TLDR: I'm not looking at Facebook anymore. If you want to stay in touch and our only contact in the last few years has been through Facebook or Instagram, click here to let me know! I'm posting this on Facebook, but won't be looking at any comments.
I remember when Facebook came to my college campus around 2005. It was a revelation: a virtual directory, a communication tool, a clearinghouse for snark and college intrigue. The part of my lizard brain that craves social connection and attention lit up with each new feature: the newsfeed, photo tags, groups, and the eventual phone app.
Even as a light user of Facebook and social media generally, I can appreciate the benefits of these platforms. I've enjoyed posting photos to my feed and to groups. Facebook interactions encouraged me to take more pictures and write more often. Groups focused on photography, education, bikepacking, and hiking could be sources of information and inspiration. Facebook Marketplace, despite all the nonsense and unwanted ads, is an effective way to buy and sell used items locally.
Scrolling my Facebook feed was never something that took up much of my time, but I used to do it daily, usually when tossing treats to my cat. I generally didn't get news from Facebook (although it sometimes it really delivered with the hyperlocal stuff: school district gossip, businesses changing their hours, county health information, etc.). I was never a prolific commenter or "liker" of posts. An occasional, unexpected connection might spark joy or curiosity, while curated offerings from old acquaintances could make me feel inadequate or guilty about losing touch. Of the thousands of advertisements that were placed under my thumb, I made a grand total of two purchases after seeing a Facebook ad. On net, my own use of Facebook was probably negative (wasted time and mind space), but not overly so.
I've been increasingly skeptical of Meta (the new name for the conglomerate that runs Facebook) for a few years now. Documents released by whistleblower Frances Haugen frame a company aware of its most dangerous faults yet unwilling to change itself for the better. These pieces from The Verge and The Washington Post give useful summaries of those revelations. These points were especially galling to me:
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg has prioritized growth and engagement even when serious red flags were raised by employees. Just one example: the dubious choice to weight "angry" emojis five times more heavily than "likes" in Facebook's algorithms because they were shown to drive more engagement.
An internal experiment conducted by Facebook showed that two "dummy" users with fairly anodyne political interests (for example, Melania Trump) were shown extreme content and group suggestions within just days.
The well-being and treatment of human content moderators is a long standing concern. The daily experience of these workers is unimaginable given the glut of violent and hateful content coursing through Facebook at any moment.
Should Meta be broken up? Regulated more strictly? This excellent podcast features a spirited debate on this topic. In my opinion, new regulation is called for, as well as better (new) corporate leadership. The full spectrum of human behavior has always been evident on the internet, including altruism, creativity, mendacity, greed, and hatred. But social media has supercharged everything with its ad-based business model. The objective is always to monetize the attention of users and grow by wielding sophisticated tools of manipulation. The 2020 film The Social Dilemma excels in pointing out how hopelessly outmatched we are by the algorithms fine-tuned to keep us logged in. Our Neolithic brain-parts are essentially helpless in the face of these attention sucking programs.
So... I've decided that don't want to participate any longer. I'm removing Facebook and Instagram from my phone. I'm leaving my accounts active for now, but will not be visiting my feed, posting, or commenting. I may continue to use some Meta services (I have a few people who I stay in touch with through WhatsApp and I could see myself using Marketplace again at some point when the need arises). But I will no longer be a regular user.
What do I hope to accomplish? I guess I'll feel slightly less dirty when I hear the next news story about Meta's disregard for our commonwealth in the interest of profit. Also, I won't be manipulated and surveilled quite as often (although of course I still will be). While it was nice to think that I could stay in touch with a far-flung network of older friends, colleagues, and acquaintances through Facebook, this was never really realistic and, as it turns out, not worth the distraction from my real life. Maybe I'll salvage a bit of my attention that used to get captured by the never-ending scroll.
Some of Meta's tech giant peers are almost as problematic as Meta (especially Google/YouTube) and I am still using them. For search, I've started using Neeva, a non-advertising based search engine. But much of my online life, both personal and at work, is tangled up with various Google products. Maybe I'll see about being more intentional about these choices in the future. But for now, the utility I personally get from these products outweigh their drawbacks.
How we deal with challenges like Meta will determine the shape of our society for years to come. Even the recent scrutiny of Facebook may be too little, too late as its users are getting older and Generation Z is flocking to hipper apps. From what I can see, these are no less addicting or manipulative.
Maybe it will all be fine. Perhaps someday I'll return to Meta, my avatar coolly surveying its corner of the metaverse while swiping away ads for jet pack fuel cells or NFTs. For now though, I will do my best to keep my attention on the real world. Maybe I'll see some of you out there.