Don't poke him (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

February 2, 2024   6 mins

How will Facebook celebrate its 20th birthday? Perhaps it will create one of those cute video montages they like to generate at significant moments. Starting with a tinkling piano soundtrack, a couple of breathless friend requests, and some self-conscious, tentative writing of “hello!” on other users’ walls, it might then pass quickly through moments of chronic oversharing, passive-aggressive stalking of exes, and horrified untagging of yourself in unflattering photos. Next, it might linger briefly on a few memes, embarrassing jokes, and ice-bucket challenges; and then arrive with a soaring crescendo and a lot of air-punching at Facebook’s supposedly beneficial role in the Arab Spring and the #MeToo movements.

Wholly absent from the narrative, one assumes, would be allegations of data harvesting, electoral manipulation, politicised shadow-banning, hosting of terrorist footage, the exacerbation of ethnic and religious conflicts, and the significant worsening of mental health in adolescent girls. Nor, I suspect, would any celebratory montage feature this week’s congressional hearing on online child exploitation, during which a senator dramatically told founder Mark Zuckerberg “you have blood on your hands”. Last year, a Guardian investigation revealed that, despite historic efforts to stop it, Facebook is still a major site of child sex trafficking. Meanwhile Wall Street Journal investigators have separately revealed that the platform is building “communities devoted to child sexualisation” (surely the final nail in the coffin for misty-eyed uses of the word “community”). Attention-hungry algorithms are apparently identifying users interested in paedophilic content and pointing them towards more of the same; connecting those with an initial interest in pictures of young cheerleaders and gymnasts, and then making suggestions for more hardcore image sites and private groups.

Such an inglorious future could not have been foretold during Facebook’s birth on the Harvard campus in 2004 — and nor even was it evident in 2008, when the platform really started to take off. Controversial algorithmic changes were still in the company’s future, and had yet to unleash their epistemic and moral carnage. But it was at least clear from an early stage that something momentously compulsive was now upon us, and that there would be no going back. Henceforth, the population would be divided into two groups: those of us wandering around the world with immediate access to a real-time digital soap opera, in which we too could perform as characters if we liked; and those few souls who remained blissfully unaware and unaffected.

It was also clear from the start that the structure of the platform was making some users behave in ways unlike their ordinary public selves. Early on in my own social-media journey, I still remember the feeling of horror-struck bafflement at seeing a husband and wife I knew, clearly located in the same house at the time, performatively writing to each other with high affection via a public Facebook wall rather than texting or even calling out the words to one other across their shared physical space. “What are they doing?” I thought to myself, squirming with mortification on their behalf. Later on, I felt a similar sense of second-hand embarrassment when I saw a woman taking a selfie in a train station. For a few seconds, my brain could not comprehend the action at all: the awkwardly tilted head, the rigid arm, the weird rictus smile. I thought she might be having a stroke. Looking back now, my innocence seems quite touching.

Via the most famous line from his play Huis Clos, Jean-Paul Sartre characterised hell as the chronic unease of being watched and judged by other people — real or intimated — and of projecting onto yourself the characteristics you imagine they see there. Effectively, Zuckerberg and colleagues built the Sartrean version of hell into Facebook’s business model, making every declaration or gesture there a form of public speaking. Whenever you write a post or comment, you do so with the knowledge that someone else, whom you are not directly addressing and perhaps do not even know, might be looking on. And even where, in actuality, nobody at all is paying you any attention, this sense of being overlooked never really goes away. This fact alone has profoundly changed the nature of much modern communication and yet is scarcely ever remarked upon.

Of course, it’s quite enjoyable when you are the one doing the eavesdropping. Though Facebook has always acted as if it is simply a positive tool for facilitating social harmony in pleasingly photogenic ways, part of its success undoubtedly lies in the stoking of darker emotions such as envy, spite and schadenfreude. Indeed, this layer has generated tonnes of extra business, as a whole raft of group chats have sprung into existence on associated messaging apps, created simply in order to criticise or mock outrageous behaviour occurring on the main stage. For every conversation or discussion playing out on social media in front of others, it is possible to generate another separate discussion, also on social media, which dissects the first (repeat ad infinitum). Not for nothing is Facebook’s parent company now called Meta.

Another presumably unplanned consequence of Facebook’s basic design is that it has always been a place where what you are not saying, but only implying, is often far more important than what you are actually saying. With the platform’s rise to cultural prominence in the 2000s came a whole new vocabulary, coined in order to pinpoint indirect speech acts online more precisely: virtue-signalling, vaguebooking, humblebragging and dogwhistling being good examples.

Sometimes it can be fun to try and work out what a particular poster is really trying to communicate, and to whom. Perhaps I’m cynical, but whenever I see an apparently casual and spontaneous “I’m feeling fabulous and my life is great now!” post, I assume it must be addressed to an ex. And in my experience, academics on Facebook are particularly good at not-so-subtly humblebragging for the benefit of their rivals, always finding themselves “honoured” to have received some bit of amazing student feedback which they then feel duty-bound to type out for readers word for word.

As Carl Jung told us: “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” Some people communicate into the online void picturing admiring and benevolent listeners; but others imagine precisely the opposite. The darker side of the Facebook structure arrives when you also imagine that your unseen observers are your harshest critics. Sometimes, of course, they are. In a relatively childish environment dominated by a few bullying types — say, in an adolescent girls’ school, or in a university — every photo, post or ”like” bestowed can come up for disapproving scrutiny. But even where your onlookers are imagined, deep anxiety can still bite. Most of us who use social media regularly have felt the pang of fear as a post remains unliked or relatively unacknowledged, with your sense of humiliation compounded by the idea that others must see this too. Given that most adults can barely handle the resulting feelings, it seems quite incredible that Zuckerberg’s company ever knowingly exposed children to the same thing.

Just as a year in a dog’s life counts for seven, 20 years in the life of a social media platform makes it positively antediluvian. These days, Facebook is the shambolic old aunty of the social media field, her feed a whiplash-inducing, visually unappealing mess of personal posts from friends, adverts and celebrity clickbait. Apparently having mentally discarded his embarrassing first child long ago, Zuckerberg himself is busy these days enthusing about the use of “Codec avatars” in future online communication. Roughly, once Meta can work out how to do it more cheaply and time-efficiently, you will be able to have your face and body minutely scanned to produce a photorealistic avatar in 3-D, that then makes it appear exactly as if you are in the room with the person you are speaking to. In an interview with Lex Fridman in which the prototype was demonstrated, Zuckerberg indicated that, once the technology is established, you should also be able to enhance the face of your avatar to make “you” more expressive or better-looking.

Though I’m doubtless out-of-touch, it seems to me that we don’t really want a future in which generations of yet more anxious people find further excuses to hide indoors, preferring to put on a fake mask to talk to someone in the next town or even the next room rather than to face them directly. And of course, any resulting communication via this method will still be potentially surveilled by third parties — be they tech firms or fellow users.

But whatever the true psychological risks eventually posed by this and other new communication technologies, you can guarantee that those in charge of the profits will downplay them until it’s already too late. According to Zuckerberg in the same interview, “you know the physical world is super important, but I actually think the real world is a combination of a physical world and the digital world”. What he didn’t say is that, as Sartre knew, the “real world” for human beings is partly constituted by our social relationships with one another. And so far, he has made a right old mess of those.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.