why i am leaving facebook

Suppose an evil genie came up to you one day.

“Hello,” he would say, in that indigo/violet way of his, “I am an evil genie.”
“Hello,” you’d say. “Would you like to play chess?”
“Ha, ha!” he’d reply. “No, I suck at chess. Anyway, I have a choice to offer you.”
“What’s that?”
“I have brought a special lens. If you look through it, you will see truths about other people that you did not previously know.”
“That sounds great!” you’d answer. “What’s the catch?”
“The catch is that these truths will be overwhelmingly negative. Your opinion of people will worsen.”
“OK,” you’d reply. “But they are truths nonetheless, right? So they must have a certain value. Maybe I don’t particularly want to see what the lens is going to show me, but ultimately I’ll be better off knowing.”
“That’s the weirdest part,” answers the evil genie. He looks genuinely puzzled himself. “These truths don’t have any value. They don’t pertain to anything, they won’t improve your social life, and they won’t protect you from any impending harm. They will not be of the slightest practical benefit. To the extent that they make you sad and disillusioned, they will in fact cause harm. But, like I said, they are true. So maybe you’re still interested.”

The genie looks at you expectantly, awaiting your answer. The choice is yours.

***

For a long time, Eduardo Severin’s question was also not yet answered. “How do we monetize this thing?” he asks Mark Zuckerberg, over and over, in The Social Network. Zuckerberg, with fairly admirable consistency, answers like this: “We don’t.” To himself, though, he adds quietly, not yet.

Facebook has changed in numerous important ways. It is not the site it used to be. It is no longer cool, and it becomes less safe with each passing day. Yesterday, as I was experiencing my usual daily wave of exasperation with the site, I remembered that last week an acquaintance had shown up on my feed, announcing that she was leaving. Oh, right, I thought. I can just get out.

That may sound a little exaggerated — AREA MAN DISCOVERS HE CAN DEACTIVATE SOCIAL NETWORK PROFILE — but it’s not. I think most of us feel a genuine obligation to be on Facebook, in the same way that we feel obligated to have an email address and a phone number. The problem is that the site we feel obligated to has been replaced, like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the Facebook that exists today. A few short years ago, for example, there was no such thing as “Shares” or “Likes” on Facebook — and what a terrible difference they have made.

SHARES

I suppose if you never, ever read anything that wasn’t posted to Facebook, it would now represent a valuable source of information. However, I do read. I read The New York Times and, intermittently, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Pitchfork, The Onion (including the AV Club), PopMatters, and Metacritic. I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I subscribe to curator feeds and political blogs. To make a long story short, I never see anything political or cultural on Facebook that I don’t already know.

Admittedly, I might not know about a particular way that Arizona is trying to enforce a particular racist law. But it’s not especially important that I do know this, because if the matter ever came up in a situation where I was empowered to act, I would oppose the law. In a general sense, I know that some people in America favor persecuting immigrants and minorities via immigration statutes and racial profiling. If I have to research the issue at any point — say, because I find myself in a heated conversation — I can immediately go to work doing Google and news searches.

Most of my network is the same way; I’m not more well-informed than my peers. So why are people sharing things that none of their “network” really needs to see? Because they want to prove that they care about certain issues. Why did I share the Michael Jackson video “Dirty Diana”? For the same reason: to prove that I like good music, not to mention music videos that are both edgy and nostalgic.

In order to encourage this behavior, Facebook has sequestered our cultural and political “Likes” in a tiny corner of our “Timeline” page, where they are (for all practical purposes) inaccessible to our friends. This wasn’t always the case. It used to be that you were constantly navigating between profiles, all of which presented you with long lists of what your friends liked and cared about. You couldn’t leave a message for somebody on Facebook or MySpace without seeing, once again, that they liked the Shins.

Facebook took a lot of heat for this, of course. Pundits like Zadie Smith would complain that the site reduced us to the undergraduate game of trying to define our personalities through Top Five Lists. However, these criticisms tended towards the opposite position — that what we consume doesn’t matter at all — which is obviously not true. At the very least, what we like matters because we think it does, and so we’re keen to broadcast our choices. By forcing us to do this entirely through shares, Facebook effectively reads as though somebody had taken hundreds of profiles, each with hundreds of likes, printed them all on playing cards, and then spewed them out at random as your feed.

