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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