A friend of mine from undergrad mysteriously disappeared from Facebook about a year back only to reappear a few months later. I was curious, so I asked her what had happened and she told me she had “deactivated” her account, and her life was terrible. She was so lonely and bored in grocery checkout lines… just kidding, she never felt better! More present, mindful, less distracted, happier, confident etc. She had only returned to Facebook because she got a new job that required her to manage the social media account at work.
I was an early adopter of Facebook. My good pal from high school, was in the same dorm as Zuckerberg at Harvard, so he invited me to join FB’s beta test back in 2004. Fast forward 12 years. I quit what should’ve been my dream job (the general manager of a theater and conference center) for the opportunity to shoot a documentary film about my father’s ancestors in southern West Virginia.
Onsite for the Documentary
Onsite for the Documentary
Onsite for the Documentary
It had been a few years since we started the film and my work had diversified into wedding management and special events. I enjoyed this events work, but I was spending a ton of time “marketing” on social media. I told myself it was a necessity for my business, but in reality I was wasting a lot of time online (like 3-4 hours a day) and I didn’t feel any better when I was done. I didn’t feel any closer to anyone or fulfilled with my interactions, or really happy about the time I had spent. More often then not I’d feel a little empty, guilty, or dissatisfied.
I had nearly 2,500 Facebook friends but I seemed to always see the same 20 people in my news feed, some of whom I didn’t really know. I had no idea why I would see them consistently. I was never very close to most of them in real life. I could hardly remember how we met a few of them. Was it that one party at that friends of Jeff’s house 8 years ago? No, it was that networking event back in grad school that never amounted to much. Meanwhile, I was losing touch with people I DID care about.
That is, when my news feed was actually filled with content from real people. Half the time it was so called “sponsored material” which we know is just a “nice”(read: deceptive) term for ads. So I started looking into how the news feed algorithm works. It turns out, due to the nature of “learning algorithms”, even the creators of the algorithms often don’t know how they work. So I began the VERY laborious work of weeding out the 2000+ “friends”. In my mind I called it “The Great Culling”. My goal was to get my friends list down to a more manageable 100-200 in order to force the algorithm to show me more of what I really wanted to see (i.e. the “it’s MY fault” mentally).
I got down to 600-700 friends, but in the process I started learning a lot about the creation of the media and it’s various iterations. Like how at any given time there are something like 60 versions of Facebook being used live, and something like 10,000 variants being tested in small samples. The main goal of all those variants? To provide the best user experience? To determine how to make users feel the most interconnected or in touch with their friends? Nope, to make their app more addictive. What the industry calls “sticky”: just enough to give you that short term dopamine hit but not so much that you’ll actually be satisfied. Gotta keep you coming back for more. You know, like a drug dealer.
The actual goal of social media at large is simple: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” (whether that occupation is good for you or not) in order to pad the numbers to squeeze more money out of advertisers so they can bombard you with more brainwashing and employ spooky surveillance to convince you to buy a bunch of shit you don’t need, which you’ll likely do because, uhhh…brainwashing and you’re hoping it’ll make you feel less like shit for spending so much time on social media.
The whole thing felt dirty, and empty, and evil.
I gave up trying to make it work and after a trial account deactivation (where you place Facebook on “hold”) I pulled the trigger and deleted the whole account. I did, however opt for the digital security blanket and downloaded my “Facebook data file” which, as I understand it, is a full record of every action you ever made on the site. Every message, like, post, photo, cat meme, and poke… in offline form. I uploaded the single zip file to my google cloud and honestly haven’t even opened it but the once to make sure it worked. So, in theory, I still have everything should I ever want to look at it, but I highly doubt I will. Mrs. SS opted for deactivation, as her group of friends uses FB Messenger to coordinate get-togethers. This way she can still use Messenger without maintaining a social media presence online. Like I said, Facebook makes great tools, it’s just how they’re used that we object to.
Since then, Facebook has had the whole Cambridge Analytica disaster where it was revealed that the personal information of something like 87 million people was “leaked” to this shady company ultimately causing suppressed voter turnout in key areas leading to Trump’s victory in the last election. Accept, it wasn’t a “leak”, it was FB working as designed. That is: sell the incredibly detailed personal information of its users, along with their movements, GPS locations, political and personal affiliations, and the scary good algorithmic predictions (FB can, with fairly good accuracy, predict if a woman will become pregnant, if a teen is gay, or if a gambling addict will relapse…before they even know it) to the highest bidder to do with as they please.
