Bring back Facebook Groups!

Facebook and I have a love/hate relationship. On one hand, I love the ability to interact with folks, digitally, from all over the world. I’m able to see what’s going on with friends and family, and in general it helps me stay connected. Yet, on the other hand… I hate the general newsfeed. It’s often filled with people sharing things I don’t want to engage with (such and political memes) or controversial topics that just serve to heighten my blood pressure.

One area of Facebook that I actually like a lot is Groups. Facebook groups are small communities of people who post about a shared love of a given topic. Many of the communities I’m a part of have Facebook groups, and it’s a great way to talk about items of shared interest. It’s also a wonderful way to coordinate real world events. Many of my running friends are a part of different Facebook Groups, and without them, I would never know what’s going on with running meet-ups, or other adventures. The problem is, you can’t get a nice simple interface to just your Groups posts.

A while ago, Facebook had an app dedicated to Groups. It was an decent app lacking in a bit of functionality, but I loved it since it allowed me to see what people were posting in these communities, without needing to wade through a Newsfeed. I felt like it helped me engage better with the things I wanted to use Facebook for, without having to deal with divisive arguments that permeate the Newsfeed. Facebook decided to can the app, deciding to focus more energy on the main Facebook app. Needless to say I was disappointed.

Thankfully, Facebook has recently brought back a part of that interface to the main Facebook app. There is now a button on the bottom of the main app that brings you to a Groups interface. You can scroll through a feed of all the most recent posts to your various communities, and drill down into a single community with just a click. It’s a lot closer to what I want my Facebook experience to be.

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I really wish that Facebook would continue to expand the ability to work with Groups. Google+ actually did a great job with this years and years ago, but with that platform’s transition to obsolesce, there’s a real opportunity for Facebook to lead. For now, I need to suffer through the pain of the Newsfeed, but I’m hopeful that this won’t always be the case.

Online debates

I’ve been involved in online discussion forums since 1989. This was back when the way that you had a conversation was through BBS systems. These systems required you to call them up via modem, and then you could post comments, log off, and then call back in a few hours to see if anyone else replied. They were mostly single line systems, meaning that only one person could be viewing the forum at a time. Sometimes debates would get heated, and arguments would go on for weeks, but in general, people took time to think about what they were posting.

With the advent of the internet, online forums moved into lightspeed. People could hit us a discussion site and have long winded conversations over the course of an afternoon, in almost real-time. You no longer had to wait and absorb what people said, but you could respond immediately, from your gut. Despite this, many of these forums were still mostly civil, and people managed to keep things from getting out of hand. I actually met many good friends on a Christian on-line discussion site called Christdot.org. We would have tons of debates, but we all knew that this is why we were there, and in most cases we didn’t take it personally.

Then came the advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter. At this point in my life I’m in a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I like Facebook for what it was originally intended to be. A place to share what you were doing, eating, drinking, asking for recommendations on things, or for planning get togethers with friends, etc.,. This is how I mostly use Facebook, as a place to communicate brief things about real world life. Almost everyone that I’m a friend with on Facebook is someone I’ve met in the real world, usually through the running world, and occasionally through beer culture.

Because of this, I avoid debates on Facebook like the plague. I realized a couple years ago that debates on Facebook often lead to anger and hurt in the real world. When I was on Christdot, I was there with the intention of having discussion. I knew that some of them might get intense, but that was the purpose of me being there. On Facebook, it all feels way more personal. I have a very hard time with the idea of getting into a heated debate with someone, at the same time that they’re showing off pictures of their kid doing something cute.

One could argue that this is a good thing. Perhaps that humanizing element makes me think twice about what I post, but that’s simply not the way things work on a site like Facebook that promotes instant gratifications and dopamine hits. Everything about Facebook steers you towards posting quickly and posting often. The entire algorithm of how posts are presented to you is based on how much you’ve interacted with them. A “like” over here, or a quick comment over there, suddenly alters the entire thread of news that you see in your feed. So you end up naturally posting lots of quick things, or clicking like and trying to move on. That changes the nature of trying to have an online debate with someone.

One of the key problems with online debates is that you’re limited by the written word. People have been debating via written word for thousands of years. It’s not a new art form in any way, but it’s not an easy one either. Debating via written word along takes time, thought, planning, and plain hard work. That’s because in a written word discussion, all you have is the words on the page. You miss out on all of the other things that happen in a real-life conversation. Tone of voice, body language, facial expression, and the physical presence of another breathing human, can completely change the way that words are interpreted and delivered.

I’ve had plenty of meatspace conversations that have been powerful and meaningful, yet if those debates had happened in text, they would have taken on a completely different feel. Seeing the emotion in a person’s face changes the way that you present facts. Reacting to a surprised body movement can cause you to alter your vocal tone of your statement. There’s simply thousands of things that we do in a real life interaction that can’t be translated to text on a written page/screen.

That’s not to say that written debates aren’t good. They’re amazing and wonderful exercises that have shaped the course of human history since it’s inception. But in my mind, they have a certain place, and that place is not on sites like Facebook. On sites like Facebook everything is so reactionary and quick that you end up being invited over to someone’s house for a BBQ, and at the same time, in a different thread, being told you’re a “fucking asshole” because of your political views.

