Let me begin with a prescriptive statement: major social media companies ought to consult with trained social researchers to design interfaces, implement policies, and understand the implications of their products. I embark unhesitatingly into prescription because major social media companies have extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions. Pervasive in personal and public life, social media are not just things people use, places they go to, or activities they do. Social media shape the flows of social life, structure civic engagement, and integrate with affect, identity and selfhood.

Public understanding of social media as infrastructural likely underpins mass concern about what social media are doing to society, and what individuals in society are doing with social media. Out of this concern has emerged a vibrant field of commentary on the relationship between social media use and psychological well-being. Spanning academic literature, op-ed pages and dinner table conversation the question has seemingly remained on the collective mind: does social media make people feel bad? Last week, Facebook addressed the issue directly.

In a blog post titled Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?, Facebook researchers David Ginsberg and Moira Burke review the literature on Facebook use and psychological well-being. Their review yields a wholly unsurprising response to the titular query: sometimes, it depends. Facebook doesn’t make people feel good or bad, they say, but it depends on how people use the technology. Specifically, those who post and engage “actively” feel better, while those who “passively” consume feel worse[1].

I was delighted with the Facebook blog post up until this point. The company engaged social researchers and peer-reviewed content to address a pressing question derived from public concern. But then, out came “it’s how you use it”.

“It’s how you use it” is wholly unsatisfying, philosophically misguided, and a total corporate cop-out that places disproportionate responsibility on individual users while ignoring the politics and power of design.  It’s also a strangely projective conclusion to what began as a reflexive internal examination of technological effects.

If the trendy onslaught of new materialism has taught us anything, it’s that things are not just objects of use, but have meaningful shaping capacities. That objects are efficacious isn’t a new idea, nor is it niche. Within media studies, we can look to Marshall McLuhan who, 50-plus years ago, established quite succinctly that the medium is the message. From STS, we can look to Actor Network Theory (ANT), through which Bruno Latour clarified that while guns don’t kill people on their own, the technology of the gun is integral to violence. We can look to Cyborgology co-editor David Banks’ recent article, addressing the need to articulate design politics as part of engineering education. And I would  also direct readers to my own work, in which I keep blathering about “technological affordances.” I’ll come back to affordances in a bit.

Certainly, we theorists of design recognize users and usage as part of the equation. Technology does not determine social or individual outcomes. But, design matters, and when social ills emerge on infrastructural platforms, the onus falls on those platform facilitators to find out what’s the matter with their design.

To be fair, Ginsberg and Burke seem to know this implicitly. In fact, they have an entire section (So what are we doing about it? ) in which they talk about current and forthcoming adjustments to the interface. This section is dedicated to prosocial design initiatives including recrafted news feed algorithms, “snooze” options that let users take a break from particular people and content, visibility options following relationship status change, and a suicide prevention tool that triages self-harm through social networks, professional organizations and AI that recognizes users who may be in trouble.

In short, the researchers ask how Facebook relates to psychological well-being, conclude that psychological outcomes are predicated on user behavior, and describe plans to design features that promote a happier user-base. What they don’t do, however, is make a clear connection between platform design and user behavior—a connection that, given the cited research, seems crucial to building a prosocial interface that provides users with an emotional boost. That is, the Facebook blog post doesn’t interrogate how existing and integral design features may afford social versus antisocial usage and for whom. If posting and interacting on Facebook feels good and consuming content feels bad, how do current design features affect the production-consumption balance, for which users, and under what circumstances? And relatedly, what is it about consumption of Facebook content that elicits The Sads? Might the platform be reworked such that consumption is more joyful than depleting?

A clear framework of technological affordances becomes useful here. Affordances refer to how technologies push and pull in varying directions with more or less force. Specifically, technologies can request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow. How an object affords will vary across users and situations. Beginning with this conceptual schema—what I call the mechanisms and conditions framework—Facebook’s existing affordances emerge more clearly and design and policy solutions can be developed systematically.

For instance, Facebook’s design features work in several ways to reinforce status quo ideas and popular people while maintaining an ancillary status for those on the margins. Given findings about the psychological effects of production versus consumption, these features then have behavioral consequences and in turn, emotional ones. I’ve picked two examples for illustration, but the list certainly extends.

First, Facebook converges multiple networks into a shared space with uncertain and oft-changing privacy settings. This combination of context collapse and default publicness make sharing undesirable and even untenable for those whose identities, ideas, or relationships put them at risk. For LGBTQ persons, ex-criminals, political radicals, critical race-gender activists, refugees, undocumented persons and the like, Facebook affordances in their current configuration may be profoundly hazardous. When a platform is designed in a way that makes it dangerous for some users to produce, then it also makes it difficult for those users to obtain psycho-social benefits and more likely that they encounter psychological harm.

Second, news feed algorithms use a “rich get richer” strategy in which popular content increases in visibility. That is, users are encouraged to engage with content that has already accrued attention, and discouraged from engaging with content which has gained little steam. Facebook’s metric-driven algorithmic system not only promotes content with mass appeal, but also snowballs attention towards those who already take up significant symbolic space in the network. So, while everyone is allowed to post on Facebook, rewards distribute in a way that encourages the popular kids and keeps the shy ones quiet. By encouraging production from some users and consumption from others, Facebook’s very design allocates not just attention, but also emotion.

Of course, content consumption is not an essentially depressing practice. But on Facebook, it is. It’s worth examining why. Facebook is  designed in a way that makes negative social comparison–and related negative self-feelings–a likely outcome of scrolling through a news feed. In particular, Facebook’s aggressive promotion of happy expression through silly emoji, exclusion of a “dislike” button, the ready availability of gifs, and algorithms that grant visibility  preference to images and exclamation points, work together to encourage users to share the best of themselves while discouraging banal or unflattering content. By design, Facebook created the highlight reel phenomenon, and onlookers suffer for it. Might Facebook consumption feel different if there were more of those nothing-special dinner pics that everyone loves to complain about?

In response to Facebook’s blog post, a series of commentators accused the company of blaming users. I don’t think it was anything so nefarious. I just think Facebook didn’t have the conceptual tools to accomplish what they meant to accomplish—a critical internal examination and effective pathway towards correction. Hey Facebook, try affordance theory <3.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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[1] For the sake of space, I’m tabling the issue of “active” and “passive.” However, any media studies scholar will tell you that media consumption is not passive, making the active-passive distinction in the blog post problematic.