Facebook’s Outages Reveal Its Value to Society
Facebook’s Outages Reveal Its Value to Society
When Facebook went down for hours this week, the internet was all atwitter (sorry). Most of what I came across was fairly snarky, but a lot of the posts were pretty clever. I saw a variation of this retweeted many times: “News flash! Facebook down! People talk to each other, kids play with toys!” (Actually, they were probably playing Fortnite and didn’t notice.) And there was this headline from The Beaverton, a satirical website: “Facebook Down: Millions of Users Took to the Streets to Yell Out Their Personal Data in Hopes of Being Heard by Advertisers, Spy Agencies.”
That of course is all in fun. But what do Facebook users really do when the site goes down? It’s commonly said (and was tweeted frequently during the outage) that people turn to traditional news outlets for their information. This may not be true. That’s one of several findings from an important new paper published in January by a team of economists from New York University and Stanford.
From 2,844 Facebook users who volunteered for the experiment, the researchers culled some 58 percent who agreed to deactivate their accounts for four weeks. These in turn were divided into a treatment group, which was paid to remain off Facebook, and a control group, which wasn’t. The researchers employed a variety of ingenious means to test compliance during the trial, and found that more than 90 percent of those in the treatment group did as they promised.
The results were remarkable.
On average, by avoiding Facebook, the treatment group gained about one additional hour of free time each day. What did they do with those extra minutes? Members of the group, the paper says, “actually spent less time on both non-Facebook social media and other online activities, while devoting more time to a range of offline activities such as watching television alone and spending time with friends and family.” (And, yes, happily, some also reported reading more books, although the study doesn’t provide the numbers.
Then there’s politics. There is a widespread view that social media increases polarization. The results of the experiment were consistent with that hypothesis. The treatment group saw a reduction in “polarization of views on policy issues.” On the other hand, there was also a reduction in participants’ exposure to “news that made them better understand the point of view of the other political party.” Moreover, quitting Facebook did not affect users’ negative feelings about those in the opposite political party. Maybe some chunk of America’s political polarization is unfixable.
What about the common belief that social media crowds out more traditional sources of news? The authors found the opposite to be true: The treatment group “did not change its consumption of any other online or offline news sources and reported spending 15 percent less time consuming news.”
Given this result, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that members of the treatment group also had less knowledge of actual facts about the news, as measured by a test. In post-experiment follow-ups, they were more likely than those in the control group to agree that Facebook engagement helps them follow the news.
Finally, the researchers measured the subjective well-being of those in the treatment group. As one might predict, the effect of staying off Facebook for a month was small but generally positive. In fact, the paper says that the increase in the group’s well-being measured at between 25 and 40 percent of the increase found among people in therapy. 2
The authors sensibly call for caution in interpreting their results. Their sample, they note, skewed young, educated and left. The period of deactivation was only four weeks. And much of the data relied on self-reporting by study participants.
Nevertheless, the findings are striking — in particular, that quitting Facebook reduces knowledge of current events. This result highlights the risk that a significant number of people find the news interesting only when it’s delivered with a clear partisan slant. When they can’t get the bias they prefer, they pay less attention to the world.
If true, this isn’t entirely the fault of Facebook. But it’s certainly something we need to remedy, if we only knew how. Meanwhile, the next time Facebook goes down? Don’t panic. Instead, think of it this way: You’ve been gifted an hour of free time a day. Use it wisely ... while it lasts.
Reading books and spending time on Facebook are not of course perfect substitutes. In fact, there’s some reason to believe that Facebook is somehow made for the human mind in a way that books are not. In one well-known experiment, people were able to recall sentences selected at random from Facebook posts more accurately than they could recall passages of similar length selected at random from books. The researchers speculated that the cause might be the relatively spontaneous structure of social media posts, making them more like natural language than sentences that have been written for publication and, um, edited (like, say, this one).
The researchers found “little evidence to support the hypothesis suggested by prior work that Facebook might be more beneficial for ‘active’ users — for example, users who regularly comment on pictures and posts from friends and family instead of just scrolling through their news feeds.”