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Amy Gutman

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Message to Facebook: I'm Taking Back My Happiness

Posted: 02/09/11 08:45 AM ET

Facebook: Good or bad? Is it nurturing our families and communities by bringing us closer together? Or is it a dangerous threat -- a technology that fosters isolation, anxiety and narcissism?

These two perspectives have been squaring off, even as Facebook: The Movie -- aka "The Social Network" -- vies for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and Facebook is credited with playing a key role in Egypt's mass protests. Along with MIT professor Sherry Turkle's new book "Alone Together," an intriguing treatise on how technology is warping relationships and undermining civic values, Facebook antis have found support in a widely circulated piece by Libby Copeland in Slate's DoubleX, which uses new research to argue that Facebook is making us less happy by encouraging us to compare our lives to the staged Hallmark moments of friends' newsfeeds.

Strangely lost in the debate is the fact that there is no single Facebook experience. We -- not Facebook -- determine who our friends are, how often we see their posts, how we engage with them, and the myriad other experiences that constitute "our" Facebook. We -- not Facebook -- have the agency here. Facebook is what we make it.

For the record, I spend a lot of time on Facebook, and the Facebook that critics describe bears scant resemblance to mine. While their Facebook resembles an extended ad campaign -- an endless unfolding of picture-perfect lives -- my Facebook prominently features: a friend's poignant blog about life with her profoundly autistic son, a law school classmate turned scholar who explains the economic crisis in ways I can actually understand, the Dalai Lama's newsfeed, and a vast array of delightful friends whose humor runs to the dry/dark.

Which isn't to say I haven't had my moments on Facebook's dark side -- the two-minute break that turns into two hours, the twinge that arises when a lucky acquaintance seems to get yet another break -- but rather than blaming the technology, why not look to ourselves? Facebook isn't going away anytime soon. Why not bolster the ways it enhances our lives and reduce the ways it depletes them?

To this end, we'd do well to consider research from the world of behavioral economics, in particular the role of "choice architecture" in shaping our lives. What does this mean? In their eye-opening book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness," professors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein explain that bad choices can often be traced to environments that actively encourage them. For example, how food is arranged in a school cafeteria does much to predict what kids will eat for lunch. Research has shown that by simply rearranging the cafeteria -- by altering the "choice architecture" -- it's possible to increase or decrease the consumption of many foods by as much as 25 percent. The bottom line: Everything matters. Our environments have a huge impact on the decisions we make.

In a similar vein, we'd be smart to give serious thought to the "choice architecture" of our online lives. Already, there are some signs that we're moving in this direction. One example is Freedom, an application that locks off a computer's Internet access for up to eight hours at a time. (At a reading I recently attended, a novelist sang its praises.) As the Freedom website explains: "The hassle of rebooting means you're less likely to cheat, and you'll enjoy enhanced productivity." Choice architecture at its finest. There are also smaller scale adjustments -- steps each of us can easily take -- such as temporarily "hiding" friends whose posts are likely to prove distracting or upsetting.

One curious aspect of the ever thought-provoking "Alone Together" is how Turkle endows technology with figurative agency even as she stresses the (valid) point that machines can't want or feel. "Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies," she writes in her introduction. At the same time, her technology-using humans are an oddly powerless bunch, more acted upon than actors. For example, reporting teens' accounts of their online lives, Turkle notes that some say they "find themselves being 'cruel.'" Another teen explains that he has no choice but to text and drive: "If I get a Facebook message or something posted on my wall... I have to see it. I have to."

What's lost here is the choice point: Kids don't simply "find themselves" acting cruel, and they don't "have to" text while driving. Rather, they -- and we -- make choices that lead to these actions. True, teens are notoriously lacking in impulse control, but isn't that all the more reason to home in on this issue, to come up with structural supports that would "nudge" them towards healthier behaviors? That's where adults come in.

16-year-old Roanne keeps her diary in a paper journal because, as Turkle explains, "[s]he says she is too weak to stay focused when she has the Internet to tempt her." Too weak? In essence, what Roanne is doing is taking control of her online experience by adopting "choice architecture" that effectively supports her goals. This capacity strikes me as invaluable, absolutely necessary if we're to assume the reins of our online lives. It's a skill we'd all do well to cultivate. And it's not weakness: It's wisdom.

 
 
 

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