note: on pieces of writing posted on this blog from now on I’ll be focusing on brainstorming, drafting, and revising several times before posting to make posts slightly more coherent. I’d previously written posts in one sitting without much structural revision and had gotten comments that some of the posts were rambling and hard to follow. I hope you like the new form!
A few days ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I opened my Facebook account in February of 2008 and I’ve used it steadily since. It has followed me through the period of the most rapid and dramatic social change of my life, from middle school through high school and then my first year of college. In the past six and a half years of using Facebook, there were things that bothered me, but I’ve always used it, and I haven’t really been able to consider it from an outside perspective until now. Up until a few days ago, it’s been a constant presence in my life. One that, despite its faults, I was unwilling to rid myself of.
In the news recently has been a story that Facebook was conducting research earlier in the year in which they altered what kind of stories showed up in users’ news feeds, displaying either stories that were generally more upbeat or downbeat in tone, in order to see if this had any bearing on the tone of the things the user posted. I find the concept that Facebook would perform research on their user base without their informed consent troubling, and that was initially why I decided to take some time off from Facebook. However, it was the conversations, thoughts and experiences which arose from this decision which cemented my desire to get away for an extended period, if not permanently.
In the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I noticed that I was using Facebook fairly often. I would post something funny about my life every day or two, keep up conversations over the messenger, and reflexively grab at my phone to read about my friends’ lives when I had a lull in my day. Some of my friends took notice that I was posting or on the messenger a lot and would joke with me about it. I sort of dialed it back not wanting to become too wrapped up in this online mentality. I considered quitting cold turkey, but decided that the ability to keep up passively with others’ lives and passively update others about mine was ultimately a good thing and I should focus on moderating usage as not to be consumed by it. I started using Facebook less over time and everything was going well. I still used Facebook, but I felt less eaten up by it.
The recent news of the research Facebook did struck a nasty chord with me, however. Additionally, I was also becoming less interested in what was on Facebook: all my college friends were removed from that explosive amount of social contact that is college, so everyone was either posting about how bored they were or not posting anything. I decided that from then until the start of school would be a good time to take a step back from this service and see if I could “kick the habit” in response to the unease and apprehension of the news of the study.
Quitting & Withdrawal
I posted that I’d be leaving Facebook, left the post up for the remainder of the day, and deactivated my account. However, seeing what came up on the deactivation page, my apprehensions only grew:
The fact that they included this in their deactivation screen was troubling to me in and of itself because it felt like they were begging me to stay (why does Facebook care if I continue using its free services?), but the wording of the message is severely twisted the more I thought about it. “Your friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with you. Here are pictures of the friends you’ll be losing.”
On its face, it just seemed like a stark lie. One person in that line-up is one of my closest friends who I talk to almost every day, see several times a week, and certainly will not “miss me” or “not be able to communicate with me”. However, there is also some truth in what Facebook is saying. One unfortunate and grimly timed indication of this is that within a few hours of deactivating my account one of my friends’ father died. I don’t see this friend that often, and we aren’t so close that I received a text or a someone let me personally know, but I was talking to a mutual friend of ours and it came up. They had posted about it on Facebook to let everyone know without having to send out thousands of messages, and I had missed it. While I was saddened by this news, I couldn’t help but put it in light of withdrawing from Facebook. There are things that happen on Facebook, are announced or said or posted on Facebook that happen entirely outside of day to day life: it’s become more than an extension of what happens, and a social sphere unto itself.
While it seems easy to call Facebook a representation of one’s life and a method of communicating with friends en masse, that doesn’t seem entirely accurate to me. Someone’s Facebook page (and their broader online presence) is ultimately more than a reflection of themselves. The act of curation and public display is an act of creation, so someone’s Facebook page is a personality and essence which draws material from their life, but is ultimately separate from it. Viewing other people’s curated and constructed page influences how I think about them since it’s so hard to separate that thing which they’ve created from their actual life and personality. Knowing that what I do and what I think can be funneled into this online presence which affects how people perceive me has gradual but likely massive effect on my personality, and has led to the evaporation of private mental space, or the ability to simply think about and do things for myself and not wondering if this is something I should broadcast, something I should add to my online personal likeness.
Although I’m not taking the step of permanently deleting my Facebook page (which I hear you almost have to hire a lawyer to do), I was reading about the process and read that it’s generally a good idea to download an archive of your data. I was interested to see what this looked like, and after downloading the almost 300mb file I opened it to see the above screen. A starkly, simply laid out page with just about everything I’d ever posted to Facebook.
What was most interesting for me to read was the messages. According to the file size of the message archive, I’ve generated over 12,000 printed pages of messages sent and received through Facebook, since it’s been my primary instant messaging client for some time. Looking through mundane messages exchanged in the past, as well as all the wall posts, old photos, and just generally antiquated things I’ve posted online, what I realized is that Facebook is incredibly skilled at getting you to think that it’s a clear conduit of information. It seems that Facebook wants you to think that you’re floating along in the same stream of time as real life, and just as you witness things happen and then disappear in real life, the same thing happens on Facebook: things come and go in your “News Feed” and you see and then forget about things from your friends’ “Timelines”. Facebook doesn’t seem to be geared towards profile building, where you are able to see things your friends have set up and intended to be absorbed at once, they’re geared towards the experience of the real time, to make your friends’ events and thoughts and posts come and go just like experiences do in real life. Facebook seems to want your friends’ profiles and online personalities to be almost as vivid as they are in real life, and Facebook itself is simply an impartial platform allowing all of this to happen, rather than controlling the delivery to be as effective as possible.
