Of the many things you can say about Facebook, the main one is that it invites compulsive use.
I know not everyone has the affliction of not being able to leave the record or book store because they haven’t yet looked at every single record or book that is available for purchase. I know not everyone leaves the library with a stack of 10 epic novels and 14 DVDs because the idea of choosing just one, to the exclusion of all those others, is paralyzing. I know not everyone checks Facebook 237 times a day, just to see if there’s anything to see, and then you wind up scrolling for half an hour, bouncing from link to link, browsing articles, saving articles, reviewing the long list of articles you’ve saved and never read, composing impassioned responses to especially wrong posts then deleting them at the crucial moment because it’s not worth the aggravation it will cause, and finally closing out of the app before, I swear to fucking god, re-opening it ONE NANOSECOND LATER due to a reflexive response to seeing that little blue square, realizing the absurdity of what you’ve done but by the time the app has opened, there’s something new at the top of the feed and you’re drawn in and start scrolling down again, tantalized by the limitless supply of more on offer.
But I do. All of those things. Especially the Facebook one. I’m on it every day. Many times a day. I don’t know how many, but I’m sure I at least open the app a minimum of 20 times a day, in all the usual places where I’m afforded more than 10 seconds of un-spoken for time.
It has been the cause of deep shame and shallow joy, of dread and gratification, of genuine laughs and mirthless likes, of reconnections with old friends and counterfeit friendships with people I will never meet. And everything in between. The emotional component of the interaction has always been striking, and complicated, and at times even infuriating, because how is this emotion? And if it is emotion, then what the hell happened to emotion?
The degree to which people are willing to reveal themselves is obviously the crux of Facebook's appeal, but also the massive, possibly crippling compromise it has come to represent. As a lot of people have been telling us all along, the privacy we believe we are consensually abdicating when we write long, confessional posts about our feelings, experiences, and beliefs is NOTHING compared to the privacy we are being forcibly stripped of by invisible robots every time we open the app, click “like,” express interest in an event, play a game, fill out a quiz, post a photo, or a comment, or even a heart.
And we’ve all basically known that was true the whole time, and more or less chosen not to care, to understand, or indeed, even to remember this essential truth because the pleasure and convenience of the site ran deeper than the vague knowledge that it was basically strip mining our identities for fuel and profit. More to the point, perhaps, that strip mining seemed like a price we were willing to pay, as long as all it really meant was that we saw a bunch of ads.
Turns out that was the least of what it meant.
What it meant was that every one of us and all of us together were vulnerable to hostile outside agencies. It meant we were not only working for Mark Zuckerberg, and not only paying for the privilege, but also moonlighting for the monstrous scumbags of Cambridge Analytica, Global Science Research, and an unknowable number of like-minded developers, demographers, and demagogues.
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And speaking of demagogues, it also meant that a colossal shell game could be rigged up to help Donald Trump become president, and that every passionate, contemptuous condemnation of him written, shared, and liked on your Facebook feed literally helped elect him.
So now we really know that Facebook is, in some not-merely-aesthetic way, an agent of harm—even if we (by which I obviously mean I) only partly understand what that knowledge consists of. Maybe it’s better to say that we (I) no longer have any excuse to continue behaving as though we don’t know.
Which re-raises the question so many Facebook users have been asking themselves for over a decade: How the hell am I going to proceed with the day-to-day business of life without this website that has become the hub of nearly all my human interactions, my media consumption, and, in no small way, a reflection of my identity?
This is a much more complicated question than “Should I stay or should I go?”
Of course you/I/we should go. That was clear years ago. Facebook is a lousy substitute for IRL relationships, but then again, without it, how would I even know what “IRL” means? We also know we shouldn’t drive cars, eat meat, or read the comments. But does it stop us? Only the strongest among us.
Facebook has had a massively deleterious effect on the only two industries I have ever worked in: music and journalism, which isn’t just inconvenient for me and all of my colleagues, but also bad for the world. It has been a scourge of language, logic, and argument, having made seemingly everyone on it believe they are writers.
And all the other things: the echo chamber thing, the confirmation bias thing, the comment on the headline of the unread article thing, the perfectly logical mansplanation for everything thing, the narcissism thing, the conceit of the angry open letter to a public figure who will never read a word of it thing, the that feeling when thing, the and then sometimes thing, the self-righteousness camouflaged as righteousness thing, the gratuitous public shaming thing, as well as the justifiable public shaming thing.
