A year away from Facebook

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“You like me! You really, really like me!” One of Facebook’s more transparent attempts at emotional manipulation last year had the unintended effect of helping me decide to leave.

On April 1, 2018, I burned it all down. More than nine years in Mark Zuckerberg’s house of mirrors came to an end. Over 600 friends and 52,000 likes, gone. Countless thousands of posts — links, quotes, comments, photos — gone.

The long goodbye

I’d wrestled with the decision to leave. Was it me? Was it Facebook? Social media in general? Yes, yes and yes. I blogged about it. I tried to change the way I conducted myself. I blocked people and unfriended. I read more and more news and opinion about Facebook and eventually came around to the realization that we had to break up.

Once I decided to leave, I gave a couple weeks notice to my friends. I gave them the URL to my blog, sort of a digital forwarding address. Many of them already had my phone number and email address.

I downloaded my data and set about deleting content, which took days. It wasn’t truly necessary to do it that way, but I wanted to look at the giant digital scrapbook I’d built. I loved some of that stuff, perhaps a bit too much. I unfriended everybody, requested deletion of my account, turned out the lights and walked away.

Some of my friends derided people who publicly proclaimed that they were leaving Facebook like someone making a big production of leaving a party. A few people suggested it might be a mistake to leave. One said she thought I’d be giving up a platform that allowed me to reach a lot of people and that leaving would probably make no difference to Facebook. She was partly right.

It’s quite true that my leaving made no difference to Facebook. It would take a lot of people leaving to do that. And it’s true that I turned out the lights on what had become my little stage on the Internet. But was anyone really watching?

In February I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled “People love Facebook so much they wouldn’t quit unless we paid them — a lot.” Reader comment sections can be digital wastelands, like any other online venue, filled with the sort of unabashed awfulness that too often finds expression on the Internet. But every now and then they contain treasures like this one:

On the other hand, I do have other friends who will *never* quit Facebook because, as far as I can tell, it gives them a sense of being the star of their own reality show — it’s an ego booster. To quit Facebook would be to them akin to canceling their own show.

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead…”

Facebook wasn’t just my digital scrapbook, it was my own reality show. Of course, like all reality shows, it bore only a slight resemblance to actual reality. The carefully curated lives we present on social media probably reflect how we want ourselves to look much more than who we really are.

The social validation feedback loop

In the autumn of 2017 Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, made some remarks about Facebook and its design that are fairly chilling. Essentially, Parker says that Facebook and other such apps were intentionally built to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible” and that it was accomplished by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” Parker goes on to explain that the good feeling causes people to contribute more content, which gets more likes and comments. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

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Trouble in paradise: By January 2013 there were already signs of stress in my relationship with Facebook but it would be more than five years later when I finally left.

What wasn’t being discussed very much, or perhaps what most people overlooked, was the vast amount of data that was being accumulated about Facebook users and the huge potential for exploitation — by Facebook, advertisers, app developers and, well, everybody on the Internet. That realization was the last straw for me.

Do I miss it?

Yes and no. I miss interacting with my friends. My wife and I moved to a new state in 2017, which was a huge change for both of us. Working a new job was another. And leaving Facebook, in that context, was enormous.

I miss having an online scrapbook and journal, which was a big part of what Facebook was for me. I recently read that Facebook was going to start removing content after a time, which would mess with people like me and the way we use the product.

I miss the feeling that I was somehow making a difference, but I now realize the feeling was exaggerated. Some of my friends who didn’t often comment online told me in person that they used to read and enjoy my posts. But many others commented or clicked “like” a lot and I haven’t seen or heard from them at all since leaving.

I do NOT miss fighting with strangers, friends and relatives over stuff that we were never going to agree about anyway. There is still bad blood over disagreements that started online years ago.

“Was nothing real?”

Sometimes I think of The Truman Show (Wikipedia article here), which was released in 1998 and dealt with the life of a man who was adopted by a corporation prior to birth and broadcast 24/7 without his knowledge. It foreshadowed Facebook, in the sense that few of us had any idea about the extent to which we were being watched, in spite of being the stars of our own show. We were real. Sort of.

What now?

I blog, which means I can take the time to write something longer than a few sentences and explore subjects in greater depth. It’s harder writing this way, but also more rewarding in a way that is not directly tied to a “social validation feedback loop.”

I’ve also been on Twitter for about a month. Not sure how I feel about that. Twitter seems built for people who are already famous to interact with their fans in a somewhat controlled environment. I’m not famous, so I have very few followers, and don’t get tons of feedback. In a way, Twitter may be a bit more honest than Facebook, because I don’t get an overblown sense of my own influence. Also, I don’t share much personal information there.

Would I ever go back to Facebook?

It might be fun to create some alter ego, but I don’t need Facebook for that, and I have no desire to be under relentless surveillance for someone else’s profit.

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