Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Now before you get any crazy ideas, no, I am not contemplating a final farewell. “To be or not to be?” That is not the question.

The question is whether to continue on Facebook. This question arises once again in light of news this weekend that about 50 million Facebook users’ data was used surreptitiously to predict and influence voting behavior in the 2016 US presidential election. There are claims and counterclaims and calls for investigations. Facebook, as usual, is doing damage control.

Just as I had come to terms with staying on Facebook, along came another reason to drop it, as it were, like a bad habit.

I’m mad that information about millions of people was used largely without their knowledge as an experiment in psychological profiling and micro targeting, but I’m not surprised.

Is anyone really surprised? Are we surprised that a third-party application was used to coax people to answer a bunch of probing questions, to allow access to their Facebook data, and oh by the way, to throw in the data of friends who hadn’t locked down their own accounts? Is anyone surprised that academics, billionaires and ideologues worked together to try to install a president and wage a culture war? Anyone?

Is anybody surprised that Facebook made it so easy to do all that? Are we surprised that Facebook didn’t do more to secure user profiles? We shouldn’t be. Getting people to give up their own data is Facebook’s specialty — kind of a black art. Past and present insiders have admitted that they knew what they were doing. By giving people a little validation every time they shared something popular, people were encouraged to share more. With more people. They (we) were hooked.

What does one do with tons of data about a gazillion people? One sells it.

Last time I considered the stay or go question, I concluded that a lot of what was wrong with my Facebook experience wasn’t necessarily Facebook itself. I also identified a bunch of annoying tendencies of others that made it difficult to stay friends with people online.

Well guess what? It’s hard to stay friends with people in the real world, too. And people do a lot of egregious stuff online that we would never do in face-to-face interaction. Do you like hurting people’s feelings? If you do, then you have a personality disorder and need to get help. And for heaven’s sake, get off of social media!

But at some point everybody you know is going to do or say something that makes it hard to stay friends. I think that’s one of the reasons that most of us have a pretty small number of actual, close, trusted friends.

It would be nice to think that we’re going to change people. That seems to drive a lot of behavior on social media. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic. My wife is an ordained minister. She recently reminded me of some episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom in which the central character, news anchor Will McAvoy, set out on his “mission to civilize.” It didn’t end well. Let’s just say our man on a mission got a lot of drinks thrown in his face.

So, if I’m not going to change human nature (I’m not and neither are you), then I’m back to the recurring thought that the biggest problem I have with Facebook is the way I use it.

But wait. We’re talking about a product that was designed to take as much of our time and attention as possible by rewarding interaction. It was designed to be addictive. Changing the way I use Facebook is like asking an opioid addict, an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler to change the way they use, drink or gamble.

I smoked cigarettes for a long time. Cutting down never worked. Using nicotine gum or patches didn’t work. Resolutions didn’t work. What ultimately worked was getting a short-term prescription for a smoking cessation drug (bupropion, in my case) and reading a book on cognitive behavioral therapy called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. That worked.

Remember also that Facebook, like a lot of other addictions, has some risk even if one if not a hardcore addict. To borrow some wording from old school over-the-counter sleep medication ads, Facebook may NOT be “safe and effective when used as directed.”

I have a job in the real world. For years (decades, actually) I worked as a computer technician for companies large and small. I handled confidential information and I was usually working under nondisclosure agreements. In recent years I’ve worked in some other fields — more about that some other time, perhaps — but still under NDA’s. Since the rise of the Internet and social media, there have also been acceptable use policies.

I don’t even mention the name of my employer on Facebook. I don’t talk about work on social media. And I’m mentioning this now only to highlight one of the other hazards of Facebook: the risk of losing your job and/or getting sued for talking about something you’re not supposed to talk about online (or at all).

This product steals our time and attention. It leads us to overshare our personal information. It tends to push us into opposing camps. We become clannish.  We obsess. Disagreements are often harsh, uncivil and unrestrained. On Facebook we’re always ready to rumble. We gang up on people. I’ve seen it all happen again and again. I’ve been a party to it more times than I’d like to admit. And for what? So somebody will click “like” on something I post?

Not everybody has trouble with Facebook, but I do.

I wish it were otherwise, because I often enjoy interacting with people online. I used to enjoy smoking, too. But it was bad for me and I couldn’t control it. I can have a beer or two, or none, and be fine either way. I don’t gamble anymore at all.

I am under no illusions that Facebook influenced my vote in 2016. It didn’t. I supported Hillary Clinton from caucus through the election. I was very outspoken online for a very long time about why I could never support Donald Trump and why I thought no one else should either. But I did lose friends who held other views. Family relationships were strained or interrupted. Facebook definitely played a role in that.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about a lot of things I posted over the years. I just don’t know if I changed any minds, which was one of the main reasons I got on Facebook in the first place.

It’s looking more and more like my days on Facebook are numbered. I’ll need to find creative and social outlets. Hopefully I’ll get more sleep.

Is there life after Facebook? For me there is.

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