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“I have had emails from all around the world – and they are all positive,” says Dutch Merijn Straathof, head of a project encouraging people to leave Facebook, in the wake of the recent privacy uproar over the site’s psychological experiment on its users.
The 99 Days project aims to work out a more profound question: does the site make us happy? Users are encouraged to change their profile to a countdown and not log in at all for the duration.
Every month, scientists from Cornell and Leiden universities will ask questions to assess their happiness, psychological state and relationship to the site. A We Live Security guide may help concerned site users control Facebook privacy and data use by the site – which, as Staarthof found out, is something users find hard to contemplate life without.
“People couldn’t imagine this world we live in now, where we look at this site all day,” says Straathof. “The step of leaving it forever is too big for people. That’s why we came up with 99 days.”
The 99 Days project was started by an advertising agency, and Straathof says that the relentless happiness of the site is one of the things he hopes to throw light on. You cannot “dislike” a post. People do not confess to being unhappy. People compete for attention – and scammers prey on this. This is a mode, Straathof says, that has fallen out of favor among advertisers – as too unsubtle.
“Most of the people who contacted me said they spend too much time on Facebook,” he says. “An hour a day. Two hours. Add that over a month, and it’s a small holiday – in this digital reality. People are thinking, ‘I don’t have the time to do this’.”
What has surprised Straathof is that Facebook ‘quitters’ are not worried about Facebook privacy as much as some perhaps expected.
“People don’t think about it – what the meaning of privacy is, or why we should cherish it,” says Straathof. “People say that they have nothing to hide. But if everything is digitized, it will still be there for decades. If it’s publicly archived, future governments will have all this data. Our current privacy discussion is not big enough to change things.”
People’s concerns with the site are simpler than worries over Facebook privacy – “They are not sure if they get happier. In America, families use it to stay in touch with people far away. In Holland, family tend to be near. This digital reality can cause negative feelings.”
The University of Michigan researchers behind a previous Facebook study used “experience-sampling” – questionnaires about well-being at random times five times a day – which is considered among the most reliable methods of judging how people feel, think and behave.
“This result goes to the very heart of the influence that social networks may have on people’s lives,” said Michigan cognitive neuroscientist John Jonides.
They found that the more participants used Facebook over the two-week study period, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time – whereas interacting in the “real world” had the opposite effect.
Previous books such as MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together interviewed users who felt they were creating a “false identity” on the site.
“I work in advertising,” says Staarthof. “This is staged happiness. Users are creating this persona, and they realize that other people are doing it. It’s not 100% reality. All those amazing things in your friends’ feeds – it’s narcissistic. People are just trying to be popular. No one ever posts, ‘I’m feeling sad.’ The only possible response is positive – sharing positive things.”
What is less clear is whether the “happiness” of Facebook is in any way real – or if the site can be altered to make its users happier.
“Is it a recipe to create happiness online?” asks Staarthof. “No. It’s staged happiness. I work in advertising – and it feels like adverts from years ago. Coca Cola is a brand that’s about happiness – and years ago, those adverts were people smiling, enjoying Coca Cola. Now it has to be more sophisticated – send a Coke to Africa, interact with the real world.”
“Can Facebook be altered to make people happier?” asks Staarthof. The first questionnaire will go out to participants in 19 days, with questions assessing the wellbeing and psychological effects.
“Facebook is a very attractive medium for advertisers,” says Staarthof. “But creating this presence, on your phone in a digital world – is it better to put the phone down and do something authentic?”
Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security