More than once I’ve been struck with the desire to abandon Facebook, and at least one of those times I actually deactivated my account. The reasons for my frustration have varied over the last six years or so, from their sudden formatting changes to prioritize business interests, to the way they mine user data regardless of privacy settings. Other reasons have been more personal, like not having a sufficient method for determining who gets to see the more eccentric or extreme parts of my personality, or simply feeling like I waste too much time on the site.
At the end of 2013, a new kind of Facebook frustration began creeping over me. My attempts to explain it to people only seemed to make it worse, especially because – as I realized – I was creating a paradox by using Facebook to denounce Facebook. Then in late December, I simply stopped posting. I thought even announcing that I’d be going on strike would further the paradox. I didn’t deactivate my account, and this allowed me to observe without participating (it was research, not stalking!). I still went on the site to send and receive private messages, and occasionally scanned the news feed. At some point I resolved to continue this posting strike for at least a month. I chose a month and not some longer period because of just how difficult this whole experiment proved to be. In fact, I was aware even before the strike that I had developed an addiction to Facebook unlike anything else on the Internet. Since I’m confronting addictive tendencies throughout my life, the time had come to address this one.
While I definitely felt some relief during my break, I didn’t immediately gain clarity on what bothers me so much about the current state of “Crackbook” (as some have jokingly called it). Then in late January, during one of my brief scans of the site, I found a video called “The Problem with Facebook” from the YouTube channel “2veritasium” (Veritasium’s 2nd channel). Host Derek Muller explains Facebook’s method of filtering posts so that, whether they’re from a personal account (the ones you “friend”) or a Facebook page (the ones you “like”), you’re never seeing all the content in your network. This differs from sites like Twitter or Instagram where your feed contains all posts by everyone you follow, and it may have originally been a service of convenience to the Facebook user. But increasingly the real purpose it serves is to make users pay money to “boost” the exposure of posts so that more people will see them.
Muller says that “on YouTube, the roles of creator, advertiser, and viewer are distinct.” Not only that, but “the incentives of all parties are aligned,” with viewers seeing both commercials paid for by advertisers and content posted by creators. “In contrast, on Facebook the creators are treated like advertisers. They have to pay to reach the viewers. And viewers themselves are also creators, so viewers are also advertisers. You know, when Facebook launched the functionality that allowed us to promote personal posts, one reporter commented quite astutely that we are all now advertisers. And that is the problem with Facebook: we are all advertisers, because Facebook can’t figure out another way to monetize its enormous user base.” He also comments that YouTube pays most of its revenues back to video creators, whereas Facebook keeps all its revenues.
However, this video comes from the perspective of someone running a Facebook page with more than 100,000 followers. Muller’s main concern is about how to reach his viewers (his usual trade is science videos, and he has more than a million YouTube subscribers). He concludes that YouTube shows more promise of increased use, whereas Facebook has pretty much experienced a ceiling of membership and usage. In other words, he doesn’t seem to share my ethical concerns about the world’s most popular social networking website turning its one-billion-plus users automatically into advertisers. Nor does he ask a simple but important question: What are most of them really advertising?
The vast majority of Facebook users aren’t paying for literal advertisements of any kind. By and large, average users are advertising themselves – their physical appearance, their activities, their social connections, their beliefs and opinions, etc. On the surface, people use Facebook for all different purposes: posting random thoughts, hour-to-hour whereabouts, news links, info-tainment videos, their own creative work like photography or writing, and more. But the underlying urge is to get “likes,” recognition, acknowledgment – making almost any posted content (whether original or shared) a kind of self-propaganda. This is aptly portrayed in Marc Maron’s cartoon titled “The Social Media Generation,” which claims that “emotionally we’re a culture of seven-year-olds” getting our surrogate parent fix via Twitter and Facebook.
I want to stress that I came to many of these conclusions by studying my own behavior. I joined Facebook in 2005, so for many years I undoubtedly contributed to these phenomena with total unconsciousness. I especially regret the unintentional bragging about what I was doing with my life, not considering the negative effects this could have on others. For instance, ranting about a period of thrilling excitement might have made someone else’s tough period even tougher. I’m also a writer (obviously), and I absolutely hoped that Facebook and other social networking sites would help me reach a grassroots audience in what seemed to be a very bland traditional publishing culture.
