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Where We Live: The right way to distance

The phrase “social distancing” is used incorrectly.

Somehow, when we started taking precautions for the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used the term social distancing to describe the act of physically putting space between us.

And while most people are doing a pretty good job of physically distancing, social distance seems to be harder to come by these days, thanks to Facebook.

What started out basically as a dating site on college campuses has slowly, relentlessly, carved out a larger and larger role in our lives, mine included.

There were times when many people promised to quit - when Cambridge Analytica sold personal data, when the layout changed, and of course when our parents joined.

But through it all, we kept liking. And those who promised to quit, usually came back.

Over the years we’ve entrusted more of our lives to Facebook. News was one of the first things. Then businesses followed - marketing directly to their customers. Events further closed the gap between the digital and the real world.

Thanks to groups, hobbies and even our neighborhoods have moved online into the social sphere.

You can share information with people who have similar interests - like historical photos, recipes, or tips on rebuilding your classic car.

And there are some really amazing examples of this. It’s incredible to keep up with friends as they announce engagements, marriages and eventually births, even if they live across the country.

Personally there are numerous beautiful mountain vistas and secluded creeks around Pennsylvania that I never would have known about if not for Facebook groups.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said many times that the goal of his company is to create community.

But first and foremost, companies must make money.

So in reality, the goal is actually to make money off of community. The best way to do that is to keep users on the site as much as possible.

When it started, Facebook showed posts in chronological order. At some point they realized that they could keep us engaged longer by showing specific posts.

Having a human decide which posts we might like would be much too slow for the pace of the internet. So Facebook turned to artificial intelligence.

The posts that grab us the most are the ones that trigger an emotion. That could be the excitement of seeing your crush’s smile. It could be the joy of seeing a friend’s engagement or new baby.

But a negative emotional response creates just as much discussion, if not more. I am pretty sure that artificial intelligence isn’t capable of telling the difference at this point.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is coming from a member of the media - the media!

If anyone is guilty of pitting Americans against their neighbors for profit, surely it is journalists.

If the shoe fits, I’ll wear it.

But there is a big difference between a human being, who makes some attempt at accuracy and fairness, versus an algorithm which promotes inflammatory posts without fully understanding their content.

One reason we see so many clickbait headlines from national news networks is so they grab the attention of the Facebook algorithm.

Now Facebook has made some effort to flag some inaccurate national headlines following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

But so much of what we share these days is local content, and Facebook has no idea whether it’s accurate or not.

Facebook groups were supposed to improve communication with our neighbors. And there are many times when they do.

But they also possess a strong power to drive us further and further apart.

It seems like more than ever, conflicts between neighbors have become online wars, fueled by the Facebook algorithm, whipping us into more and more of a frenzy.

During the pandemic, every aspect of life has been altered. Going out to dinner or getting together with friends has become a luxury. Many people don’t even get to leave the house to go to work.

Instead, we sit at home. We go on Facebook - more and more. I start the day by scrolling through my phone, and I end it the same way.

The more we sit at home, the more we’re engaging with a platform which has the goal of provoking an emotional response, at the expense of our relationships with our neighbors.

And I cannot even imagine what things will be like for children who are raised thinking that this is the normal way that people interact.

We’ve been told that “social distancing” will help us prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But in order to stop another dangerous virus, we need to create a little more physical distance between ourselves and our social networks.