The thing is, social media is not inherently bad. It’s one of the most powerful tools mankind has ever developed. But, when we use it to sell diapers, Tori Amos tickets, and discounted flights to Las Vegas the consequences can range from mildly annoying to life shattering. As a society, we could be using this information to give an expecting mother the information she needs about her options for pregnancy. It could be used to connect a struggling teen to a support group, or a gambling addict to a rehab program. Instead social media creators line their pockets with the suffering and addiction of others.
“Are they really that evil?” Well, maybe some of them, but by and large I would say no. They’re willfully ignorant. They temporarily outsource their morals to an algorithm without a soul. It’s a computer program, designed to make money. The algorithm is designed to take notice of patterns. When Joan Public goes to these places, eat these foods, hangs out with these people, or posts these things at these times, she’s more apt to buy that ticket to Vegas. The app doesn’t know (or care) that Joan has a gambling addiction and a history of substance abuse. It doesn’t know that Joan is buying that ticket with another maxed out credit card because her bank account is already in the red, and that this purchase may cause her to lose her 18 months of sobriety, her job, her relationship, or her house. It just knows that, right now, Joan is vulnerable, susceptible and likely to break and buy that ticket…and that’s good for business. Remember, the algorithm has no soul, the algorithm was designed to turn people’s activity, online and in the real world, into money…whatever that means. Whatever that takes. By any means. $$$ = good algorithm.
Let’s look at another example. Law enforcement in Chechnya, a federal subject of Russia, could purchase this information and use it to identify users the algorithm believes are likely gay, even if they aren’t out. In this example, the information provided could be use as “evidence” to incarcerate, or torture them. So, in this instance, how much probability is enough? 95%? 75%? 51%? What percentage would a political power such as this be comfortable with? And what if they’re wrong? Even in a 95% probability there’s still a 5% chance they haven’t broken the law. Right? And what if this is expanded to other actions deemed punishable by whatever authority is in power at the time? How long before they start rounding them up? “They were bound to break the law eventually.” they might say. “Might as well get that riff-raff off the street before they create a problem for everyone else.” Imagine standing in front of a judge with the prosecutor presenting evidence that charges you with a crime…you have yet to commit. It may sound like science fiction, but it’s called “pre-crime” and it is already being experimented with to “predict” crime in some parts of the world.
“I hear you Mr. SS, but I use my social media for (work, business, marketing etc.) how could I possibly limit my social media access?”
You may find giving up social media completely is not a possibility for you. That it is a “necessary evil” in your case, and if that’s so, that’s OK. Each if our circumstances are different. As I see it, it’s really more about being aware of this system that is using us and applying that awareness to further inform our future decisions. I was fortunate enough to be able to shift my business away from having to use social media… at least for now. That may not always be the case but by identifying our addiction to social media and the system that benefits from our detriment, we can better be equipped to call out systemic issues and potentially form, or support the formation, of future alternatives.
So maybe you’re not in a place to take a step as dramatic as mine, but perhaps, now, in identifying this detrimental force in your life you may find there are other less dramatic ways to subvert it’s effect over you. Can you do without the app on your phone? Could you be OK with one of those apps or programs that limit your access to social media to a specific time or place? Perhaps narrowing your FB friends list and or limiting the number of third party apps or websites that have access to your profile or simply revoking certain privileges or even the amount of information you share with the site might be the answer. Maybe creating a “dummy account” with no friends to manage your pages is the solution. Are there other means by which you are able to limit the harm piled on you without losing the functionality you feel you need? Are you challenging the idea of what you actually “NEED”?
Mrs. SS’s adjustment (deactivation), that subverts many aspects of FB’s strategy while still providing her the use of Messenger which she uses to connect with friends may work for you. (*Update, it turns out Messenger is it’s own app and can be had without an active FB account) There are no wrong answers here, only answers that are right for you. These things are intentionally not easy and writing a guide to the subversion of social media sounds like a great topic for a follow-up post. For now, I simply present these ideas as food for thought. Ask yourself, honestly: “Considering the facts laid out above, does Facebook and other forms of social media in their current form, do more harm then good in my life?” If the answer is no, congratulations you’ve figured out a great balance. There’s no doubt using social media feels good, but the same can be said for heroin. In the long run what impact is it having on you and your community? I’m willing to bet if you’re anything like me, you’ve been wrestling with some of these same thoughts and feelings, and if you’re wondering: if there’s life after social media, I’m here to tell you, resoundingly, YES!