THE CHANGING FACE OF FACEBOOK
By Sanjay Pinto

If we can’t remember the number of times we check our facebook accounts – for likes, comments, messages or the general feed, it’s possible that we are addicted to this social networking site. The urge to look at the app on our phones, whenever we have a free moment, soon after or during meetings, sometimes even in the middle of the night, or as soon as we wake up, is often irrepressible. The sheer restlessness when our Wi Fi or mobile net connectivity is down can, among other reasons, be attributed to our inability to be without this tool in our lives. So intense is this culture of  voluntary disclosure it has ushered in, that most of us cannot wait to post status updates on absolutely mundane aspects – from tight close up pics of food on the table, to our pets, our family outings, our fights, our stories at work, our routine musings. Random is the new ransom that we contribute to the ever burgeoning facebook timelines.

I am a self-confessed facebook addict. My most cherished moments and events in life are stored on my timeline and albums. From my wedding to the birth of my twin angels; from my career switch  to my mother’s recent demise –  all featured on the site. Come to think of it, when was the last time we  took print outs of photographs or bought albums? Over the last several years, facebook has been a trusted repository of hundreds of precious memories.

As my professional avatar is quite like a double barrel gun – as a lawyer and journalist, this social media platform also keeps me abreast of the latest news. We realise this on post puja ‘no newspaper’ days. But not all content is worth scrolling down. Some of it is either irrelevant or  cookie driven sponsored feeds and ads or ‘just for a lark’ trivia or downright garbage, and in your face! Just like garbage segregation, on what is worthy of being recycled or composted or dumped, it’s time the filters got a booster shot. And there lies the rub.

Of late, I have been experiencing significantly less traction of my posts. What would normally garner 500 plus Likes and about 100 comments in 24 hours, with the first 100 Likes in an hour, has been whittled down to roughly one-fifth the responses. Am I the only one witnessing this change? Apparently not. A good number of discerning and credible users have exclaimed ‘ditto’ in unison in response to my update on this new phenomenon. Research, like charity, can also begin at home. So I also checked with my wife who has a vast network of her alumni and former students and my mother in law, a renowned Tamil Writer with quite a fan base. Both nod in agreement.  I usually tag them in almost all my posts. And guess what, they have been seldom getting notifications. Is this due to new algorithms? Focus on sponsored posts? On advertisements? When I signed up, the promise of ‘Free and always will be’ seemed refreshingly rare. Moreover, I don’t see the need to pay to promote my writing, my videos, and my observations, which are invariably in public interest. Or my other posts which are purely personal.

What rankled recently was that my post on why I wasn’t celebrating my birthday, due to my mother’s passing, with some very sentimental documents, like my mom’s draft of a maternity leave application when she was carrying me, that I chose to share only with my friends, mysteriously disappeared from my timeline.  No one else could possibly claim any intellectual property right over the pictures. So I posted it afresh that evening and it remains as I type this piece. Some friends and relatives opined that it could have been flagged by some vicious ‘friend’ as a violation of ‘Community Standards’. Jeez. What could possibly be objectionable about that post? In the past, when I had reported what I considered defamatory content to facebook and all of them, strangely enough, none of it cut ice with the site. The threshold is obviously much higher for them.

As a former television journalist, I have confirmed guests on my shows through facebook messenger. As a lawyer, I sometimes answer legal queries on this platform. As a former brand ambassador for the US Chennai Consulate facebook page, I have done my bit to promote the site. As a columnist, especially on media law, I have written reams on how facebook is a brilliant force multiplier, how it’s a lot more civil and pleasant, compared to, say, twitter, where anyone can gatecrash into a discussion and call us names. As a tv political commentator, I uphold free speech and have condemned attempts to gag the voice of the common man. As a citizen, I have used facebook to help folks in distress, during the 2015 Chennai Floods and in fact, round the year, on several issues. As an alumni, I have picked up the threads with kindergarten classmates, teachers and childhood buddies. As a user, I have responded to every survey that popped up. Facebook and I have shared a symbiotic relationship.

But now… What is happening to its USP of being primarily a social networking platform? If regular users are beginning to feel cold shouldered, that’s reason enough for an emoticon that facebook does not have – a dislike button. Applause and empathy have been emotions that a heart warming or  informative post would normally evoke. In considerable measure. If the torrent is now a trickle, I just hope it’s a bug that can be fixed. That’s how I’m feeling today.

(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Commentator, Public Speaking Mentor and Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)