So, being able to look back at almost everything at once, seeing everything I’ve ever posted to Facebook outside the context of the UI, it was easier to understand the fallacy of the “real time” of Facebook. Everything is there and continues to be. Everything has worked towards an online persona that I’ve meticulously and subconsciously built up, and as I looked at this white screen that was the sum of my usage of Facebook, I was faced with the uncomfortable question of, how much of this was actually me posting online, and how much did I turn into the things that I tried to make myself because I thought it would look good on this “representation” of who I “was”?
I think my primary issues with Facebook and other services like Twitter or Instagram are passive communication, content delivery, and the illusion of real time. As opposed to something like Skype, these services don’t connect you directly to your friends (serving as, say, an evolution of talking face to face and being in the same technological lineage as the telegraph, phone, email, texting, etc.) Facebook is a new communication model which allows you to broadcast things to your friends or your followers all at once. and since there needs to be some form of organization. Thus, Facebook is in control of how content (the content being, basically, your friends’ lives) is shown to you, and they’re ultimately trying to refine the process to be as interesting and engaging as possible. Thus, Facebook has some control over your socialization and how you take in and think about people. And it’s done all in real time as to not allude to the contrivance of the whole process: it’s simply a part of life.
Ultimately, I think we are what we spend our time and energy on, so it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that many people give very little energy or thought to their facebook page and don’t ultimately let it affect them that much, which I think is especially the case with older folks who didn’t grow up with the reality of the internet. What I hope to accomplish with this writing is to encourage some critical thought on the principles of Facebook and, furthermore, the nature of social media, creating an online persona for yourself, and what that ultimately means. My aim isn’t to disparage social media or say that everyone should quit, I don’t even exactly have proof that Facebook has malicious intent or ever will: I’m simply terrified of the idea of a service which revolves around displaying what my friends try to be, and ultimately causes me to do the same.
The day after I deactivated my Facebook account, I was about to drive home from work and wanted to listen to music on Spotify, a service which I paid $10 a month for, and had for almost two years. I usually just signed in with my Facebook credentials, which makes sense because it shares the music you listen to (which, side note, is yet another way I passively tried to make an identity for myself: by being somewhat conscious of what music Facebook said I listened to). Regardless, I figured the Facebook login wouldn’t work since I deactivated my account, so I waited until I got home, figured out what email was associated with the account, and logged back in with that.
Hours later, I got a text from a friend that said “your Facebook is back: it reactivated because you logged into Spotify and it’s sharing the music you’re listening to.” Despite it being possible to turn off the sharing feature, I found out (after some reading into the topic) that it was impossible to “unhook” your Spotify account from your Facebook account: despite paying for the service, I needed an activated Facebook to use it. I cancelled my Spotify account and am looking for a new music streaming service now, but this was another instance which was deeply disquieting to me.
Thinking back to the screen displayed when I tried to deactivate my account, the tying in with other services, the near impossibility of thoroughly deleting your Facebook account, it’s very clear that Facebook wants to attract new users and hold onto their current users as tightly as possible. This is accomplished by integrating with a variety of aspects of your life, being an attractive and non intrusive software which you simply use, being well designed and easy to use, but they have one thing which is a bigger draw than everything else: all your friends use it.
The message is clear on the screen displayed when trying to leave Facebook: “This is a party, this is a gathering, and all of your friends are already here. You’ve already allowed Facebook to integrate with your life, and if you leave, you’re leaving the party. Why would you want to do that? What harm are we possibly doing? You’re just seeing what your friends are up to.” It feels important to say that Facebook is a publicly traded, for-profit corporation that doesn’t charge or even nudge its users to spend money to use their services, and they’re wielding and offering something that is so incredibly precious to the human experience: Friends. Socialization. People caring about what you do and say and think.
I’m not a luddite, and I hold no illusions that we’re not moving towards a society in which how you handle your affairs and what you post on the internet will be vitally important to remaining part of the vital edge of society. Businesses, artists, writers, manufacturers, it doesn’t seem to matter. Whatever old model of self promotion and advancement by word of mouth and print media existed before no longer does: people of the future will thrive or fail by their ability to reach out to others by the medium of the internet, and as the internet grows up with my generation, we’re working out the kinks of what that means. The questions I submit right now is, How will you consume the content that you consume? How will you connect with people? And, most pertinent to everything I’ve just said, will you allow a company to control how you connect to your friends, how you promote and think about yourself? What is ultimately more important: Who you are, or how you look online?
It’s also worth stating that Facebook played off of some of the more negative aspects of my personality specifically, and this is part of the reason I’d wanted to deactivate it for a long time. While these are things I struggle with, I certainly imagine that others may have similar tendencies.
The vast amount of information people would post and the opportunity to chat one on one with people encouraged my awful habit of over thinking things which ought not be over thought, like social dynamics. In high school especially I felt that if I thought hard enough about something, I could figure out what to do in a social situation, or what someone was thinking or feeling, just by what people said.
The persistent nature of the information on Facebook also fed into my compulsive tendency to dwell in the past. For better or worse, I’ll often consider things in the past and compare them to my present circumstances. While this sometimes encourages positive growth, it has also led to discontent and frustration in some aspects of my life.
Finally, the ability to broadcast my thoughts and the things I was doing and even, later on, my photography, simply stroked my already large ego. When you post something to Facebook, it feels like you’ve got an audience of everyone you know, and, as stated before, it makes that tendency to try to create and maintain an image for yourself so much stronger. My life is not the sum total of the things that I post on Facebook, and it seems far more logical to actually truly connect to people and have their opinions stem from that rather than trying to infer what people will think of me based on how they read what I post.
I think it’s important to end this post by saying that these, ultimately, are my experiences with Facebook and again, it’s up to each person to decide how they should use a service. It’s not my place to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, only to present my own experiences and things I find to be good, with a gentle encouragement to think critically about the pertinent aspects of one’s life. I’ll be taking a long hiatus from Facebook, and I hope it sticks.