Problems with Philosophy on Facebook


“What happens and what should a philosopher do if the academic community massively has moved on to making its informal engagements happen on one platform, specifically, Facebook?”

So asks Helen De Cruz (Saint Louis University) in a post at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. 

De Cruz takes it for granted that the philosophical community has in fact “massively… moved on to making its informal engagements” on Facebook. I’m skeptical. I would bet that the overwhelming majority of academic philosophers would answer “none or very few” to a question that asked them how many of their philosophical conversations take place on Facebook.

When you’re asked about the activities of other philosophers, the philosophers that are likely to come to mind will include the philosophers you most interact with, which, if you’re spending a lot of time philosophizing on Facebook, will be other philosophers on Facebook. This is a version of the availability heuristic.

The fact that Facebook is a kind of availability heuristic trap (in multiple ways) is left off of Professor De Cruz’s list of problems with the platform—problems that are worth thinking about even if most philosophers aren’t discussing much or any philosophy on Facebook, as it is a more popular social media platform for discussions among philosophers than its direct competitors (including newer options). These problems include:

  1. The platform’s algorithm for post visibility is not transparent. We do not know which posts are seen and which ones aren’t… It is kind of stunning that you put things out there, and you don’t know who sees it. The platform controls who will see it. Why would we accept such an opaque way of doing things? 
  2. The ambiguity of saying things private/public. I tried to only write things I would be comfortable sharing in a public venue because I knew friends whose posts were screenshot and gleefully shared. Still, the faux intimacy of the platform creates an ambiguity of the private/public.
  3. The ambiguity of signaling group membership and philosophical engagement… The line between philosophy seminar room talk and real world talk that impacts people becomes hard to draw.
  4. Facebook entrenches power relations and privilege relationships, with people who are more central nodes in the network (either because they are great at networking, or have prominent positions, or both) benefiting more from engagements than others. 
  5. Facebook can lead to will-depletion… it’s hard to put boundaries on social media use… This increase in self-regulatory burden may pose a unique challenge for those living in poverty, who, research suggests are more likely to begin from a place of willpower depletion relative to everyone else.

Professor De Cruz believes that decreases in participation on philosophically substantive blogs correlates with the increase in Facebook’s popularity. It might be worth hearing from the editors of those blogs about such trends and how their sites are doing now.

I’m also interested in hearing whether there is a way that Daily Nous can be of assistance here, perhaps by hosting more discussions on substantive philosophical questions, or perhaps by occasionally featuring philosophical material from other, less-trafficked blogs. I’m open to suggestions.

 

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Michael Crawford
Michael Crawford
1 year ago

I agree that all of those are problems.

I also think that, for the most part, academic philosophy having informal engagement to be a good thing. Facebook is suboptimal for the reasons you mentioned, but where do we move the conversation? Anywhere better has to satisfy the above criteria, but will lack the same sort of ubiquity.

So what you get in terms of desirable goals may be at the expense of the popularity of the platform.

Any ideas on a post-Facebook social milieu?Report

Olivia Bailey
Olivia Bailey
Reply to  Michael Crawford
1 year ago

Back to the blogs, I say! PEA Soup, for instance, is a great (and venerable!) venue for informal moral and political philosophy that deserves more engagement than it currently receives.
http://peasoup.us/Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Olivia Bailey
1 year ago

I’m all for blogs, obviously:) But I also think that facebook is an enormous multiplicator. Here are some numbers of view referrers for a recent blogpost of mine on Jan 22:

– Facebook: 377
– CrookedTimber: 39
– Twitter 27
– Google 16

This means my post was at least clicked on mostly because it was shared on FB. Unless you have a famous blog, it won’t get much traction without wideranging social media.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
Reply to  Olivia Bailey
1 year ago

Thanks for the shout out Olivia! Martin is surely right that we reach more people due to being able to let folks know what is happening at Soup via Facebook, but it is a constant struggle to get folks to respond publicly on Soup rather than merely on Facebook.Report

Bradley Rettler
Reply to  Michael Crawford
1 year ago

PhilPeople (https://philpeople.org/news) was designed with this in mind.Report

JDF
JDF
Reply to  Bradley Rettler
1 year ago

I very much hope that philpeople does not start to function as a social networking site. There is a real need for a site which only provides professional information about publications, conferences, and all that jazz. Despite the addition of the ability to post whatever you want in the newsreel, very few people I follow post at all (and I follow a ton of people because of the autofollow algorithm). It’s just the auto-updates about who is publishing what where and who is speaking when where. If it becomes a site where people frequently post other sorts of information, I’m likely to stop using it on the same grounds that I and so many people avoid other forms of social media.Report

