Why I'm Leaving Facebook

  

I’m getting ready to quit Facebook and generally pull back from social media. I wanted to articulate that in one place so that I could refer anyone wondering “why?” to my definitive answer to that question. 

My reasons for this are complicated and are expanded on below, but I know that most people (and this is part of the problem) only like to read a tiny bit of text before forming strong opinions. It’s almost as if they already had their opinions are just using the posts on social media to rage-surf. 

So, for those who love brevity, here are the TLDR reasons I’m leaving Facebook (and most of Social Media):

  • It is addictive without substantive reward
  • The application interfaces are terrible and only serve the platform, not the user
  • The concentrated engagement of attention and time on social media are destructive to cooperation and unity
  • The platforms are rife with bots and agents that seek to divide us
  • The platforms create the illusion of accomplishment
  • The platforms lure content creators with the promise of “audience” but then want to charge for it, effectively making engagement an extortion racket
  • By encouraging and rewarding our basest instincts, the platforms promote incivility, divisiveness, and tribalism
  • The owners of these platforms are not taking responsibility for their behavior or their platforms
  • The platforms concentrate content and embed it without giving any reward back to the content creators. This has helped undermine the already struggling world of journalism, especially local papers. 
  • Social-Media is breaking the usefulness of the Internet by trying to keep everyone in a walled-museum where unseen hands control all the exhibits.  Facebook buys up “competition” and folds other platforms into their ecosystem. 
  • Facebook’s handling of its user’s data has bordered on criminally negligent

Ok – if you’re in the 30-second attention span crowd, you can go. I’m not posting this to try to convince anybody to join me. I’m just annoyed and want to articulate why.

The main reason I joined Facebook was to chat and “play” with my friends. Facebook has an algorithm, an invisible agent that works to decide what you see and who sees you. I have more than a hundred real-life friends on Facebook. Because of this stupid algorithm, I only see 10 to 15 people’s posts. 

There is a button that lets you change from “Top Stories” (the Facebook bot-controlled fascist view) to the “Most Recent” (theoretically, the “real-time” look at your friend’s feed). Nearly all of my friends want the Most Recent, but we all get reset to Top Stories. Why? It doesn’t really matter why. I assume it’s because it’s easier to control the ad flow if the algorithm dictates your view, but from a user-experience perspective, this is the same as having a Word Processor that intermittently changes your fonts to COMIC SANS throughout the day no matter what setting you pick.

Facebook encourages creative people to build Facebook Groups. Recently I started one for my podcast In reSearch Of and immediately began to get spammed with notices that “more people could see your post if you ran an ad.”

This is insidious. Facebook has effectively cornered about 1/7 of the Earth’s population as users and much of the alleged usefulness of the platform is the prospect that creators can build communities around their creations. But the content within that group is managed by the algorithm and it is impossible to tell who is or isn’t seeing the content you post. Facebook can effectively hide your posts and then – for a fee – show your work to some of its members. 

Imagine renting a store-space in the mall and then the owners can force traffic to bypass your shop unless you pay them additional fees. This is extortion and wouldn’t be allowed in the physical world. But people will put up with a lot of bullshit online. 

Not only is Facebook killing journalism through its business practices, but it routinely promotes bullshit propaganda alternatives to factual news sources. The most charitable thing I could make of that is that Facebook prefers profitability from its ads to considering any possible negative consequences of people gaming its platform to influence elections, outrage, social unrest, etc.…

Given these user experience and social impact problems, quitting the platform seems easily justified. But that’s not all. I think what is more of an affront to me is how time spent on Facebook sucks the oxygen from the creative space. Like cigarette companies, Facebook exists because they’ve designed their platform to be addictive. Personally, I don’t like being addicted to stuff that doesn’t actually improve my life substantively. (Keep my relationship with coffee out of this.)

