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Barbershop: Facebook's Purported Pivot To Privacy


Finally today, we're going to talk about some big news out of Silicon Valley. This week, Facebook said it is testing a feature to hide the number of likes on Instagram, which Facebook owns, and to ban content posted by people and groups it considers extremist. Both were described as an effort to deal with increasingly sharp criticism that these social media platforms are creating unhealthy social environments by allowing the spread of false, hateful propaganda, in the case of Facebook, or in the case of Instagram, stimulating negative mental health impacts such as depression and anxiety.

We were wondering if these changes will really make social media safer and healthier. Or will they just prevent influencers and bloggers from expressing themselves and making a living? We decided to take that to the Barbershop because that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And before we begin, let's tell you that Facebook is a financial sponsor of NPR. with that being said, joining me are Alice Marwick. She is a Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ALICE MARWICK: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Taylor Lorenz is a staff writer for The Atlantic who often writes about social media. Nice to have you back with us.


MARTIN: And Sara Li is a writer and social media strategist - a former influencer.

Sara Li, welcome to you.

SARA LI: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So let me start with the Instagram news. They're testing this new feature, as we said, to hide the number of likes a post gets. And I just want to ask each of you briefly - as briefly as you can - is this a step in the right direction? And, professor Marwick, I'll start with you.

MARWICK: I think it's an interesting experiment. It's certainly going to remove the ability for people to compare individual posts to each other. And since the research seems to show that people who are prone to comparing themselves to others do feel badly when they use sites like Instagram, I think for people like that it could be a good thing. But the entirety of social media is built around gaining status and attention, so I'm not sure how much it's going to change how people participate online.

MARTIN: So, Taylor, I don't know if you feel comfortable hazarding your opinion, given that this is your beat. If you do...

LORENZ: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: I'll let you answer however you feel comfortable.

LORENZ: Yeah. No, definitely. I share - yeah, I mean, I like to talk about sort of the different things that Instagram tests frequently. I think it's actually sort of a positive step. But, you know, Instagram Stories, which is one of the most rapidly growing features on Instagram, actually does by default hide metrics from users. So you can't - you know, while you yourself can see how many views a story got, it's not outwardly facing. So I think this is just going to be sort of more in line with that. And I think users will get used to it much more quickly than they think.

MARTIN: And, Sara, you know, I'm fascinated by - you know, I'm fascinated by you, of course because you actually were an influencer. That means you were paid to post promoted content. You started that as a high school student, and you eventually left that world. So, you know, you have a foot in both sides of it. I mean, on the one hand, you've seen the way it can - what - how would you describe the negatives? Like, sort of create this pressure on you to kind of perform yourself or - but you also made money from it, so...

LI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell me.

LI: Yeah, absolutely. I was 17 when I started, you know, doing influencer campaigns. And I think the thing that I realized about it is that it's such an empty goal because you're constantly chasing for that high engagement. You're constantly wanting new followers, more likes, etc. And after a certain point, like, I realized there's never going to be a number that's going to be satisfying. You know, you're never going to get enough followers. You're never going to get enough likes. So at that point, you just kind of have to ask yourself, is this worth it? Is it worth putting on this very highlighted persona on this online personality for the money, for the prestige - for the clout as, you know, the kids call it these days?

And it's not. Truly, I don't - I really don't think it's worth it because once - the second that you hit a milestone, you're going to want more, and you're going to be constantly, constantly chasing something that you're never going to be happy with.

MARTIN: And what about the idea of hiding the likes? What do you think? Is that a step in the right direction? Or you don't think it'll do any - make any difference.

LI: So I really hate to be the cynic here, but while I do you think it is a step in the right direction, I'm not entirely sure that's going to last because the idea that Instagram is hiding these likes to promote better mental health - which I, you know, completely agree is a huge issue, especially considering the influence of social media on our kids these days. However, I think it's kind of a Band-Aid solution.

I think the second that Instagram starts hiding their likes, there's going to be another social media app that comes out of the blue to kind of fill that gap, to fill that void because the issue isn't that people are getting their validation from Instagram. The issue is that people are looking at social media period for validation. So I think until the day that we address a solution for that bigger issue, I think Instagram hiding the likes - this is going to be a very temporary solution.

