Facebook’s attempt to reshape our digital egos is failing

Facebook is seeing falling personal sharing - and that worried the company. It's tried to force a single identity on us all - and failed.

Are digital businesses better at catering to the digital ego than legacy companies? Last week we saw how enterprise IT has been targeting its business to the wrong client for far too long. Surely the newer digital businesses are better at it?

Well, not so much.

Let’s look at another case where failing to put people at the centre of its ethos has led to problems: Facebook.

Wait… Facebook? Surely Facebook is all about people and the connections between them?

Well, yes and no. On one level, we are the users and without us, Facebook doesn’t have a product. But on another we are the product – neatly packaged up for advertisers and others who would pay Facebook to reach us.

And in that process, Facebook made some design decisions which suited Facebook better than they did the users. Facebook makes it really, really hard to separate the sections of your life. It’s blurs the boundaries of our family lives, our friendships and our working relationships, lumping them all together in one feed.

A single identity, mandated by Facebook

This was an intentional decision:

“You have one identity,” [Zuckerberg] emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick in his book, “The Facebook Effect.” “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Is it really a lack one integrity? That’s a pretty judgemental assessment of behaving differently in different contexts. I behave very differently when I’m playing with my pre-school daughters in the garden than I do when I’m working with the editorial team of a national newspaper.

With many of my friends I have decades’ worth of in-jokes and banter (yes, I’m old) behind us that give us a common language – one that’s baffling to, say, more recent friends or my work colleagues. I have hobbies and interests that I share with my friends, but which will be deeply uninteresting to my colleagues, for example.

These aren’t different identities, they’re different aspects of my singular identity. Perhaps, for the coding elite of Facebook, it’s easy to collapse those context into a situation where your friends and family and co-workers are all one – but for the majority of humanity, it isn’t.

And that’s led to a problem for Facebook, Nicholas Carr explains:

Context collapse is a sociological term of art that describes the way social media tend to erase the boundaries that once defined people’s social lives. Before social media came along, your social life played out in different and largely separate spheres. You had your friends in one sphere, your family members in another sphere, your coworkers in still another sphere, and so on. The spheres overlapped, but they remained distinct. The self you presented to your family was not the same self you presented to your friends, and the self you presented to your friends was not the one you presented to the people you worked with or went to school with. With a social network like Facebook, all these spheres merge into a single sphere. Everybody sees what you’re doing. Context collapses.

The Sharing Scarcity

Social context at NEXT15

And when context collapses, people stop sharing – because they don’t want their colleagues to see this joke, or their Mum to see that photo. And the sharing of personal information on Facebook is in decline:

Original sharing of personal stories — rather than posts about public information like news articles — dropped 21 percent year over year as of mid-2015, The Information, a tech news site, reported Wednesday. Facebook said in a statement that “the overall level of sharing has remained not only strong, but similar to levels in prior years.”

The company this week made another move to make it easier to post, introducing a live video tool that everyone on Facebook can use. Zuckerberg on Tuesday did a video address to Facebook users encouraging them to post live video of whatever they want, noting that even mundane activities like getting a haircut can be entertaining when they’re in the moment. More than five million people watched.

The fundamental problem for Facebook is that personal sharing is the main reason that people keep coming back to the site – that intimate connection with people they know. A link and news sharing site is a commodity, easily replaced. It’s the personal connections that keep people logging in to Facebook every day. And once that disappears, Facebook itself will be under threat.

Carr again:

When people start backing away from broadcasting intimate details about themselves, it’s a sign that they’re looking to reestablish some boundaries in their social lives, to mend the walls that social media has broken. It’s an acknowledgment that the collapse of multiple social contexts into a single one-size-fits-all context circumscribes a person’s freedom. There’s only so much fun you can have if you know that your mom, your boss, and your weird neighbor are all watching. The protean self, we’re rediscovering, is a more comfortable self than the uniform self. Being forced into “one identity” is a drag.

The glorious, multifaceted digital ego

Facebook tried to shape people – making them collapse their multifaceted selves into a single digital ego. But that doesn’t work – you can’t simply remake social behaviours learned over centuries to suit the needs of you business. Facebook will, most likely, correct this misstep over time. They’ve done so before – they were late to mobile, and now make the majority of their revenue on the platform – but it shows how easily even a business which is centred around the connection of people can miss one of the fundamental needs of inter-personal communication. They’ve made this mistake before. Late last year, they were forced to modify their real name policy – because it was causing significant problems for certain groups.

Ignoring the digital ego – in all its glorious complexity – is a danger to any digital business.