The Leaving of Facebook

Why would anyone delete their Facebook account? That’s a question some people have asked me since I jumped out of the shark-tank, some months ago. More people, though, have told me they’d like to, or they’ve thought about it, but they can’t. They need it. There is no alternative. Leaving it will make them feel bad.

These things are all in the nature of addiction, and if it is nothing else, Facebook is a well-engineered tool for ensuring that. Even getting off it – right off it, not the ‘suspending your account’ halfway-house – is made difficult, and you are encouraged to change your mind several times along the journey. If you suspend your account, your friends can still contact you, you can still look at your old posts online, and you can be reminded of how much you miss it and how much you want to get back on it.

A person can be eased out of an addiction, but they have to change their way of life. Mostly, they have to change the friends with whom they shared the addiction. They can find new support in Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. No doubt there are more, although I have yet to find one for those who miss social media.

If you delete Facebook, you are going Cold Turkey. You will lose friends, or rather ‘friends’. People you know in real life, or whose email addresses or phone numbers you have retained from previous, pre-Facebook, relationships, will stay with you. If you are one of those, I thank you for that.

Two reasons

When I announced I was leaving Facebook, on Facebook, it went unnoticed except to a few friends whose algorithms showed them the post. I said there were two things about Facebook that I didn’t like: what it does to people, and what it does to me.

It is easier for me to speak about what it does to people. Facebook is not alone in these respects, but it is the most egregious example.

It is bad for people. It makes them boastful, shallow and extreme. It fosters more and more banal and stupid ‘content’ – listicles, polls, sentiment, outrage, cheap sarcasm and outright lies. Genuine wit and insight are at a premium. Posts purporting to be factual are rarely supported by evidence. And conflict, even over the most nugatory matters, is constantly encouraged and facilitated.

The false sense of community, and the idea that everyone else is having a great time or a great life when I am not, is another thing that hurts people. The desire to be popular, or to be understood, or just to have people laugh at your jokes or sympathise over some tragedy in your life, drags you back and back to the site. You post, then you check the likes and the comment, then you clarify or defend yourself and soon you are wasting time, getting into unending arguments and losing friends.

Nearly 11 years of practice have shown me that Facebook is bad for me, too. It makes me feel not connected, but lonely. It makes me long for real personal connection with people, either in a pub or via telephone calls or texts real emails.

But it isn’t only that. I am not a fool. I know I want to be heard. For years in my working life I could usually find my way to some sort of platform, to rehearse my politics or make jokes. Especially to make jokes.

All this gets me into trouble. I really have no idea of how my jokes are going down, of how my political comments are being understood, of how many readers I have and who they are. It is shouting into a void.

Better I stay off it. So that is what I am doing.

No accident

None of the bad things about Facebook is an accident. Neither are they inevitable.

Facebook needs to know everything about you, or other people just like you, and that isn’t so it can show men over the age of 60 ads for prostate medicine or ‘male enhancement’. It also needs traffic, lots of traffic.

I have puzzled over this for years but lately I’ve been reading books that explain it. One is 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jason Lanier. The other is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

I see Facebooks’s ads, but I never click on them. Many people I know use adblockers to ensure they never even see them. I assume some people do click on them, and that some of those people actually buy something (although my understanding is that there is no way an advertiser can detecting whether someone sent from Facebook did make an actual purchase). I know the argument: individual suckers are few and far between, but when you have 2.7bn users (1.7bn of whom use it every day), the numbers soon add up. Maybe.

Obviously, that isn’t how it works. Facebook slots you into a profile and then serves up ads that just meet the perceived needs of that profile. (How that profiling works is algorithmic, and it’s none of your business, especially if you are an advertiser.) To make that profile, it needs to collect as much information as it can about you, or about people just like you. The data is anonymised: Facebook doesn’t necessarily know your address, although it could find out if it wanted to.

But isn’t it terribly wasteful to gather all this information on people like me, so it can serve up ads for people in their 60s living in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, who have an interest in ukuleles? How much server space and processor time (generating vast amounts of CO2, incidentally) does it take to gather up all this data, process it, select the relevant bits, then match ads to it so that I, John Morrish, supposedly get an ad from a local ukulele shop?

Surely Facebook could do that without generating so much traffic? Why couldn’t you have a local Facebook that collected just the data it needed? Instead, Facebook goes to great lengths to ensure it generates more and more traffic, by fostering all the things that make it bad: the banality, the stupidity, the false community and, especially, the conflict. It does this even thought traffic costs it money: the more traffic, the more money,

No. There has to be more to it. And this is it. The data is not really for advertising. Its ambitions are rather wider than that. It is to discover what people like now, obviously. It is to discover what people will like in the future. It is to allow corporate interests to create things people will like in the future. And it is to allow corporate interests to mould people so they will like those things.

This feedback loop might seem far-fetched, but you only have to look at how Facebook uses it to entrench its own position as a so-far unassailable monopoly. It tweaks the appearance of its pages or introduces some ‘innovation’; it tests that on its billions of users; it tweaks it again and tests it again; and so on, in fractions of seconds. This is why it is unlikely there will ever be another Facebook or, for that matter, another Messenger or WhatsApp (or any Google product). It is effectively impossible for any rival operation to take a slice of the pie. These products are exactly what people want: and the people who make them know that, because they don’t have to rely on guesswork. So they can make them more like people want.

What is to be done?

Lenin famously asked this question in an article of 1901, later expanded into a pamphlet. You can read all about it all over the internet. It’s not directly relevant to a discussion of Facebook or social media more generally. Nobody, as far as I know, has formed a vanguard party dedicated to educating people in the evils of social media and leading the struggle against them.

The truth is, it’s very difficult to say what should be done. Everyone should delete their Facebook accounts, but that is rather unlikely to happen,

I’d rather talk about what could, and should, have been done. Facebook should never have been allowed to be ‘free’. Because it’s not free. It’s very expensive. Every day, it steals its users’ privacy and pays nothing for the privilege. It then sells that on and makes, effectively, limitless sums of money. Out of you.

It got away with this by wrapping itself in the utopian clothing of the internet pioneers. Dressed in this cloak of sanctity, it was able to exploit, lie and cheat with impunity. I’m not exaggerating. There are myriad examples in the Zuboff book.

Were those pioneers, people like Jaron Lanier, naive, ill-informed, or just plain stupid? Not really.

To be continued.