Facebook is worried. Even though usage is growing, something strange is happening on the social network. For the first time since it started its journey as a website to rate datable people on college campuses, to becoming the global reference point that defined friendship in the connected age, people are sharing less personal information on Facebook. For a social media network that positions itself largely as a space where our everyday, banal doings become newsworthy articulations, this is surprising news. But it is true. On Facebook, the traffic is high, but most of it is now sharing of external information. People are sharing links to news, to listicles, to videos, to blogs entries, to pictures and to information that they find interesting, but they are writing less and less about what it is that they are doing and feeling.
Ironically, this coincides with the latest change in Facebook’s “response” options, where the ubiquitous “Like” button can now expand to other emojis where you can also be appropriately angry, sad, surprised, or happy about the shared content. Even as Facebook is trying to get its users to qualify how they feel and give emotional value to their likes, people seem to be sharing even less of their private lives on Facebook.
One of the key ways of understanding this drop in people sharing their personal information is through the concept of “context collapse”. It has been a concern since the first instances of disembodied digital communication. In our everyday life, we make sense of information based on the different contexts that surround us. The person who authors the information, the setting within which that information reaches us, the emotional state that we are in when encountering the information, our sense of where we are when processing it, and the preparedness we have for receiving this information are all crucial parameters by which we make sense of the meaning of the information and also our response to it.
In the case of Facebook, the context within which information and transactions have made sense is “friendship”. The site’s USP was that you could bring in a variety of information, but you were always sharing it with friends. You could have a large audience, but this audience is formed of people you know, people you trust, people you add to your friend groups — there is a sense of intimacy, privacy, and casualness that marks the flow of information. You are able to talk, in an equal breath, about what you had for breakfast, your crush on a celebrity, your random acts of charity, and your strong political rant, one after the other, without requiring to think about what you are posting and how others will receive it.
However, Facebook is not really a friendship platform. It is a company interested in selling our interactions and data to advertisers who can target us with content and information based on the patterns of our behaviour. To serve its advertisers better, Facebook started privileging “verified” information trying to ensure news and content producers higher attention and more eyeballs. This was further strengthened by their continued integration with third party vendors, who could push and pull information into the social world of Facebook, and is seen as one of the biggest reasons for this drop. Any newsfeed in the last few months has had equal amounts of professional and amateur content, leading to a context collapse, where you no longer feel like your Facebook feed is a private and intimate conversation with friends.
Similarly, Facebook’s expansive integration of its products —WhatsApp chats, Instagram updates, and Tumblr posts all can collapse into one — produced a confusing space where the personal information that you were once happy to share with your friends, is suddenly being shared along with news and information. Also, digital behaviour works on mirroring, and we often shape our updates to match what we see on our timelines. If we more and more see external content rather than personal statuses, we also start sharing more third party news and links, thus producing a domino effect of everybody shying away from extremely personal or intimate moments.
Facebook, for the millennials, has been the context within which friendship got structured. Its own transitions have now collapsed that context, leading people to think of it as a content aggregator. It is going to be interesting to see what happens to our digital friendships and networks if Facebook is no longer the space where they are housed.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.