I learned some things by watching how I used the site, and then I learned even more as my posting strike progressed. I was awed by the compulsive nature of the urge to post. Any time I’d see a news story or YouTube video that seemed interesting to me, I had to subvert the automatic motion to share it on Facebook. “People have to see this!” is always the thought driving such an impulse. Interpreted in egotistical terms: my worldview is superior, and people must adopt it immediately!
I also learned more about the social norms I had already begun to notice in what might be called the virtual society or culture of Facebook. Like any culture, Facebook has a mainstream belief system and accepted range of behaviors – especially since employers began tracking the conduct of their staff members there. The result is that Facebook is a little like a church. You get points for showing up, fitting in, not acting too weird, and feigning interest in the frequent references to religious texts.
There are also unstated norms about posting frequency. If you post too often you annoy people, but if you don’t post at all (or worse, if you don’t even have a profile) you’re considered strange. During my posting strike, a family member actually commented on my Facebook absence and asked if something was wrong. Maybe I was mad at her, she wondered. Like text messaging, Facebook activity can be a barrier to our actually connecting and knowing each other.
When I joined the site I was still in college, and most interactions had something to do with college life. Now the context that used to be there is just a big mess that often leaves me feeling nauseated. In fact a lot of what is currently happening on Facebook recalls what late-20th century social commentators decried about television. The critic George W.S. Trow wrote a book that focuses largely on television’s role in building a “context of no-context,” where there was no longer a connection between the individual human being and any kind of real culture. Just like on TV, all Facebook content appears on the same scale and, therefore, at the same level of apparent importance. In a single feed you might see an environmentalist plea with vacation photos with a memorial to a lost loved one with international news with wedding announcements with a picture of breakfast with a speculative blog post posing as news with a quote from an ancient Eastern philosopher with a complaint about the weather with a meme depicting the internal monologue of a Shiba Inu. It’s enough to make me want to take a shower.
David Foster Wallace once wrote that television creates a malignant addiction for its viewers, by which he meant it causes real problems and offers itself as a cure for those very problems. He also remarked that TV is the way it is (filled with mindless crap) because people think they want to be unique but actually crave sameness. This sounds like a business model for Buzzfeed, Distractify, and the host of other websites built around the sole purpose of making content “go viral” on Facebook and other networks in order to build their ad revenue. Like Muller says in the Veritasium video, “The main organically shared posts are gonna be the ones that appeal to the lowest common denominator.” And in sharing this sort of content, the common social media user is actually doing a kind of unpaid advertising for the creators.
For a relatively quiet person like me, Facebook and other Internet portals used to offer a level playing field – or even an advantage, since tech know-how previously gave people a competitive edge online. Now it seems like usual social rules have more effect, meaning that people who thrive in traditional social hierarchies (whether introvert or extrovert) also tend to thrive on Facebook. It’s like a high school popularity contest, but with a billion fellow Earthlings instead of a few hundred fellow students. There’s something really insidious about competing for social capital on Facebook. Seeing someone’s new profile photo rack up dozens of “likes” while my heartfelt creative work goes relatively unnoticed actually makes me feel worse than getting no verbal congratulations in real life. Facebook celebrities instill in me a sense of personal worthlessness to a greater extent than any Hollywood celebrity ever has. A recent university study found that “Facebook Makes Us Sadder and Less Satisfied,” and the researchers hypothesize that it could stem from these kind of social comparisons.
Sometimes I think my problem is that I’ve been too overzealous in my “friending” activity. For a few years I moved around frequently and was really eager to collect contacts while building a social network unbounded by geographical constraints. So it’s natural to wonder if my negative experience on the site relates to being “friends” with so many people I’ve never met personally or might not have remained in contact with otherwise. Though I don’t believe “unfriending” vast amounts of people would make the situation any better. In fact, some of my favorite Facebook contacts are people I’ve never met in person (despite Facebook’s attempts to prevent us from adding people we don’t already know in the real world). As it stands, my contact list is a weird mix of real world friends, fellow students, co-workers, family members, people who share common interests, and people who simply had a bunch of mutual “friends.” I don’t feel confident that reducing the ratio of one or more of those categories would help.
Additionally, this might be beside the point. One of the things that makes me saddest about Facebook is that the original social promise of social media has been perverted. The promise held that connecting minds around the world and fostering the open spread of information would lead to a healthier, more sustainable civilization. To me, the most dreadful thing about all of us being made into advertisers is that advertising and marketing are what create the essential conflict of interest in journalism – an institution considered to be integral to the foundation of any democracy. The obligation of journalism must be to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. But stockholders have other priorities, whether in a newspaper or in Silicon Valley (I’ll give you a hint: it’s cash).