Everyone talks about the narce and the hate speech, of course, and those are obviously major flaws. But I’m also interested in the ways FB has effected people’s modes of thought; people now seem more complacent in their attitudes, intellectually lazier, quicker to petulance, and alternately hive-minded or reflexively, hollowly contrarian. At least on Facebook.
Maybe worst of all, by introducing total democracy to the sphere of self-publishing, Facebook has also made the act of keeping ideas to one’s self feel practically exotic.
I read once where Ian McEwan was talking about the difference between writing on a typewriter and on a computer. The former, he said, was akin to talking, while the latter was more like thinking. Facebook is a third system, roughly equivalent to having a thought, typing it in, and having it come out as though spoken by the Wizard of Oz. It’s a compelling experience, but it distances you from the version of reality where you have a thought and then decide it’s not worth saying out loud yet, or ever.
There are good parts, too—all of which have been massively compromised by the news about the history of data breaches. It’s hard to credit a platform with enabling activism, for example, when the price of that enabling is the total exposure of every person involved in the organization to any group that cares to surveil it. The FBI used to have to infiltrate radical organizations; they weren’t invited. The Cambridge Analytica story suggests that, to the degree that their protests were organized using Facebook, resisters might have contributed as much to Trump For America as Breitbart did.
It’s gotten bad enough that Mark Zuckerberg himself, who only seems to speak when he needs to, posted about the scandal on Facebook:
"We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you. I've been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again."
It goes on to suggest, more or less, that they have already solved the problem and bad actors and transparency and “at the end of the day.”
He’s also doing an interview with CNN's Laurie Segall that will air on Anderson Cooper 360 tonight at 6pm PT.
I mean, what else is he going to say? The company has lost a reported $50 billion (BILLION!) and a growing chorus of voices is actually starting to clamor that being on Facebook may no longer be defensible.
Also. the Guardian story about Zuckerberg's response, is decidedly skeptical about his incautious optimism:
(Facebook Is So Over is nearly as old as Facebook itself. Virginia Heffernan wrote a “goodbye to all that” piece called “Facebook Exodus” in the NY Times, published Aug 26, 2009:
“Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever,” she wrote. “If you ask around, as I did, you’ll find quitters. One person shut down her account because she disliked how nosy it made her. Another thought the scene had turned desperate. A third feared stalkers. A fourth believed his privacy was compromised. A fifth disappeared without a word.
“The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers. According to comScore, Facebook attracted 87.7 million unique visitors in the United States in July. But while people are still joining Facebook and compulsively visiting the site, a small but noticeable group are fleeing — some of them ostentatiously.”
It was a little like the TV reporter at the Beatles’ second Shea Stadium concert looking for an expose about the band’s waning popularity, who winds up having to interview an obviously coached 6-year-old kid who prefers “Herman and the Hermits.”)
But this chapter of Facebook Is So Over might have legs.
In addition to many sobering (though, again, eventually inscrutable) pieces about the data breach, lots of explainer articles have been published in the past week detailing the steps you can take either to drastically reduce your Facebook footprint, or to permanently delete your account.
There have also been tons of posts on the site itself in which people either express a desire to quit, or wonder aloud whether they should, or ask others what they’re planning to do.
This isn’t exactly new, either. All along there have been people who loudly proclaim their imminent exit, for one reason or another, only to return in a day, a week, a month acknowledging that being away was harder than it sounded. All of this takes place on Facebook, obviously, replete with likes and hearts and it’s great to have you backs—a little extra elbow grease to make up for the lost-work time, no doubt.
So why all the hand-wringing?
Deleting Uber was easy, because there was always Lyft, which meant we could fall in line with what seemed like a right thing to do without losing the massive convenience of app taxis, all of which are built on nightmarish worker exploitation, the same way social media platforms are built on nightmarish user exploitation. They just don’t seem so nightmarish when you’re getting pleasure from them.
If you delete Facebook, what will take its place? Not Twitter or Instagram. We’re already on those, too, and they’re fine but they’re not the same. Kind of the same, but not actually the same. Is our memory really so short?
Is it truly not imaginable to delete Facebook and just not have Facebook anymore? Is it pure reactionary utopianism to dream a world where if you want to find out how your friend’s life is you have to actually call them up again? Where if you want to read something you have to go find it yourself? Where if you want to advertise a show or a rally you have to make a flyer?
Yes, Facebook has made it far easier to promote events. But it has also made it easier to merely signal your interest in them, and never follow through on actually attending. Bands can get the word out to thousands of people about their new show and new record, and hundreds of those people can say they’re definitely going and can’t wait to get their copy of the record signed when they do. And then, when only a couple dozen show up, what’s a poor rockroll band to do?
