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Though there have been some very high profile participants in the "movement" (can you spell "Elon Musk"?), I am not aware that the #deletefacebook movement is making much of a real dent in Facebook's membership ranks, and I do not expect that it ever will. For in spite of a seemingly continuous stream of scandalous revelations of Facebook's role in the dissemination of fake news and the undermining of the American electoral system—not to mention the way that Facebook, along with other digital titans such as Google, data mine our every move on the Internet—all signs indicate that, when it comes to America’s use of social media, the only way is up. Even the recantations of such former social media "cheerleaders" as Vivek Wadhwa (who have decided that maybe all this technological "progress" is only leading to human "regression" after all) are highly unlikely to change anyone's behavior.
The easiest explanation for this devotion to social media, no matter what, is that Internet usage is addictive. Indeed, a study conducted at the University of Maryland by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, in which 200 students were given an assignment to give up their digital devices for 24 hours and then write about their feelings during that bleak stretch, revealed just that, with many students reporting effects that were tantamount to symptoms of drug withdrawal (a full description of this study can be found in chapter 5 of the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). To revise Marx a little, we might say that social media are the opiate of the masses.
Given the fact that our students are likely to have lived with the Internet all of their lives, it could be difficult, bordering on impossible, for them to analyze in any objective fashion just how powerful, and ultimately enthralling, social media are. It’s all too easy to take the matter for granted. But with the advent of digital technology looming as the most significant cultural intervention of our times, passive acceptance is not the most useful attitude to adopt. At the same time, hectoring students about it isn’t the most productive way to raise awareness either. All those “Google is making America stupid” screeds don’t help at all. So I want to suggest a different approach to preparing the way for a deep understanding of the seductive pull of social media: I'll call it a "phenomenology of Facebook."
Here's what I have in mind. Just as in that phenomenologically influenced mode of literary criticism called "Reader Response," wherein readers are called upon to carefully document and describe their moment-by-moment experience in reading a text, you could ask your students to document and describe their moment-by-moment experience when they use social media. Rather than describing how they feel when they aren't online (which is what the University of Maryland study asked students to do), your students would describe, in journal entries, their precise emotions, expectations, anticipations, disappointments, triumphs, surprises, hopes, fears (and so on and so forth) when they are. Bringing their journals to class, they could share (using their discretion about what to share and what not to) what they discovered, and then organize together the commonalities of their experience. The exercise is likely to be quite eye opening.
It is important that you make it clear that such a phenomenology is not intended to be judgmental: it is not a matter of “good” or “bad”; it is simply a matter of “what.” What is the actual experience of social media usage? What is it like? What’s going on? Only after clearly answering such phenomenological questions can ethical questions be effectively posed.
Not so incidentally, you can join in the exercise yourself. I’ve done it myself. You may be surprised at what you learn.
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