I’m old enough to remember Myspace, but was not cool enough to have had an account. I got on Facebook in middle school, when statuses still started with “is,” only a year or two before Facebook overtook Myspace in users in 2009. I made an account for the games, having transitioned from the click-and-wait online game Outwar which fleshed out some of the ideas used in so many Clash of Clans-like smartphone games today. In Outwar you receive a certain number of units every day and expend them to attack other users and take their territory, which allows you a larger daily income of units to spend tomorrow. If you wanted to you could go further back and track my transition from Neopets to Outwar – Neopets, which showed me the fulfillment potential of doing simple tasks every day for a small reward, neopoints, which you could spend on food for your pet, custom paintbrushes, or other items. Visit Jellyland for the free daily jelly, go to the giant omelette, try your luck at the Wheel of Misfortune. I was an excellent little capitalist, thanks to these games. And by middle school I felt ready for my transition into Facebook.
During my first week on the site I uploaded an album of funny pictures my brother and I had saved on our shared computer and tagged my friends in the album. They went through it and commented with our in-jokes, lol’s, and haha’s. I set my profile picture to one of the funny pictures which featured a cat apparently whipping it’s tail at another cat and inflicting 9999 damage, according to the overlaid special effects. Like a real Facebooker, I posted on my friends walls and got in poke wars. But I had a certain sense that I was not really using Facebook. That there was another tier of users whose pictures were their real face, whose relationship statuses were not hidden, who posted photo albums from outings with friends. To me, I realized, Facebook was another site with daily tasks – share a status – and rewards – count the likes. It was a game. It was Neopets.
Forbes suggested in 2011 that the reason Facebook had overtaken Myspace was because it adapted to the market and its let users take control of the direction of growth. Myspace was bought by an experienced media company which laid out their own set direction of growth, and that direction was at odds with what users wanted. But exactly what aspects of that direction were wrong? There was a time when Myspace was the most visited site in the US. Facebook was a late comer with an unoriginal idea, so why did it win?
In 2015 an interviewer asked Mike Jones, the former CEO of Myspace, that exact question. Jones answered, simply, that Facebook won because they forced users to use their real names. When Myspace was just starting, people were still hesitant to reveal their names on the internet. It wasn’t part of our culture. It was risky. So when Facebook decreed that their site was not a place for online handles but for real people, they anchored themselves to real society. This, it turns out, was the right direction to head.
For me, as middle school ended and high school began, my profile picture went through a few more phases – a map of the country of Jordan, a cartoon cutout from the You Are a Pirate meme, a screenshot of Brad Neely’s Washington, but by sophomore year I had settled on an actual picture of me, having noticed the popular kids doing so. People started talking about “Facebook stalking” their crushes, which implied a market for the curation of my profile, so I filled in the about me section and picked a favorite quotation. I would hear talks of how annoying it was when you got a notification from a friend inviting you to play a game and so I stopped playing games on Facebook. My friends started owning smartphones with cameras and so my albums began to fill up with actual pictures of me. I got invitations to New Year’s parties and Marching Band invitationals and then referred back to Facebook when checking the date and location of the events later. Slowly Facebook became less like Neopets and more like a reflection of my actual social life.
Truthstrapping is what happens when something starts as a reflection of the truth and eventually becomes reliable enough to be indistinguishable from the truth. When you are standing in the bathroom looking at the mirror and someone walks in behind you do you turn and look to verify that the mirror isn’t lying to you? Maybe not. I’ve noticed that when I see a name I don’t recognize on my Facebook news feed, I assume that at some point I must have met them at a party or something, otherwise why would we be friends? Facebook was designed to be a reflection of your social life, but at some point I think it truthstrapped itself into being a standalone aspect of your social life. In fact social media is so independently important in some of my friend groups that a lot of my friends have to explicitly mention when they aren’t on Facebook. There are people I know who are completely different on and offline, because they’ve learned the skill of social media differently than the skill of in-person socializing. And if you weren’t paying attention then you might have been surprised that those are even two separate skills.
Google search also truthstrapped itself. Google started off with the goal of cataloging the useful information on the internet so that users could find it faster. There were trustworthy sources that were likely to present true and relevant information, and there were untrustworthy and irrelevant sources, and their job was to help you search through them. This, of course, included when you would search for things like “furniture store” and end up with a long list of furniture stores’ websites, each purporting to be the best store, so you can imagine why search engine optimization became important for an online brand. But notice that in that very same moment the Google feed also takes on a life of its own. If there is no true single best furniture store, then the best a Google search should be able to do is reflect that they are basically tied. Yet for a user who is expecting the top result on Google to be the best, it becomes valuable for a company to be able to be that top result. Again, something that begins as a reflection of reality eventually becomes reliable enough to become indistinguishable from reality. “Furniture House is the top Google search result, so it must be one of the major stores.” In a way, a statement like this has its logic – if everyone agrees that being the top search result is desirable then the largest companies with the most resources should be the most capable of appearing at the top of the feed. But I don’t think this is how we think when we use Google. Unless we’re looking for a marketing firm it doesn’t really matter to us which business is the best at showing up in your search results. The truth is more surface-level: it matters to us which business is at the top of the page because businesses at the top of the page reliably tend to be better.
So what happens when a truthstrapped source starts to loosen its tight coupling with the truth?