I grew up entranced by personal computers and technology and the promise that they offered to humanity. For several years I’ve been researching and preparing to write a book on technology and part of that research included revisiting the history of modern digital computing and how the Internet came to exist. 

One lengthy but enjoyable read was The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop. The book is one of the most thorough looks at the rise of digital computing through its original conception to development of the Internet. It uses the vision and work of J.C.R. Licklider as a thread tying all the various innovation and development together. More than a decade before the rest of us would see it, Xerox’s PARC facility had developed computing with a GUI, mice, laser printers, email, and networking. Licklider had the vision to see where this could all go, if properly shepherded. He could see it back in 1960. 

In the mid 1990s I had my first experience with the Internet. Let me clarify something – when I say the Internet, I mean more than the websites that comprise the World Wide Web. Before we could get to this web of content, we first had to have an interconnected infrastructure of machines (computers, phones, tablets) and we also needed server and network infrastructure to host it. We needed content to go see. Blah blah blah. 

In the 1990s I also was an early user of Google as a search engine. I still remember the quaint experience of using AltaVista and Yahoo to find web content. The early promise of Google was that it could provide fast and relevant search results. That’s still there, I suppose – but there is a degree of content curation behind Google (and other) search algorithms that means we can’t know with a high degree of certitude whether the pages we find are the best and most accurate content. 

Before 2009, the most fun I had on the Internet was hanging out in various forums. A new website for a topic of interest would usually include a user forum where people interested in the same topic could collaborate. This might be purely social, or they could address technical or social challenges. The upside of this was that, trolls aside, the community was bound together by a common interest in whatever the site topic was. You can still see something kind of like this on Reddit. In a sense, Reddit provided a more web-friendly version of what Usenet used to be in the 90s – a common landing site where you could freely collaborate and communicate with others interested in a topic. 

What was the potential of the Internet that Licklider saw back in 1960?

It encompassed a few key concepts:

Collaboration – This one is huge. The ability for people to find each other, collaborate and share ideas is a vital function of the Internet. Web forums, email, groupware and various other tools make this possible.

Improved Research – Licklider didn’t foresee Wikipedia but the idea of online, easy to search archives predates the computer. He knew data would be copied, shared and searched. 

New Modes of Self-Expression – again, the awareness that new kinds of art and music would come out of something as seemingly “dull” as computer science was part of his vision.

There were other things like improved scheduling of events, online virtual assistants, file sharing, calendar sharing, etc.

I’m an enormous enthusiast for the potential of human beings to work together and accomplish things. Never in human history have so many people had so much information in their immediate grasp.

I’m often reminded that the phones most of us carry are more powerful than super-computers of a few decades ago. Back when such power was scarce, people spent millions of dollars for access to test out their ideas on extremely difficult-to-program hardware. Today, with that super-computer in their pocket, what are most of us doing with it?

Let’s go to a web forum circa 2004. Maybe you just read The DaVinci Code and want to know more about the puzzles and mystery behind the best-selling book. You do a google search and find a website devoted to the book. You sign up for the forums. You hop in and read some posts and – surprise! – it turns out nobody has made your fascinating point or answered your amazing question. So, you write up a new post and submit it. Now you wait.

By default, visitors are alerted to the new post. People respond to the post and all the comments and feedback show up under the original question, threaded such that responses to other responses are nested and contextually sensible.  The forum would include a search feature. As new posts eventually push down the question under a stream of new stuff, it still lies there easy to find chronologically or through search. Admins might have the power to pin or “awaken” a post so that the old content can be promoted. But this is all being done by humans with, one assumes, generally an attitude of usefulness in mind. The platform (again, trolls aside) is built to foster community. Whether the people within the community behave in a fashion that produces kinship and tribal affinity is another matter.

Here Comes Social Media

Something went wrong. 

The field of study known as behavioral economics has done much to undermine the myth that people are rational decision makers.  Surprise! We aren’t. We’re constantly being tempted by our basest desires and it takes deliberate effort to rise above those distractions and do more and better with our time and resources.

