Facebook's New Interface And Its Effect On Young Brains

Summary: The debate over changes to Facebook's newsfeed is missing an important perspective: the young people whose brains will be inevitably shaped by the interface.

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Here We Go Again

It's been less than 24 hours since Facebook rolled out updates to its interface, and a familiar pattern has already emerged...

  • Newsfeeds are filled with complaints about the most jarring changes (the tweaked-out Ticker is the biggest offender this time).
  • The complainers are told to quit whining: "Facebook is a free service and you don't need to use it if you don't like it."
  • Meanwhile, some clever hackers create browser extensions that "fix" some of these offenses (like Zach Allia's awesome Ticker disabler). Approx .0001% of FB users install the extensions.
  • A few people disable their Facebook accounts in protest, while everyone else gradually gets used to it. In rare instances, Facebook backpedals a bit on the changes.

I'm sure the Facebook team isn't sweating too much. That's because they probably understand two basic principals of human psychology:

  1. We reflexively resist change, particularly unexpected changes to the things we use daily.
  2. Our brains are highly adaptable, and given a bit of time, we always find a way to get used to the changes. 

All of this is fairly obvious to those of us who follow tech trends and have seen Facebook, Google, Apple, and others weather the inevitable storm following each interface update. 

But one important piece is missing from this conversation...

The Brains of 13 Year Olds

Look at Facebook through the eyes of a high school freshman. Participation is NOT optional. Sure, you can be the loner who refuses to set up an account. But if you want to be invited to parties, keep up with your tech club or soccer team, or stay in touch with friends over the summer, Facebook is essential. 

Since numerous studies have linked television to the drastic rise in ADD among youth over the past several decades, we need to ask hard questions of our new media, such as: 

  • What effect does an ever-updating Ticker have on the brains of children (and adults)? Is it training us to be less present, and forming addictions to constant stimulation?
  • What effect does "Mary is now single" have on the recently heartbroken Mary? Is it training her to stay in destructive relationships for longer than she should, out of fear of having to share her break-up with everyone in her class?
  • And many more...

I'm no technophobe. On the whole, the benefits of our increasingly connected society greatly outweigh the challenges. And just because technology is making us think differently, that's not necessarily a bad thing; I'd rather be connected to people around the world than be able to focus for 2 hours on solving a math problem.

But if we don't ask ourselves about the unintended consequences of what we build (and the defaults we set), it's a recipe for disaster.

Facebook as a Public Reservoir

The standard free-market response to questions or criticisms ("if you don't like it, use a competing product, or build one") doesn't hold water when talking about something like Facebook. Why? Because that product has become a shared common resource in our wired world. Even if another service steals dominance from Facebook, there will always be one primary social graph.

Small changes to any common resource (whether a water reservoir or a social graph) have big effects. In The Triumph of the Default, Kevin Kelly makes a compelling case that seemingly trivial decisions made by a single programmer can have massive social consequences if the user base is large enough. 

And if design decisions made in Palo Alto can literally shape the minds of millions of young people, do we want those decisions to be driven by short-term business concerns over profit and valuation, or driven by long-term concerns about what's best for the human race? 

If the answer is the latter, how do we incentivize private companies to prioritize those grander interests over their quarterly earnings?

Asking the Right Question

Zuck and crew constantly get a bad rap. For every controversial new feature that's launched, they roll out hundreds of awesome features that go mostly unnoticed. And the Facebook engineers I've met have been great people who are making the world more connected.

But they're still functioning within an economic operating system that incentivizes short-term thinking over long-term thinking... and it's doubtful that they're putting money into research on unintended social and psychological effects of their product.

My friend Tyler Emerson is launching a beautiful initiative called Belong, which aims to inspire innovators and investors to think long-term. He constantly quotes polio vaccine creator Jonas Salk, in asking the question: “Are we being good ancestors?”

I hope that all those young, brilliant minds in Palo Alto are asking themselves that question as they engineer the techno-social cradle that millions are born into every year.