MARTIN: So, professor Marwick, can you just talk a little bit more about what the research shows? You know, your research focuses on what you call the attention economy. Could you just amplify our understanding? Is there anything else you think we should know about how this works?

MARWICK: Yeah. So in the attention economy, likes and followers function as currency. They're worth something. And obviously, they can be converted into actual money, as in an influencer being paid by a brand to put up a sponsored post, as we've talked about. But in other cases, they function as social currency. They give people feedback. They let them know people are watching and paying attention. And in some cases, I do think this is good. I think it allows people to feel socially supported, that they're part of a community and to maybe participate in a trend or a meme that's going around. And these things are good, I think, for our community building and sort of sense of each other.

But I think the problem is when this attention gets converted down to this metric, this single number, it provides this very easy point of comparison. And you can very easily compare yourself to your friends, to celebrities, to influencers. And Instagram also uses those like metrics in its product. It uses the like metrics to rank its feed of photos to recommend which photos it shows first to different users. So the likes are still going to matter to the site. They'll still be there under the hood. They just won't necessarily be as visible to the users.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't they just monetize that and just say, OK, you can pay extra to see people's likes, get access to that private information?

MARWICK: I mean, it remains to be seen, right? Like, this is a test. I think that they are going to have to implement something for people who are making a living off this platform simply because brands and influencers are so dependent on being able to judge the success of a sponsorship or a campaign through the number of likes and views a post gets. So, you know, I could see them down the line rolling out some kind of tools for business and - or for people who want to sort of interact with each other more professionally on the site.

MARTIN: That leads to a question I want to save for the end because now I want to - which is the whole question of whether these platforms have gotten to the point where really they should be treated like utilities, for whatever that means? But I'm going to save that for the end because I want to go to Taylor now on the story that you covered for the Atlantic about this move to Facebook and Instagram banning the profiles of public figures like Infowars founder Alex Jones and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Taylor, you covered this for The Atlantic. What exactly does this entail?

LORENZ: OK, so a couple things. First of all, I just want to loop back to something - the ways that you guys were just talking about Instagram previously and push back a little bit. That's really...


LORENZ: ...Not how people use Instagram on a broad scale. I mean, Facebook - I'm sorry, Instagram is over a billion users. It's a very - you know, people express themselves in very complex ways on the app. So while, you know, there's this stereotype that people are just posting photos and trying to get likes, like, it's really not like that, especially for younger users who use it - you know, they're very involved in commenting and group chats. And, you know, Stories, its fastest-growing product, is not at all about likes. It's far less performative.

So I think sort of in light of that, you see a lot of people using Instagram in, you know, all of these complex, interesting and sometimes very problematic ways. So, you know, Facebook and Instagram's move to ban these extremist accounts was because, you know, some of these extremist figures were using Instagram to actually, you know, spread misinformation, which is a problem that Facebook has had, too. So I think this is a - you know, a strong step for that. But they have a lot more ways to go. You know, Instagram is not just about photos. And there are also a lot of ways to spread misinformation on Facebook, too.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that briefly? Like, give us another example of that.

LORENZ: Of Instagram.

MARTIN: Yeah, how it works.

LORENZ: Yeah. Well, so...

MARTIN: Because you've written extensively about that, too - not just the what but the how - how it works that way.

LORENZ: Yeah. So Instagram's this big, you know, messy social network. Obviously, you have the main feed of photos, which people less and less use to just post straight pictures, like the aspirational photos you were talking about earlier. Especially younger users engage in memes. They engage in video content from other platforms, things like that. There's also IGTV, which is essentially a YouTube competitor. There's Stories, which are the short-form video, and GIF and photo formats.

So - and then there's comments and group chats and all of these different things - live-streaming. And so, you know, extremist figures can kind of play in all of those different formats, you know, whether it's an Infowars video uploaded to a meme page on IGTV to reach, you know, Gen Z kids or, you know, problematic messages told in visual format through the feed or, you know, an extremist going live.

MARTIN: So to that end, though - and I also want to hear from the others on this - but, Taylor, do you - again, to the degree you feel comfortable because you cover this...