Because many sites link to Facebook, trying to share your tastes via your timeline just ends up looking weird. It’s a snapshot standing in for a portrait.

On top of this, the system of “thumbs up” Likes, as well as the ability to play embedded videos and see embedded photos, makes every share far, far more visible than a simple text update. A good comparison is Twitter, where you can certainly post Instagram photos and whatnot, but they are icon-sized — no larger than the text box — until a user opens them in a pop-up window.

One would think that easy sharing benefits amateur content creators, like me writing my blog posts, or my friends who write, play music, or perform on stage. It doesn’t, for three reasons. First of all, it doesn’t work as a form of self-fashioning. If my share suggests that I like Michael Jackson’s golden period, that immediately brings up positive associations for my readers. It tells them that I’m a funky boss, that my music taste spans decades, etc. If I share a song written by a friend, though, all that (seemingly) proves is that I like my friends. Um, duh? Everybody already knows I like my friends, because otherwise I wouldn’t be on Facebook! Even if I go out of my way to say “no, seriously, this is good on its own terms,” I’m not quite believed.

Second, the need for transparency (in the sense that Liking MJ is transparent) gets into the hassle of leaving Facebook to open a new browser tab. If people don’t immediately know what a share is signalling, they are usually inclined to move on rather than clicking on the link. This means that no information is exchanged.

Finally, in our embattled society, when I share a good article from The New York Times, part of the message is that our side is winning. We’re more clever, we’re more righteous, and perhaps we’re finally in the mainstream. If a friend writes a blog post supporting the Occupy movement…so what? What does that prove about how the war for Middle-Earth is going? I understand this line of reasoning, of course, but the result is awfully disheartening. User-created content can be shared, but for the most part it is not.

I could frame all of this in terms of criticisms of people: Why don’t people share the stuff their friends create? Why don’t people consider whether their 100% liberal social network really needs to see another column about the importance of contraception? But that ends up blaming Facebook’s users for behaviors that are coded into the structure of the site. The fact that I behave in ridiculous ways on Facebook proves nothing about me the instant I log off.

Facebook has stopped automatically importing blogs, because they don’t make money. Instead, it’s filled with “social reader apps.” A lot of what I experience as shares aren’t even shares! They’re just auto-posts that come up because a friend did what I always do, i.e. clicked through some app permissions as quickly as possible.

STATUS UPDATES

Not everything is a share, of course. Status updates do happen, even if they’re increasingly hard to see.

However, the problems are obvious. First of all, the networks have become so broad that the contexts for many updates are hard to understand. Somebody knows what your friend is talking about, but you don’t.

As I’ve written in earlier posts, the realization that employers look at Facebook accounts makes status updates inherently dishonest. Virtually nobody is ever sad on Facebook. Very few people consume alcohol or post updates about cigarettes. (Obviously, nobody ever breaks the law.) Break-ups and divorces are barely discussed, though they’re visible at the moment when a friend’s “Relationship Status” changes. Even death, which cannot be held against anyone, is discussed more on Twitter than on Facebook. I think part of the reason is that deaths usually lead to difficult family reunions, and nobody wants to discuss those tensions on a network where all their family members are “friends.”

There’s no sympathy button to click if a friend does post a sad update. There’s no dislike button to click if a friend posts a political article you disagree with. Expressing anything besides a liking for this or that takes enormous effort. (I’m not being sarcastic. Multiply a small amount of effort by hundreds of friends, and the result is a non-trivial amount of “work.”)

Above all, friends just don’t see or respond to updates, particularly if the update doesn’t match a pre-programmed algorithm for importance. If you have any expectations about your status update, you are bound to be disappointed. This is more true now that people can Like posts. Recently, I fought a successful legal battle against a spurious moving violation. It took a year and a lot of exceptional measures on the part of me and my family. When I mentioned this on Facebook, I got half as many Likes as (on average) come through for posts about trivial bloopers at work. There were a lot of reasons for this. My post was not entirely clear, because I didn’t want it to be boring. I posted it at the wrong time of day. It didn’t match Facebook’s algorithms and didn’t include a picture. (What picture would I use? A Monopoly card?)

