ideals.
Yet beyond the ugliness of it all, there is another danger: that we will forget not just how to think about design, but how to think entirely. Physical and digital spaces alike are fractured, reflecting the modern preference for unbridled autonomy, and threaten to turn the United States into 320 million discrete societies.
Anyone born before about 1995 has probably made it into adulthood without scars from the maligned world of modern social media. Not so for today’s young children, who are being raised on an endless stream of “kid” content produced largely by bots that cannot distinguish rhyming silly songs from rape and murder. When they get a little older, they can learn about anorexia on Musical.ly or get cyberbullied on Instagram. The cumulative effect of all of this on the developing mind is yet unknown, but can hardly be positive.
“Social” media has really turned out to be the pinnacle of antisocial behavior, content, and modes of thinking. Just as there are no sidewalks on those ugly highway strips––indicating that these are not places designed for people––there is increasingly less space for normal, healthy people in the sewers that are our Facebook feeds and YouTube playlists. The lack of virtual sidewalks, as it were, is at least a useful guide: it tells us loudly and clearly to stay away.