I joined Facebook on December 23rd 2006, three months after the platform was opened to the public. As a serial early adopter, I found myself in the familiar position of trying to convince everyone I knew to join this exciting new platform I'd discovered, resulting in a message board post that would look ridiculous within a matter of months: "is anyone on Facebook?"
A decade passed and hundreds of 'friends' were accumulated, and then one day I realised that I wanted nothing to do with any of it anymore. I don't know whether it was me or Facebook that changed, but here's my best attempt at a post-mortem.
Connection Not Found
Facebook markets itself as a way to stay connected with people, but what I started to experience was a growing sense of detachment from these people whose entire lives were laid out in front of me. We saw each other's photos, activities, holidays and achievements, but always from a distance, and if we ever crossed paths in public we would have been mutually appreciative if we both looked down and kept walking, avoiding an awkward conversation. After all, what would we even talk about? We already knew everything about each other.
This is not human connection; it's voyeurism.
Facebook and Instagram (which I won't really address separately because most points apply to both platforms) have reduced our social lives to passive observation rather than joyful participation, to the point that it might be considered odd for us to mention something in person if we've already posted about it online:
'I went backpacking around South America last month!'
'Yeah, I saw the photos'
'Oh yeah. Oh, by the way, I got engag...'
'Yeah, I saw the post'
Robin Dunbar estimates that the maximum number of people with whom one can maintain meaningful relationships is around 150, informally explaining the figure as "the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar". We're all different, but to me that number seems generous.
The effects of habitual social media usage are well documented: increased levels of depression, anxiety and perceived social isolation. Consciously or subconsciously, we all fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others, and regardless of whether the result of that comparison is a feeling or superiority or inferiority, it triggers a vicious cycle of one-upmanship and a constant need to show (or at least pretend) that our lives measure up to the competition. It inhibits our ability to enjoy the company of our friends, meals, events and experiences because it turns all of those things into commodities to exchange for social currency.
Social media has given us an unlimited source of dopamine in the form of refreshing our feeds. The pull-to-refresh and infinite scrolling mechanisms turn our phones into portable slot machines: you pull the lever and immediately receive either a reward (a Like, a new message, more content to consume) or nothing. It's not the reward itself that keeps us coming back, but the anticipatory excitement of checking if there'll be a reward.
Do you ever get to the 'end' of your feed and close the app, only to open it again immediately before you even realise what you're doing? Or have you ever experienced 'phantom notifications' where you think your phone has vibrated when it hasn't?
Let's call this what it is: addiction.
The most important thing to understand about Facebook is that its entire business model is based on exploiting our privacy by collecting as much data about us as possible. It does this by recording and analysing every keystroke (even for messages we don't post), every conversation we have through Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, who we spend time with, the emails and phone numbers of every person in our contact list, where we live, where we go and every website we visit, even when we're not on Facebook.
Facebook's customers are advertisers, and our data is the product. If Mark Zuckerberg had a change of heart and decided that Facebook would start respecting our privacy, the company's value would tank overnight because it literally has no other product to offer.
"There is no invasion of privacy at all, because there is no privacy,"
- Facebook lawyer Orin Snyder
If our private data is Facebook's only product and the company is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, doesn't that tell us that our privacy is valuable? Why then do we treat it as if it's worthless? Are we really so easily bought that we're willing to exchange one of our human rights for the privilege of using a platform that makes us depressed, isolated and addicted?
- 'I'd rather get relevant ads than irrelevant ones, so they're doing me a service'.
This is not just about ads. Facebook collects massive amounts of private information beyond what we willingly share, aggregating it with data collected from other brokers around the world to determine our race, mental and physical health conditions, menstrual cycle, disabilities, socio-economic status, credit rating, political views and about 100 other data points.
All of this data is not kept within Facebook, but shared with international governments. Edward Snowden's 2013 leaks revealed the company's participation in the NSA's PRISM program, which collects and shares data on citizens in the 14 Eyes surveillance partnership (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Spain).
The question to ask is not 'do I mind personalised ads?', but 'is all of this information any of Facebook and the government's business?'
Targeted advertising is not just about showing you products you might be interested in buying. Should a private company that sells demographic targeting information be allowed to aggregate the kind of data the enables advertisers to charge higher pricers to Apple users than Windows and Android users, or hide residental ads from people based on race, gender, religion and disabilities?