Naturally, I wanted to rage. Really? Nobody could just click ‘Like’? But once again, that would be blaming users when the real culprit is the site. Before Likes existed, it was still possible to get upset about a lack of comments, but at least it was easy to reason with yourself. You could remind yourself that commenting is a pain, doubly so when a friend is hunting and pecking on a smartphone. Ease creates expectation.

The exceptions are weddings and babies. Facebook does a great job with them, but if that’s not something that’s happening for you at the moment, having it monopolize your feed can leave you a little forlorn.

IT DOESN’T WORK

You know what makes us different? We do not go down. Ever.The Social Network

A site can be “up” without being functional.

Technologically speaking, Facebook has become a dinosaur. All the effort it’s put into managing the feed and introducing the “timeline” has meant zero effort to create video chat capability. This puts it way behind Google Plus and Skype. Even text chat doesn’t work very well, because Facebook is so desperate to get you back to the site that long messages turn into email. To read these emails, you have to log in; unlike normal Facebook messages, nothing goes to your linked email address.

Meanwhile, the Facebook mobile application burns up processor power and sucks down a ton of bytes as it tries to replicate so much Flash and Javascript. Loading it on a mobile browser is no better. The app also pushes a ton of information, interrupting whatever else you’re doing (or, if the device is asleep, spring-loading the app). On an iPhone, at least, even if you deactivate every push setting, it still pushes.

The games apps are a harmless distraction, but now they clog up our feeds. I can’t even tell you how little I care whether my friends are playing Scrabble online, but not only do I receive this information, I receive it word by fucking word. The “muting” function doesn’t work, at least for Words With Friends, if you’re looking at any list/feed smaller than the “home feed” that includes hundreds and hundreds of people.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK LOOPS

The sum total of all these features are a lot of negative feedback loops. I’ve had two close friends complain to me about commenters who are messing up their status updates by writing bizarre or inappropriate things. Often, these are commenters the poster barely even knows/remembers.

When you don’t get Likes or shares, you may wonder why not. The reason is usually just the superficial way people interact with the site, but it doesn’t always feel like that. Even worse, the structure of the site turns normal sympathy into what looks either like wallowing or else insane, blase cheerfulness. If you post about something that worries you, your friends will often respond, “don’t worry, you’ll make it, things will get better.” This is actually what they’d say at the end of a long conversation, after hearing you out. In that context, it would be comforting. When the site makes you skip right to the end, though, it just seems like they’re trying to avoid the trouble of empathizing.

This is sort of a problem with any social network — it’s built into the structure of commenting — but what makes it unbearable on Facebook is that there’s no way to both express sympathy and provide comfort without writing a very long comment. If you do write a long comment, Facebook buries most of it “below the fold.” (If you write multiple comments, you appear to have a mixture of OCD and Asperger’s.) This is equally problematic, if not more so, when it comes to serious responses to political or philosophical ideas, or complicated answers to a posted question. You might see the whole comment show up in your email inbox, but your other friends won’t, and the thread quickly becomes confused.

The worst negative feedback loop is muting.

Whenever something becomes problematic on Facebook, you can always press a mute or disallow button. You can mute friends who post too much. You can mute apps. You can prevent certain people from reading certain updates, or you can revoke commenting privileges. When I’ve done that, it’s improved my feed, but it’s also made me something of a bad friend. Facebook has become so de facto that we accept most friend requests, almost never unfriend people, and respond to problems in the feed by using “mute.” This leads to two huge anxieties.

1. Who has muted me? Why?

2. Have the people I’ve muted figured that out? If so, how will they respond? I certainly don’t want them to unfriend me or slander me. I don’t even want them to mute me!

***

Facebook has become a place where I can mute people I care about, yet where I can never mute the advertisements immediately to the right of my feed. Because the versions of people I see on Facebook are so distorted, it’s no less meaningful to interact with strangers on Twitter. I can’t think of a sadder, or more conclusive, piece of evidence proving that Facebook has become a bad site.

I haven’t even gone into the severe problems with user privacy because I think you know about them, and I don’t think it’s necessary. The most political choice an average user can make is not sharing a column criticizing Rick Santorum; the most political act is getting the hell out of there.

Good luck, Mark Zuckerberg. You are making your initial public offering, but when it comes to sharing posts on your corrupted social network, this will be my last one.

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