MARTIN: Is this focusing on these individuals who have very long track records, right, of public utterances that most people I think know - do you think that's the right approach?

LORENZ: Well, yeah. I mean, it's the right approach to crack down on extremism as we've seen, you know, the consequences of letting that kind of speech flourish. But, I mean, they're not going far enough. I mean, this is literally, like, four people or five people. So there's a really long way to go on both platforms.

MARTIN: Professor Marwick, what do you think about that because I know you study this as well?

LORENZ: Well, I think it's a difficult position for a platform like Facebook. I mean, Taylor is completely right. There are - these are enormous, multi-feature platforms with many different ways for people to engage. And, as a result, it's not just coming from the top, right? Like, it's not just coming from Alex Jones. It's coming in private Facebook groups. It's coming in WhatsApp chats. It's coming in all of these different ways that people engage with the platform. So I do think it's one head of the many-headed hydra that you can cut off.

But at some point, there - you're going to have to take some kind of stance on what type of content is acceptable and not on the platform. If they choose to do that, I think that's going to be very, very difficult for them because there's going to be an accusation of partisanship. And, as a result, I think they've tried to portray themselves as sort of this, like, neutral third-party because they want to be seen as a platform, right, on which people interact and on which people perform.

But when you are drawing a line in the sand and saying, you know, this is the type of content that isn't acceptable, that's going to encompass a range of people, some who are very fringy and some who are a little bit more mainstream. And I think that's a political battle that Facebook is going to have to face as it moves forward with some of these decisions.

MARTIN: So that's the question I wanted to sort of conclude with. Does this point to the idea that these platforms - that we should think about them as they're not kind of just neutral entities that are just there, and people just kind of do what - that they're so woven into the fabric of our lives that perhaps we should think about them in a different way. I know that there's a lot of resistance to that for all kinds of reasons. But, you know, are we at the point where they should be thought about like utilities, where the public gets to participate in how these entities interface with us?

There are public service commissions. You know, there are boards. There are - do you see my point? It's not just a private matter how they conduct themselves. What do you think about that, as briefly - I know it's a big question - as briefly as you can? So, Taylor, you want to start?

LORENZ: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think it's so hard. I mean, if you're going to talk about them becoming public utilities and regulation, you have to really understand how these platforms work and how people communicate on them. And I think that's evolving so rapidly that it's really hard for, you know, lawmakers to even regulate that type of stuff.

I'd point to some of the influencer regulations that the FTC has put in place. I mean, that really hasn't done anything to, you know, like, really rein in a lot of this bad spammy influencer marketing. So I think - yeah, I mean, I think it's worth noting, you know, the role that these people - or the role that these platforms play in our lives. But I don't know.

MARTIN: It's big.

LORENZ: It's so big and so complicated (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah. Sara, what do you think?

LI: I'm just really thinking about how that would even work because, like Taylor said, Instagram really isn't just for the sole purpose of just posting a picture and getting likes anymore. We've seen it branch out so much bigger than that. Like I said, it's a method for communication. And now we're seeing media publications use it as a means to communicate with their audience.

So just the idea of it becoming kind of a public service - I can see that maybe going into effect if there was a more prominent health safety issue such as, like Taylor mentioned, the spammy influencer marketing where you have people promoting, like, these detox teas that truly are harmful for your body. So I can see that being part of that huge conversation.

MARTIN: Professor Marwick, I only gave you 30 seconds to answer this terribly big question, so you'll have to come back and tell us more. But what do you think?

MARWICK: It's a - these are global platforms, so even if the U.S. decided to implement regulations, we still have millions - hundreds of millions of users outside the U.S. who are under different regulatory regimes. And when you're talking about regulation, you are talking about something that gets extremely complicated and requires an intimate knowledge of the platform which lawmakers don't necessarily always have.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for at least getting us started in trying to understand it.

MARWICK: (Laughter).

MARTIN: That's Alice Marwick, professor of communication at UNC Chapel Hill, author of "Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, And Branding In The Social Media Age," Sara Li, social media strategist, and Taylor Lorenz, staff writer for The Atlantic.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

LI: Thank you.

LORENZ: Thank you.

MARWICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.