Facebook is meant to save us time, and the fact that you can get invited over to someone’s place for an impromptu BBQ is awesome. It takes mere moments to put out a call for people to gather. But it also takes mere moments to react out of emotion, without thinking. The entire notion of memes in online debates is the paragon of this lazy type of discussion. Why spend time typing up a reasoned argument when I can just post a picture with a pithy, inaccurate, and incendiary witty phrase? Pictures are worth a thousand words, but memes are often a waste of 999 of them.

It’s for this reason that I now severely limit what I do on Facebook. I love Facebook for what it does well; gives people a place to connect around life and events. But if you want to have a deep discussion with me, or a robust debate? Then let’s meet somewhere else. There are plenty of online forums like Reddit or topic based sites for that type of discussion. Or even better yet, use Facebook to invite me out for a beer, and let’s hash it out in person. Human to human, in real life with real emotions and real empathy.

Stop messing with my feed

At the dawn of social media your news feed was a simple, chronological, list of items that your friends had posted. You would log in and see what folks had to say, and if you hadn’t logged in for a couple days you might have to scroll down a bit to catch up. It was an easy and simple process. Fast forward to 2017 and social media feeds have “evolved” into one of the most frustrating experiences of the modern internet.

A few years ago it all started with Facebook. They decided to start filtering and ordering your news feed to be more similar to how a Google search works. When you search for something in Google you want the most relevant answer to show up at the top. Which this logic is great for search engines, it’s frustrating as heck for social media feeds. Facebook started curating your feed into “Top News”. They use mediocre algorithms to show you what they felt you wanted to see first, and present your feed in a relevance order instead of chronological. This was their attempt to make your social media feed relevant and timely, showing you the items that Facebook believed you wanted to see first and hiding posts from people that you probably didn’t want to see anyway.

This change is one of the most maddening part of being on social media. It’s tremendously frustrating when Facebook doesn’t get it right, and it almost never gets it right. I’m constantly bewildered how posts from my wife sometimes never show in my feed, or they might show up once, and then disappear forever. This is despite tuning my feed preferences to include my wife in the circle of people I want to see first. It’s infuriating to have a conversation with my wife, or another close friend, and have them say, “Did you see that link I posted on Facebook?” Only to have to reply that I hadn’t, and then go search for their feed directly to find what they wanted me to see. I can’t simply scroll down to the day when they posted it, as Facebook may have decided that it’s not worth showing me at all.

It’s bad enough that Facebook pushes this garbage method of presenting you with content, but it’s seeped over into other social media streams as well. Instagram has adopted this method and it peeves me off to not get photos in the right order. On more than one occasion this has meant that I’ve missed out on an event, or sale, because Instagram decided not to show me a pic from a place I enjoy, at the time when they posted it.

What’s really become the last straw for me is that my fitness tracker Strava has started to pull this same bulls**t. Strava has always been an awesome fitness social media feed because you can follow friend and give them kudos on their workouts. In the past, when you logged in you would get a simple chronological list of activities that have happened in the past and you could scroll through them to your hearts content. Now, they’ve moved towards a relevance model which means things show up as Strava feels I want to see them. They’ve posted links to research that they’ve done and why they feel this is the best way to do this, but for me, I want chronological back.

I’m really tired of these companies trying to decide how I want to interact with my social circles. Just give me a list of everything in order. I can determine pretty quickly, while scrolling through, what I want to spend time on.  Is chronological order perfect? Probably not, but it should at least be an option. Let me scroll through my chronological feed, and if when I’m done I want to click a button to see what my social media provider thinks I should see, then I can do that. Basically, stop trying so hard to figure out what is important to me. I’m a big boy and I can do that for myself.

 

Online debates

I love the power of social media, and how it allows us to remain in contact with people over long distances. I have many friends around the country, and being able to see pictures of their kids, and vacations, and heard about what is going on in their lives is amazing. It’s one of the truly great benefits of platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

However, they’re one of the worst places to have real discussions. On occasion I have had a few good debates, but those are far and few. Therefore, I’ve never been a big fan of trying to change people’s mind on social media platforms. If I’m feeling feisty and I want to just vent I’ll toss up a tirade, but I have no expectation that it will make any difference.

The reason that these online debates so often fail is encapsulated in the following screencap:

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The underlined portion (“I don’t care what you think”) is the key phrase. In this debate that was going on about slavery and the reasons for the Civil War, it came down to a single, simple fact. The other person simply doesn’t care what others think. They don’t need to, since most of the time you’re never going to meet these people in real life. People often have hundreds and hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, many of whom they may have not even met in real life. Therefore, the desire to actually listen to what the other has to say is diminished or completely non-existent. If they don’t agree with you it doesn’t matter, you can just block them from your feed.

This results in a large echo chamber where everyone just shouts what they want, and no one is listening or open to discussion. So, I make a conscious decision to stay out of it. I feel like I have a much higher chance of success with in-person relationships, or at least conversations in “meat-space” than I ever will online.

Frankly, maybe we should just force Facebook be about funny cat videos and what you ate last night. It would save a lot of people a lot of stress.