I’m not suggesting that all or even most people using Facebook or any other networking site ever had conscious aims of social justice. Yet it’s arguable that some of the most amazing manifestations to come from social media thus far have been the socio-political ones. Facebook and Twitter have reportedly played a significant role in more than a few revolutions since 2010. Granted, those problems didn’t just vanish (for instance, in Egypt, where social unrest remains and the third anniversary celebration of their revolution resulted in 60 deaths and 1,000 detainments). And furthermore, recent revelations about the NSA’s secret data collection program confirm Julian Assange’s 2011 warning that the Internet is the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.” He said that an Egyptian revolutionary guide advised against using Facebook and Twitter for organizing, because an earlier revolt led to social media activists being targeted and punished by the government. Assange also argued that Facebook and Twitter didn’t play as big a role in the Arab Spring movements as Al-Jazeera television news.
So maybe the age of social media romanticism is just coming to an end. This would explain all the memes and lunch photos – fluffy stuff that doesn’t disrupt any power hierarchies, including the internal ego hierarchy that maintains the status quo of our own self-image.
Some might wonder why I (or those in my position) don’t simply abandon Facebook for good. After all, it wasn’t so hard to leave MySpace around 2006 after News Corporation (Fox’s parent company) bought the site. But it’s not that simple. I think what makes Facebook different from MySpace is that the user base has reached a critical point where almost everyone I’ve ever known is just a few clicks away. It brings to mind the comments of psychologist and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson on the terror inspired in the human mind by the prospect of being ejected from the tribe. Facebook appeals to the teenager in us who doesn’t want to miss out on what’s happening in the semi-virtual tribes of which we’re all now members.
It’s easy to forget that another way is possible. Before his death in 2011, Ilya Zhitomirskiy garnered a lot of attention for Diaspora*, an open-source, decentralized social network based on the user’s priorities: personal control, data ownership, and privacy. Some have speculated that Zhitomirskiy’s suicide was related to feelings of inferiority arising from his fundamental clash with Silicon Valley’s priorities of profitability – in other words, exactly what Facebook has become. I don’t buy the claims that a social network must be monetized in order to succeed. And I also don’t think moving to other existing networks like Google+ would immediately resolve the problem. No matter where we do our sharing and “liking,” it will be driven by the same principles of human psychology.
As time passes, we’ll see what happens with both the user base and the leadership on Facebook. Muller has released another Veritasium video in which he reveals evidence of fraud related to fake accounts on Facebook. Muller claims that, even when Facebook deleted 83 million fake accounts last year, they apparently didn’t delete the fake “likes” on pages – meaning page owners are still paying to reach those nonexistent people. The website seems to profit off of fake accounts twice: when pages pay for likes, and when they pay to “boost” content.
As for users, I’m increasingly seeing signs on my news feed that people are tiring of the overall Facebook experience. Like I did, they’re expressing their Facebook frustration on Facebook, not quite realizing the inherent paradox and occasional irony (for example, posting about how they don’t need validation from Facebook, only to get 50+ likes and 20+ comments). Online, as offline, it’s easy to talk about “the ego,” self-development, and the like while still operating with ape wiring firmly intact. In short, it’s simpler to complain about a problem than to investigate how we are contributing to it.
I originally planned this essay as a bitter diatribe, but I realized that wouldn’t really help anyone. I’m not mandating that you leave Facebook; I haven’t done it yet myself. After all, it’s my primary way of staying connected with dear friends all over the world – people I have and have not actually met in person. But I do think we can all benefit from a posting strike or temporary profile deactivation. Each offers slightly different lessons and rewards. I post to the site much less now, which means I spend less time on the site, and I think about it less, too. In some small way, I’m actually a freer human being.
My break proved to be an amazing course in self-awareness. But it was also a bit like holding my breath for a month. The urge toward self-expression will always find a better way. This whole Internet experiment is in a much earlier stage than we often care to admit. Yet we’re all playing an important part, and we’re all bestowed with a certain amount of responsibility.
Whatever you do, please at least spend a little time studying your own social media behavior. What drives your urge to post? What do you hope it will provide in your life? Does it actually provide it? Is the information you get through social media sufficient and trustworthy? Or is it pseudo-news and propaganda that does disservice to social justice movements? Are you sufficiently connected to the people you care about? Or are they slowly becoming strangers in a sea of digital detritus? The answers to these questions could change the future.