I’ve been on Facebook for ten years now and this year will be my last. Instead of closing my account all at once, I’ve chosen to go through a deliberate process of reviewing old posts, commenting on a few of them, copying some of them to my blog, and gradually reducing my Facebook content to zero. When I see an old post that had received a lot of likes and comments from friends, I feel some reluctance to vaporize the material without saying a final “thank you” to those who had engaged with it, even though I know that with a torrent of new posts constantly arriving in their feeds, most of my friends will not be particularly concerned by the disappearance of something they had seen five years ago. The posts that never received any likes are the easiest for me to delete because I figure that no one cared about them in the first place. But seeing these rejects, these items that went unacknowledged, or that Facebook’s algorithm simply never chose to show to anyone, seeing them reminds me of the basic quandary of being on social media. Whatever selfless motivation I might have had to share an interesting tidbit with my friends, thinking they would enjoy or otherwise benefit from it, the act of sharing it on Facebook inevitably caused my ego to entwine itself with the outcome. While I never expressed any particular concern for likes, and while I might have told myself they weren’t important, I always secretly wanted them and I always expected to get at least a few of them, and when one of my posts received no response at all I was always disappointed. It is unsurprising that I, along with so many other users, would develop a fixation on likes given that “liking” is one of the main things you can do on Facebook, people there are constantly asking for likes and thanking each other for likes, and Facebook is constantly tallying likes and beeping about likes and flashing notifications about likes so as to train you to crave them and believe in their urgency. (I knew I had a problem when I was out hiking with a friend and he took a snapshot of a scenic vista. I said “That vista is worth fifty to seventy-five likes.” It was sort of a joke, sort of not.) But whenever one of my posts did receive a lot of likes I can’t say I felt any deep satisfaction. What I felt was a combination of relief in not being ignored and a greed in watching, waiting, checking, and checking again to see how many more likes would come in. Would this post break my record of 80 likes and 60 comments and 10 shares? I don’t mean to discount the joy of seeing a thoughtful comment from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in a while, or the value of learning something new from an acquaintance who was willing to challenge something I said, or the satisfaction of knowing that people I cared about all over the world were appreciating what I had shared, and I certainly don’t mean to discount what they shared, and how many pieces of art, music, and writing, how many cooking ideas, how many local events, how many jokes and cartoons and quips I got to enjoy because they offered them up. I just mean that these feelings of connection and community, while present and real, were often eclipsed by darker feelings: by a sense of frustration at the arbitrariness of how attention is distributed on Facebook and by a grim recognition that even when a post “succeeded” in the social media sense of achieving high engagement, something in the experience was missing. Failure was disappointing but success was also disappointing. Did I simply want too much from Facebook? It occurs to me that social reality has always been a crapshoot. Way before Facebook was even conceivable, it was true that frivolous things sometimes received undue attention from society, and valuable things were sometimes inexplicably ignored. You could go to a cocktail party, fail to strike up a conversation, and feel disappointed on returning home, or you could strike up a dozen conversations and still come away with the sense that people talked at you without listening to you, and feel disappointed on returning home; but every once in a while you might go to a cocktail party and strike up one really deep and satisfying conversation, and feel energized on returning home, or strike up a dozen light, quick conversations that were nevertheless rewarding, and feel energized on returning home. So how is Facebook any different? Much of the time, Facebook sucks, but being there creates the possibility of interactions that can often be fun and might occasionally be wonderful. If there are pros and cons to Facebook, the same is true of any other social context, so why not embrace Facebook as an available tool, one of many? There are three reasons why I have to leave. The first reason is that the level of intellectual contortion necessary to maintain my self-respect while gifting my time and data to an unethical corporation has grown, with every new breach, too extreme to sustain, but that’s a digression because I haven’t really been talking about Facebook’s business practices in this essay. The second reason is that no matter how much I might want to consider Facebook as just one social context among many, it is hyperstimulating in a way that crowds the others out. It’s the place where I’m connected to the most people, where I’m most likely to receive quick feedback on what I say, and where the news comes to me the fastest. There’s no party or club or other real-world social arena that can match it in scope. While I might try to restrict my time on Facebook and downplay its value in my life, Facebook always coaxes me back into accepting it as the locus of social reality. And while it might seem that a craving for attention is my own problem to resolve, not one that Facebook created, I think Facebook greatly exacerbates the problem in its role as an inscrutable and manipulative attention broker. The third reason is that Facebook has made me into an unresponsive friend. It’s only fair that I reciprocate the attention my friends give me on Facebook, right? If I’m hoping for likes and comments when I post something, I should do the same for my friends, and indeed there’s much in what they post that I greatly admire and enjoy. But whenever I’m tempted to react to something I see on Facebook, I can’t get it out of my mind that reacting is what Facebook wants me to do, since my reaction is a piece of data that can be sold or fed into algorithms to increase advertising revenue, and can be broadcast to other users to increase engagement. I’m torn between wanting to recognize my friends’ material and wanting to defy the wishes of surveillance capitalism. Call me old fashioned, but I’d like to be able to socialize without my every interaction being tracked and monetized. Of course, people have been raising this objection for years. Most of the friends I have on Facebook would agree that yes, the company is deeply problematic, and no, it should not get to own our social lives, but they keep using Facebook, just as I’ve done for ten years. Things are not going to get better there though. If you really agree that Facebook should not get to own your social life then you have to quit Facebook. I wish the answer were more comfortingly nuanced and soothingly relative, but it’s simple and clear.
2 thoughts on “Leaving Facebook”
Great essay, Rudi! I agree that FB takes up too much of my social energy, such that I hardly even call friends these days. And of course its a data vampire too.
I agree, Ru, with everything you say – one feels “addicted” to the likes – and of course, the “loves” – which is disturbing. I do enjoy, however, corresponding with friends and family who live far distances and I don’t see often, or at all – not to mention the adorable animals. . . .what to do.