- 'It's too late to do anything about it. They already know everything about me'.
Not using Facebook products gives the company less data, meaning less money and power. The network effect tells us that the only thing that gives Facebook its value and influence is the number of people who use it. A lot of us are on Facebook not because we enjoy it or it adds value to our lives, but because everyone else is on it. By deleting your account you reduce that influence and free other people to do the same.
- 'I barely even look at Facebook or post anything. I just use it for events and to chat with my friends on Messenger'.
- 'The only Facebook service I use is WhatsApp'.
Again, the network effect. You're still serving as a value asset for the company because your presence on their platforms makes it harder for your friends to stop using them.
Why does everyone use WhatsApp? Because it respects our privacy? Because its feature set is superior to other messaging apps? Because being limited to a single device and having a desktop/web app that depends on your phone's internet connection is sane and acceptable in 2019? No, everyone uses WhatsApp because everyone else uses WhatsApp.
- 'All of my social circle's events are organised on Facebook'.
If you don't get invited to an event just because you're not on Facebook, does that sound like the kind of event you want to go to? If your friend doesn't invite you to/tell you about an event because your name didn't appear in the list of checkboxes, is that person really a friend, or just a Facebook 'connection'? And again, continuing to host events on Facebook perpetuates... you guessed it... the network effect.
- 'I don't care if they know about the mundane conversations I have with my friends or what I had for breakfast'.
The 'nothing to hide' argument is the most common rebuttal to privacy concerns, yet completely nonsensical. You can read my post about it here.
- 'You consented to all of this when you clicked "I Agree"'.
This is another issue I'm planning to write about.
Facebook isn't worth hundreds of billions of dollars because we post status updates and photos to it. That's not monetisable. I wrote above that Facebook's only product is our data, but to add some nuance to that, what's Facebook monetises is the ability to modify our behaviour based on that data.
Facebook can not only infer our emotions based on what it knows about us, it can also manipulate them. The company faced massive backlash after revealing an experiment in which it tailored the news feeds of 689,000 users to determine whether it could make them feel happier or sadder.
If Facebook can make us feel happier and sadder, could it not just as easily make us feel insecure, depressed, anxious or angry, and therefore more likely to develop certain beliefs or engage in certain behaviours?
It was already known that Facebook's algorithms can predict with a high degree of certainty which political parties a person is likely to vote for, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that it also had the power to manipulate their votes.
The forced adoption of the algorithmic news feed in place of the chronological version has put Facebook in complete control over what we see, and therefore what we think and feel, and how we perceive certain groups of people and political/societal issues. It puts us in a filter bubble, confirming our existing biases and closing our minds to anything outside our own personal echo chambers.
Given Facebook's track record and what we know about its effects, I wouldn't consider it hyperbolic to label it the worst thing that's ever happened to the internet. Considering the one-dimensional business model the company has cornered itself into, even strict regulation will only accomplish so much.
Over the past 13 years, the model of 'free' services funded by advertising and data collection has been thoroughly tested on a global scale, and the behaviours incentivised by such a business model are abusive to individuals and damaging to society.
I'm not convinced that Facebook can be fixed. It needs to be replaced.
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More Fun Resources
- How to delete your Facebook account
- Privacy International | Facebook's Corporate Abuse Timeline
- Facebook reportedly thinks there's no 'expectation of privacy' on social media
- Business Insider | Facebook lobbied against Australian privacy regulations
- The Register | Facebook admits it does track non-users, for their own good
- Twitter | Facebook blocks the "Why am I seeing this advert?" feature if you use it on too many sponsored posts
- Business Insider | Facebook says it 'unintentionally uploaded' 1.5 million people's email contacts without their consent
- TechCrunch | Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them
- The Guardian | Revealed: Facebook's global lobbying against data privacy laws
- The Guardian | Facebook faces backlash over users' safety phone numbers
- Gizmodo | How Facebook figures out everyone you've ever met
- Ponderwall | Facebook wants to combat fake news with ID checks - with grave implications for privacy
- Forbes | WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton gives the inside story on #DeleteFacebook and why he left $850 million behind
- NYTimes | As Facebook raised a privacy wall, it carved an opening for tech giants
- Facebook admits it stored ‘hundreds of millions’ of account passwords in plaintext
- Facebook stored millions of Instagram passwords in plain text