Bradley Rettler
Reply to  JDF
1 year ago

PhilPeople allows you to filter out posts in your “News Settings”. It also allows you to just see events, or just see new publications.Report

Martin Lenz
1 year ago

The attraction of facebook is not that it could be a philosophy forum. As people have noted, there are good alternatives for philosophers already. The attraction is that it is *not* a place where only philosophers hang out. I guess many of us cherish social media because of what I’d call a *semi-professional* identity. In the company of familiy and friends, you can present yourself as in non-professional respects to your colleagues also. That alters our professional relations, too. It’s much easier to approach one another in the first place. Or would you post jokes, pics or music on something like philpeople? – In other words, the ambiguities noted are an advantage because academic status is relativesed by FB being public forum of semi-professional and semi-private exchange.Report

Helen De Cruz
Helen De Cruz
1 year ago

Justin, I agree the availability heuristic is an important thing I left out (and likely colored my judgment). It is also a problem because it limits ideas about e.g., who to invite. Some people say it’s even important to have a good FB presence as part of the job market process (I hope this is not true, or only true in the weaker sense that if your presence on social media is negative it might impact you negatively, but even there what is perceived as negative might be due to factors beyond your control).
I like the idea we can present ourselves as more than just professional entities, that we can show a bigger part of ourselves (as Martin Lenz notes), and I’m fascinated by that and will miss that.Report

Chris Davis
Chris Davis
1 year ago

I’m not sure problem 3 is in fact a problem. Whats the point of doing philosophy if it doesn’t engage in real-world talk that impacts people? Given the declining relevance of our field in larger society, we should lean into those conversations. I think the people who typically engage in those kind of hard hitting conversations today have something important to teach us.Report

Helen De Cruz
Helen De Cruz
Reply to  Chris Davis
1 year ago

You might be right there is a plus side to it, but somehow the dynamics/blurred line between both signaling one’s moral commitments AND philosophical engagement make it difficult to have a productive conversation (see the full piece on the Cocoon. I agree that we should be mindful of how philosophy seminar talk impacts the wider world.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
1 year ago

Thanks to Helen for this insightful post. I quit Facebook many years ago — not for any intellectually- or morally-admirable reason, but just because: (a) I found that it was a gigantic time-suck, and (b) my poor little heart is just too sensitive to bear the unambiguous social feedback. Overall, I’m very happy with the decision, although it does, of course, mean missing out on many things — including philosophical discussion.

For this reason, I wish the blogs were stronger. My humble suggestion to you, Justin, would be to require comments under one’s own name for most of the posts. I can understand why you’d want to allow people to comment pseudonymously on that “race science” post, but I don’t see why people shouldn’t have to put their real names behind their “takes” on trolley problems. I think this would improve the quality and quantity of discussion on the substantive philosophy posts here — partly for reasons it would flatter our community to state, and partly for other reasons. Either way, that’s my suggestion.Report

Harish
Harish
1 year ago

Socrates practised his philosophy on crossroads. Philosophy is loud thinking irrespective of the one’s personal feelings of comfortable sharing it or not. FB provides another crossroads which overcome the spacial limits of physical one.Report

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

I’m also skeptical of the claim that the philosophical community has massively moved its informal communication onto Facebook. That’s not the case among philosophers I know, at least. I can think of a few people who post a lot, but they are the exception. My general impression is that most of my Facebook friends, both philosophers and non-philosophers, are much less active these days than they used to be, say, 5-10 years ago. It’s interesting that De Cruz’s circle of Facebook friends is clearly quite different.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 year ago

I have considered writing a comment on this post that describes my experiences with and observations about public interaction in philosophy, first at Discrimination and Disadvantage and now at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. Some of my experiences and perceptions of blogging in these two venues are similar to what Helen De Cruz and David Sobel have described above; some of my experiences and perceptions differ from what they have said. I believe that these differences are due in large part to the distinct agenda of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. In the meantime, however, I would like to point out the following:

The effects of prestige bias and its reproduction can be identified in every corner of philosophy, including every public social media platform on which philosophers engage: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and so on. (Indeed, in my view, prestige bias and other pernicious inequalities in philosophy are as prominent and formative of interactions and engagements on philosophy Twitter and on philosophy blogs as they are on (philosophy) Facebook. Though the effects of these inequalities may differ in appearance and character from one platform to the next, they do not differ in kind and consequence.)

The identification and analysis of these effects and their reproduction has been motivated in large part, at least initially, by Helen De Cruz’s important work, that is, De Cruz’s work in this regard on a variety of blogs including on Discrimination and Disadvantage. I hope that Helen will remember this vital contribution to transformative professional discourse when, henceforth, they feel despair about the state of public discussions in philosophy.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
1 year ago

Re: “I’m also interested in hearing whether there is a way that Daily Nous can be of assistance here”, what about promoting stuff that, ironically, means less time staring at screens and devices? I think that’d be a pretty cool angle.

