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Facebook, at 15, has prompted remarkable change

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Facebook marks 15 years, but do we really understand what it is?

Isn’t it strange how time flies? The last post you saw on Facebook or Instagram from 10 minutes ago could feel like years in the fast-paced movement of social media. But would it surprise you to learn that the largest social media site, Facebook, turned just 15 years old this week?

It’s hard to believe that a fixture that is, today, so embedded in our culture, didn’t even exist a mere 16 years ago.

Facebook wasn’t the first kingpin in the world of social media. There were, of course, MySpace and Yahoo Chat rooms, among many others, but those are mostly old news more than a decade on from when Mark Zuckerberg decided to launch the now (in)famous website from his Harvard dorm room.

And we, as a society, have struggled to reckon with it ever since.

By now, most of the drawbacks of the social media behemoth are quite clear.

Whether it has been passive data collection (which the company still does), or allowing users posing as political authorities or media outlets to post false news articles as genuine fact, the consequences of our own misunderstanding of social media are becoming clear.

Multiple studies have shown that we don’t know what we’re doing on the web. People are unaware that Google and Facebook track their every move online. As a result, what they see is predetermined by mathematical equations, or algorithms, that are tuned to deliver gratification and self-serving information rather than the truth.

Here’s a quick experiment to prove this, if you’re curious. Next time you’re on your computer, open Facebook and Google at the same time. Search for the same topic repeatedly on Google (at least 10 times) and then refresh your Facebook window. All of the advertising you see will likely change to mirror what you just searched.

While there are many reasons to dislike social media, there are many reasons to embrace it as well. It sounds cliché at this point, but never in history have we as people been more connected. Entire movements have lived and breathed online. And while, yes, bad political change has resulted from social media, so too has positive change.

The spread of news is now measured in seconds. And when truth flows through the internet, billions of people can see it as it happens. When disaster strikes, we can see people “marked safe” when other lines of communications fail.

Even here, at the Timberjay, a small weekly paper in a remote region, we now have the ability to reach readers around the country, and even the world, with a keystroke seven days a week at any hour. We can watch our readers engage over our stories in real time online before the print news even hits the stands on Thursday morning.

When breaking news happens, as was the case with the Cook Zup’s fire in November, a small print paper, like ours, can provide you, the reader, with faster and more updated coverage than television news simply by being at a story with a cell phone in hand. When we posted a remarkable letter to the editor from the late Tom Rukavina, it spread virally across the web, and was read by more than 25,000 people across the planet in just a two-week period last month.

But with the potential reach that social media provides to just about anyone, comes a need for all of us to be more responsible and cautious in how we conduct ourselves online, and to understand how our behavior online affects us, and others.

In her book, “Reclaiming Conversation”, author Sherry Turkle, a researcher at M.I.T., shows case study after case study where users of social media have become disconnected from typical social behaviors in search of instant gratification caused by many who fear missing out on the latest news and posts.

Anyone who has spent time on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media undoubtedly recognizes how average people behave online is vastly different in many cases from their in-person interactions with others. Anger, vitriol, and inflammatory rhetoric are common on social media at a time we desperately need deeper and more reasoned communication. And it’s not just feelings that can be hurt. Cyber-bullying appears to be a major factor behind the increase in rates of suicide among young people. That’s a real and troubling consequence.

With all inventions, social media is what we choose to make of it, and as a society, even with almost two decades of constant social media presence in many of our lives, we are still only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the true effects. Perhaps that’s because when it comes to social media, most of us are still just teenagers, just like Facebook. Hopefully, as all of us mature as social media users in the years to come, we’ll begin to understand better how to use it more responsibly and, possibly, even, as a force for positive change.

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