(Picture stolen from the Economist)
About two months ago I deactivated my Facebook account, with the intention of permanently deleting it eventually. I wrote a very convicting draft of this post, which highlighted what I thought were the main problems with the social media giant. Now, I’ve gone back to the party.
So, like an alcoholic swinging their bottle around and yelling at people the dangers of drink, here I will outline some of my concerns with how we connect through social media platforms like Facebook (and other similar companies).
This is why I quit:
1. It is free.
This may seem counter-intuitive, surely a freebie is a good thing? But here’s the trick, while it does not cost me money, Facebook is a multi-billion dollar company. How do they make a profit?
Because we are not the consumers: we are the products.
Facebook makes its money through targeted add revenue, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated based on its ever-improving algorithms and the data we freely upload.
So what? Many would argue that this doesn’t really matter. Who cares if these big companies know what demographic I belong to, which restaurant I visited last week, and what my political views are? Besides, surely there is not harm in making money from advertising in general?
But what makes facebook problematic is that its entire business model is based on turning our our personal data into a commodity. This is not the same as the kind of advertising you see on billboards or television. The sophisticated algorithms that enable this kind of target-advertising deliberately exploits the personal information that we give them in exchange for their service.
Now, every inch of our online lives is driven by a variety of largely invisible “micro-nudges”. Every click we make is recorded and analysed by algorithms that create a unique, predictable and targetable data-point to sell to the highest bidder.
Not only is that just plain creepy, but it also started costing me money that was not budgeted for. I’d be keen to hear other people’s experiences, but in the last two years I’ve personally noticed an increase in my tendency to impulsively spend money on the internet. It got to the point where Facebook just knew me too well and I was buying way too much crap that I didn’t need. Turning my data into a commodity was no longer in my best interest.
But, surely that’s just my problem. We still have control over what we click on, right?
2. It is specifically designed to be addictive.
The fact that it was difficult for me to quit became rather telling (and the fact that I am back on is probably even more telling).
Turns out, Facebook pays a fortune for research psychologists to figure out how to keep us online for longer. They want to know why we click on things, and how to get us to click on more things.
Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, said that he and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (among other social media entrepreneurs) understood that they were launching a platform that was addicting, “and we did it anyway.” The “like” button is referred to as a “social validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in the human psyche.” (Source).
3. It cheapens human connection.
Mark Zuccerburg claims that the whole point of facebook is to connect people. Whether he is genuine in his endeavour is not my concern. What is my concern is the fact that Facebook has proven time and time again to do the exact opposite of what they promised. We are not connected. We are more lonely than ever before.
Facebook (and other internet giants) has arguably turbo-charged the weaknesses of the human psyche in order to capitalise on them. We now know that being online too much can increase loneliness, despite Zuckerberg’s ideal to connect society further (source). Some psychologists are even suggesting that our generation is in a touch deficit: there are now dangers of being “skin hungry,” which can lead to depression (source).
So, either Zuccerburg never had the intention to really connect people in the first place, or he did have this goal and he failed to achieve it. Either way, Facebook does not connect us. The overwhelming evidence reveals that it divides us both individually and corporately, and this has enormous ramifications on society as a whole.
4. It just has too much control.
On individuals, Facebook has proven to have the power to affect our moods (Source).
On a larger scale, we can see a much more chilling effect. In Jamie Bartlett’s new book, The People vs Tech he outlines how Facebook now holds a monopoly of economics, politics, and even culture itself. As a good business strategy, Facebook has managed to buy out almost all of their competitors, including Instagram, Whatsapp, and Oculus VR. This means that they now have the capacity to distort politics and culture by their sheer size and power. A very small clique of people now have a very large sway over what goes on in public spaces. I am not entirely sure that Facebook has its user’s best interests at heart, especially since we are not their consumers.
I do not need to rant further on the ramifications we have recently seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its impact on the Trump election and Brexit referendum.
In short, Facebook claims to be a social-network company that connects its users at no cost to them. In reality, however, it is a multi-billion dollar advertising agency that manipulates and exploits the personal data of their addicted users, divides our societies, and has way too much control over our democracy and culture.
I watched most of Mark Zuccaberg’s Senate hearings (they were 5+ hours each!), I read all sorts of opinion articles, I bought books on the topic, and I listened to podcasts. The more I read and heard, the more I felt a moral conviction regarding how much I used a service that is changing our culture for the worst. As a concerned citizen, I felt an ethical obligation to stop using and supporting the “service” that Facebook claimed to provide.
That is why I quit Facebook.
But, after two months, I reactivated. Why?
1.It is free.
The only alternative platform that I could think of would be for someone to build a copy-version charge a monthly subscription for it its users. This would then put its users in the position of consumer rather than product.
The problem with this model is that it would divide the internet even further. Those who could afford it would opt for that new company, while those who wouldn’t be able to would stay with Facebook. One thing do like about Facebook is that it guarantees equal access to its users.
2. It is specifically designed to be addictive.
Honestly, I thought about it all the time. I really really really missed it. Especially the memes. Ohmygosh I missed those memes. As a reward for finishing my exams, my friend made me the greatest present of all time: a scrapbook full of printed memes. I could hardly contain my delight.
3. It cheapens human connection.
Some psychologists are suggesting that Facebook only makes us lonelier if we use it in particular ways (source). Those who already have connections can in fact enhance those connections by using social media.
I have also found that Facebook is a really efficient way to make shallow connections with the sorts of people who I’m not willing to give my number to, but also don’t want to lose contact with. It’s not that I don’t value people, it’s just that there are too many of them on this planet, and I have limited energy. It’s a really good in-between platform that doesn’t require too much commitment if I’ve just met someone, but also doesn’t make isolate me from my entire generation.
4. It’s just too big.
Perhaps a giant this big cannot be taken on by one opinionated blogger on this corner of the internet. I may be backing down from some of my earlier convictions, but if this is one of the primary means of communicating with my peers, then quitting is actually pretty anti-social.
Overall, with or without Facebook, I’m still just as narcissistic and attention-seeking as the next millennial. After quitting Facebook I just displayed it on my blog instead.
At the end of the day, my personal account is a drop in a multi-billion dollar ocean. I still stand by the issues I outlined above, but hopefully I can use in a way that still connects me to the world while being aware of the dangers. I’m planning on keeping the app off my phone though, so that it limits my usage. Other than that, you’ll probably see me around again.
So, what do you think? Have I undermined my values and sold out for Memes?
Edit: I have now gone back and deleted my account permanently. Turns out memes really aren’t worth it (besides, I have a whole scrap-book of them anyway!)
Recommended Further Reading:
Jame Bartlett’s new book, The People versus Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (buy here)
James Williams’ essay, Technology is Driving us to Distraction (click here)
The Economist article, Facebook Faces a Reputational Meltdown (click here).
The New York Times article, What 7 Creepy Patents Reveal About Facebook (click here).