Examples: host a crowdsourced photo album (i.e., of stuff going on out in the real world). Almost cooler if it were even anonymized, right? Cf., #4 above: I don’t mean the sort of Facebook photos to the effect of “look at me, I’m seated at some conference banquet, replete with a long table with and a famous philosopher in the middle, that I basically couldn’t have taken–or had taken–unless I was already in the highest-privileged community.” Something more democratized that’d give just as much statute to our friends shooting grain in North Dakota as whatever’s going on in New York City.

Or, say, physical activities. Or whatever else philosophers are good at, that gets them offline. Or what if DN sponsored a “time out”: voluntary to sign up, no Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or anything else for what, a day? A week?

In other words, we don’t need more things to draw us to screens. We need more things to draw us away from them. It just feels like a bunch of us–both individually and collectively–could use this sort of stuff. (I’m reminded of some recent threads, which, while provocative, would be hard to characterize as constructive.)Report

udo schuklenk
udo schuklenk
1 year ago

FWIW, folks in bioethics made a concerted effort to get off FB and on to a platform like MeWe, reasons were varied (many, myself included, think the platform has become a nefarious outfit that causes huge societal damage, across the globe, others simply dislike it because of 1. in the article above). In any case, it’s safe to say that the experiment failed. It failed mostly because people turned out to be free-riding agents, they set up profiles on the new site, and bioethics group, and then sat back and waited for a miracle to happen (while busily posting all day long on FB). I made a considered decision to get off FB last year, and while I miss the social interactions, I’m overall glad I made that decision. I don’t think discussions about the utility or disutility of FB for philosophical interactions should take place without broader considerations of what the platform and its operators do to societies. I found Zuboff’s Age of Surveillance Capitalism to be a true eye-opener.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  udo schuklenk
1 year ago

As for the MeWe experience, I had the same impression with philosphers and thought of the following kind of situation: You’re a party guest. The host just ushered everyone from the kitchen into the living room – and now everyone is standing around: most people feeling slightly awkward, while some are still immersed their conversations – but everyone quite aware that dinner should be served soon. – That’s how it feels on MeWe, except that there is no host and dinner won’t be served.Report

Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

I don’t understand the position that online blogs are somehow superior to having academic discussions via Facebook. Facebook is nice because you see pictures of someone’s family, their hobbies, and all of the other sorts of things that they do that have nothing to do with philosophy. It makes online engagements more personal. Even with this there are trolls on Facebook and people who misbehave, but the cost of doing so for them is likely to be much higher.

As someone who is pretty active on Facebook, has had many substantive philosophical discussions on the platform, and it has allowed me to connect to people with similar interests who I would have never known existed. It’s not perfect, but my academic life is much better because of Facebook.Report

Matt
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

“I don’t understand the position that online blogs are somehow superior to having academic discussions via Facebook.”

On a blog, you can have a paragraph break. That alone makes it a significantly better venue for philosophical discussion! (I’m only slightly being facetious here.)Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Matt, I can significantly improve your FB experience: use the “soft return” key. In the Mac, it’s Shift+Enter (Return). Probably the same on a PC. There’s your paragraph on FB.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Here’s another pair of reasons.

FB only allows one link per post. But often to make a point (with evidence) requires a lot of links.

FB decides via an opaque algorithm which posts will be shown to your friends and which won’t. (Or will only be shown if they scroll down a long way.) Other sites are not like this – though Twitter is heading dangerously in that direction.

The two problems reinforce each other. Posts on FB that include links to things critical of FB really get hidden. We should use systems where someone other than Peter Thiel (or whoever is in charge of the News Feed these days) determines who sees what each of us is saying.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

Yes! I also think that the semi-personal environment ultimately makes interaction easier. And even if I’d like to have more interaction on blogs, I see why discussing blog posts on FB makes for more variety and fun.Report

Anna
Anna
1 year ago

You can have a paragraph break on facebook.

I agree with those who like facebook because it allows us to see our colleagues in a more personal way. Of course, some people take it too far and share too much, but overall, I think it helps to remind ourselves that we work with real people. And that even if they published a so-so paper in a “not top” journal, they still have adorable children and really the latter is much more important. On facebook I also see the “stars” of philosophy interact, person to person, with the “nobodys.” I rarely see this on blogs, and to the extent I do it is just far less common. I think it’s nice that a grad student at a “low-ranked” program can respond to a post by one of the “big names” in their given field. There is no blog, either, where I regularly interact with 500 plus philosophers from around the world. Almost all the blogs I’ve seen have a very small number of regular commenters, and most of the commenters are anonymous. The 500 I mention are just my facebook friends, as someone who is not really anyone. I also, however, see the friends of friends comments. I see a lot of encouragement to those who are going through rough times, often about the profession. I’ve encouraged early career philosophers who I almost certainly would never have interacted with without facebook. I’ve been messaged by grad students interested in my work or in getting help. Again, these are things I suspect that are unlikely to occur in other venues. And I would be very disappointed with any alternative venue that was limited to, or focused mostly on, philosophers. I love that academics of all types join philosophy discussion on facebook, and even more, that once and a while non-academics will join-in.

