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For the past few months, I've been running a performance art piece entitled "Social Media Break Up Coordinator." While this is not about romantic break ups, per se, it's about breaking up with social media and understanding relationships on social media better. I have participants fill out a quiz and I give them algorithmic advice based off of their answers (Yes, I wrote the algorithm, and yes I enact it live). Though, a lot of people came with break ups, and needing advice. What can I do, how can I see less of them, how do I get over it? I can answer all of those questions, but the last one. The last one takes time, the first two we can do right now, right here, in my office.
Content is key when it comes to pain induced memories or nostalgia tinged posts. Content is so easy to create, and put multiple places. When all of the content we are creating is cross-posted from Instagram to Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr, it's easy to forget what is posted and when. That poem your ex sent you when you first started dating? Yeah, it can probably pop up in your Facebook memories under a beautiful Instagram filter, especially if you forgot to tag them and didn't enact the Ex blocking filter they created.
Participants came to me with a range of issues from bad work experiences, to friendships souring, and yes romantic break ups. Part of the problem people faced was feeling allowed to unfollow, and wondering what was the proper social etiquette when dealing with these issues.
As a user researcher (that's my day job), I can definitively say there is no wrong way to use anything. Social media platforms do have an intended use, but that's not the only way to use it. There's the way that you use it, and the way that other's use it- but in terms of social media, there's no wrong way. If the platform allows for it, you're using it the right way, regardless of Facebook or Twitter's intention. Do you only post photos to Twitter and text to Instagram? That's technically not wrong because you technically can do it. If I were an SEO coordinator, I'd tell you do flip it, but hey, whatever floats your boat, especially if YOU like it.
The point is is that as users we are still figuring out what the 'right' things are to do, and what social protocol is. It's hard to suss out what what is 'right' and what is 'wrong.' The point of Social Media Break Up Coordinator sessions were to help people figure out what they wanted to do so we could figure out how to do it. Blocking or unfollowing an ex-friend, an ex-lover, a foul coworker or a racist uncle isn't wrong if it causes you pain. But there are a lot of societal and cultural norms that can be violated, so its a balance of what kind of pain is my client/participant going through, and what is the bigger pain of providing or not doing x, y, z suggestions.
Because our lives are so intertwined online with cross postings, it's easy to forget that a selfie with your ex-husband may pop on any random day with Facebook's memories algorithm or that your ex bestie may be in your suggested people to follow on Twitter.
Algorithms are not that smart, and suggest things based off greater ties in our social network. If your network is intertwined with this person you don't want to see, it's very very hard to break those connections. It can be done, though, with a lot of muting, unfollowing, untagging, deleting, and with the future mind set of how emotionally dangerous it can be to cross post every single thing.
But, but isn't it giving something up or censoring to not post what I want to post? Isn't it rude to unfollow? Not really, actually. Think of social media as the Henry Ford cars from the turn of the century.
Those cars lacked airbags and seat belts; those cars, while so so useful and revolutionary, were dangerous. Right now our social media platforms are dangerous, emotionally so. Users lack airbags to help block, change, silo, siphon and organize relationships, communication, and even things like harassment. We, as users on these platforms, lack finer controls to create personalized, organized safe spaces.
With the UI of Facebook and it's privacy policies changing in what feels like every three months (it's usually a few times a year) it's hard as a user to even know the extent of how public or private one is. And that is a huge, huge problem, especially when it comes to using these platforms are primary communication devices. I know how available I am on SMS, but could the common person tell you what their privacy settings are online and how easy they are to find on Facebook? Could they explain the algorithm that shows them content? No, they can't, and this is a major issue.
Right now, as users, we are starting to define what our social protocols are on social networks, and what our needs are. But the lack of knowledge around how these algorithms works creates nebulousness and confusion for most people. That's where my art project comes in, as part advocacy, but mainly help for others. I've spent two years studying social media algorithms and there are still tons of things I don't know, and that's problematic. There's an idea that if you can't take something apart, you don't truly own. If you can't open something up and see how it works, then how can you understand what it does?
The most fascinating part of Social Media Break Up Coordinator to me were that almost all of my participants were in the 25-35 age range and were digitally literate folks, some were even engineers. But every single person needed advice, and felt like they needed advice when handling or understanding their social media lives better. This is how hard it can be to use, understand, and change their privacy settings. These settings change how people can interact with you and what you see. Emotional pain in social media is as much of a privacy issue, as it is a design issue. Our products are poorly designed, with necessary and need changes either not happening or hidden. So until the design changes, things like Social Media Break Up Coordinator will pop up to help fill in the gaps.
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