Or a theater. (Or even a theatre.) Or a film screening. Or a poetry reading. Or an art exhibition. Or a protest. Or a potluck. Or a bris.
I’m not claiming direct causation. I’m just saying that Facebook has enshrined the superficial display of support as a substitute for actual support. Likewise with conversation. Likewise with conviction. It may not look or even feel like a toxic environment to everyone all the time, but I’m not talking about toxicity. I’m talking about erosion. When it costs you nothing to express a preference, the very nature of having preferences is devalued.
For over a decade now, Facebook has been a if not the major contributor to the general decline in saying what we mean, meaning what we say, and understanding why it matters when people don’t do one or both.
I’m still teetering on the borderline of quitting. I know I want to, but if I did everything I wanted to there’s no chance I’d have ever reached 2,200 words in this piece.
If I was going to break it off with Facebook, I guess I wanted to find out what Facebook really thought of me before I did.
I followed the instructions of Gizmodo’s guide to sharing as little data as possible, which basically involved finding and clicking a million boxes you would never in your life know to go looking for without the help of a dedicated journalist. Every so many years you see one of these stories and go in and change your settings a little bit and then nothing happens and you forget all about it. But this had the ring of finality.
I did the thing with the profile sparseness and the privacy settings and would have deleted all my apps but I didn’t have any. (Have I been missing out?!) Then I came upon a never-visited section called “Your Ad Preferences,” where I finally discovered the legacy of my 12 years of Facebook membership.
I mean, I knew they kept track of stuff, but some process of algorithmic extrapolation had generated a truly bizarre concatenation of “interests” for me that ranged from “right on the money” (New Yorker, New York Times, KEXP, Rough Trade Records, Mississippi Studios, The Americans) to “okay, I mean, sure, I’m broadly interested in that” (Hip hop music, documentary films, Irving Berlin, NPR), to “who the FUCK do you think you’re TALKING to?” (anime, Dale Chihuly, auto racing, millennials, happiness).
FB, we hardly knew ye. And even after all that data mining, it seems like you didn’t know us at all.
Looking at all those faulty interests, in the context of trying to balance the sentimental/emotional/practical value of Facebook with its exploitative/dangerous/indefensible side, reminded me of an amazing radio show I heard last month. Open Source host Christopher Lydon welcomed a panel of young writers, anthropologists, lawyers, and thinkers who specialize in making sense of what some of them insisted, regrettably, on calling the "techlash."
The first big point they all seemed to make was not to be too scared of algorithmic technology, because it doesn’t and almost by definition can’t “work” perfectly. (Or work “perfectly.”)
Two guests in particular, a dauntingly eloquent and intelligent married couple named Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff, who edit and publish the technology-focused (print!) magazine Logic, offered an extraordinarily cogent critique of the media and civilian response to mystifying and deifying social media in response to the general political and cultural dislocation we all feel.
In essence, they seemed to say that even though we may have come to think of Facebook as a kind of magical universe with a wizardy algorithm brain that simply can’t be controlled—an attitude, btw, that Facebook has by and large endorsed (much as "everyone" apparently knew about the third party app data window risk, but did nothing about it because the relationship was so lucrative)—the reality is that it is a private company that employs paid laborers to manufacture an enormously profitable product.
“What we’ve seen is a massive mystification, an ascription of a certain godlike power to these machines that like all machines are in fact built by humans,” Weigel says about 17 minutes in.
She and Tarnoff go on to suggest that the right way to think about these issues is to consider the degree to which it is in our power—as citizens and consumers, sad to say—to demand reform in the way this product is designed and wielded by its owner. That requires a deeper dive than many of us are willing to take into understanding ANYTHING about how the site actually works, but hey, no one said the means of production were going to come with an owner's manual.
It also does nothing to allay the aesthetic criticisms I listed above. And the radio show happened a few weeks before datagate broke. And everyone on the show was so much smarter than I am that I have an instinctive genuflection response. More to the point, they offered a reminder that matters as serious as these, with such far-reaching ramifications, are better considered through a lens of labor and economics than of habits and preferences.
In a climate of immersive racism, "callout culture" is actually unpaid labor. It's comments, flagging, and other forms of amateur digital labor—performed disproportionately by women and POC—that make platforms like this one usable. @lnakamur #SCMS18
— Moira Weigel (@moiragweigel) March 16, 2018
It also made me feel a little less panic about the prospect of not being quite ready to fully delete my Facebook account, even though I know I’d almost certainly be happier if I did.
In either case, I don’t believe Facebook will ever truly know the difference.