If we are discussing sort of general FB criticisms, people talk a lot about how facebook takes away from “real.” social interaction. Well, maybe that depends on what type of person you are. As someone who was moving a lot for my academic job, and as someone who is a natural introvert, there was a period (not lasting) in my life where facebook was my main, almost only, social outlet. I didn’t have the time or the motivation to go out and yet again make new friends in a new area that i would soon leave. So I talked to my old friends, and then made some new ones, on Facebook. I think the friendships are real ones, even those that started on FB and even friendships with the few persons I haven’t yet meet in “real life.”t Perhaps I am fooling myself and when we run into each other a the APA they will look right past me. I don’t think so, though. And there isn’t any reason why, in principle, social interaction on FB could not sometimes be a genuine form of community. It irritates me when people in very different situations, those with a permanent job, maybe those who are extroverted, those who have enough of a name to get a blog audience, it irritates me when they look at FB or anything else through what is valuable to them, in their situation, and make claims that strongly imply they are talking about what is good or bad for people generally.

All that stuff about facebook being bad for the world and a bad actor, etc. Sure, yeah, okay. If you leave for that reason I can respect it. But I also suspect it is highly arbitrary given all the other bad actors (private companies, government entities, for goodness sake our friends and colleagues) that all of us interact with on a daily basis. I’d have to see a lot more to think facebook is special in this respect.

I’m not against anyone leaving FB if they want to do so. I have no doubt leaving it has made many persons lives better, overall. But as someone who joined it late, and who is overall happy I did, I’d just say there is a lot of good to weigh against all the bad, and just how much weight the good carries will be circumstantial.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Social media is hell. Anyone trying to convince you otherwise is part of the devil’s idea plot. All the undeniable attractions are part of the plot. Just because hell can be fun or enlightening doesn’t mean it’s not hell.

I quit Twitter. I hardly ever use Instagram. I deleted my FB three years ago and recently created a semi-secret account just to access an animal ethics group, a local vegan group and some running news. I have one friend (my wife). I wish I could access these resources without having to deal with the crap that’s there even with one single friend and a handful of groups.

I’ve never had a meaningful philosophical conversation on social media, but I have on blogs. Blogs are great. I miss the Philosopher’s Carnival. Sure, being off social media, I miss out on info, connections and gossip, but that’s damn well worth it.Report

Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

I’m somewhat skeptical of the claim that Facebook entrenches power and prestige relationships. It seems to me that it actually breaks them down, by creating new ones that have only a small to moderate correlation with existing ones. As far as I can tell, none of the most central people in the Facebook network of philosophers (as in, the ones that have the most engagement with multiple posts of theirs and posts of others over the course of any extended period of time) are at PGR top 5 departments, or maybe even PGR top 10 departments. There are several grad students and adjuncts and others without prestigious jobs in relatively central positions in the Facebook network.

If the complaint is that some people are relatively central in both, or that there are distinctions of centrality and peripherality, then I’m not sure if it’s conceptually possible for a social network to both develop organically and not have these features.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
1 year ago

Like some others here, I’m also no longer on social media. I got off FB and Twitter a year ago, and I was never on Instagram. I got off FB because being on made me unhappy: I would see people whom I respected writing things I didn’t respect, and I would stew on what they said. Sometimes I would post replies, but then I became extremely anxious about how my replies would be received. If I posted something and it got a lot of likes, I enjoyed that feeling immensely, and then became self-recriminating for enjoying something of so little substance (and sometimes I would beat myself over my feelings of self-recrimination, on the grounds that enjoying such validation was part of the human condition, etc.). If something I posted didn’t get likes, I would take that to mean that it was of no value, and then I would doubt that, etc.

As for Twitter, its worst features are well known. Its best feature was that I could DM people I didn’t know but did respect and hopefully get a response. But I very rarely got a response, so this didn’t work out for me.

After I quit these platforms, I wondered whether I’d continue to be just as unhappy, in which case that would show that I just find any opportunity I can to torture myself. Well, I wonder no more. I’m quite confident that I’m happier than I was, and I’m quite confident it’s because I no longer use these platforms.

Just one datapoint.Report