The platforms we call “Social Media” have been engineered to appeal to our most primitive reward system. Our brains give us little chemical treats when we comment, post, and engage with these tools. They are very similar to a slot machine in Vegas, tooled to one goal: Make the user keep using.

Look at what happens with the lofty vision of the Internet as a tool for transforming our ability to collaborate when viewed through the filter of Social Media sites:

Collaboration - Who controls what you see? Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve come up with a fantastic idea for how to fix a local issue. Maybe your town has a presence on Facebook or maybe you just use your own feed and you post your idea.

Was your idea longer than a brief paragraph? First things first, Facebook hides most of what you right and people have to click on “more” to see it. Not that it matters, because 90% of the people who are allowed to see your post by “THE ALGORITHM” will never bother to click to read the whole post. If they are your friend, they might gaze at your post briefly and give you a “pity Like” click.

Likes. Ugh. That Facebook only allows you to click a “Like” button may seem like the engagement equivalent of a 1-button mouse, but surely that’s a design choice so that everybody has to constantly “like” things even to hate them? It is an erosion of your ability to express yourself, and that’s as openly on-brand as anything in Facebook.

But it’s worse. Most people will never see your post AT ALL. Facebook curates the feed and it is nigh impossible to keep the feed showing “latest posts” before the site flips back to the curated view. 

Imagine having a car that tuned the radio to its own preferences. You turn it to what you want to hear and within 15 mins it changes it back to its own preferred station. Imagine calling to complain and being told that you should just listen to what the car prefers because the algorithm is super-duper smart. How long would you keep that radio? Because Facebook is that radio and it really thinks you need to listen to what it wants you to hear.

Now, let’s say you’ve won the Facebook lottery and somehow your post is getting attention. Your goal was to collaborate on this community problem and what you’ll notice is that nearly everyone is posting as though all the other people who have responded don’t exist. This is the behavior Facebook apparently wants. It constantly hides people’s responses so that you get the same answers again and again, and people snipe at each other because “I ALREADY SAID THAT!” 

How is that fostering community? How is that helping anybody but Facebook? Why do we put up with it?

But what REALLY gets me is that Facebook lets you build pages and groups to find like-minded people… and then hides the page with the Algorithm unless you pay them to reach more people. So basically, it’s:

1. We have all the people! If you want to reach the people, you have to use Facebook!

2. You can build a group to reach all the people! We have all the people!

3. Ah – you’ve built a group. Did you know hardly anybody can see this thing? Amazingly, for just a few bucks we could allow several hundred people to see your content fly by in their stream. Would be a shame to build this and then not pay us to let folks see it…

Research – Facebook and Twitter have the worst search engines possible for trying to extract useful information. They are built of ephemera. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way, but they’ve constructed their systems to wash by like a river rather than to be a museum or monument. You can use parts of them fairly well for messaging but not even remotely as effectively as a static website or an email chain.

They’ve deliberately engineered their platforms to expect your ideas to disappear. Why do we bother? I have a theory on that. I think it’s the social-media lottery theory. They get us all to play by reminding us that occasionally a post could go viral. COULD go viral. If they let it. Which they won’t. 

Enough people win this viral lottery every day that it becomes part of the availability heuristic leading us to believe that anybody could get virality. 

But to what end?

Why do we waste so much effort in writing stuff that most people will never be able to see organically, and never be able to uncover archivally? We’ve been tricked just like lottery ticket buyers are tricked. “You can’t win if you don’t play!”
 

True – but you can’t lose if you don’t play either.

Self Expression? – I’m going to dip into the vulgar here. I think the generative process of making websites, articles, art, etc… is useful and creative. It’s the same creative wellspring from which we get great accomplishments of humanity – that same desire to build something.

But if you build in a platform like Facebook – a platform where you don’t own the content and can’t control who gets to see it – you’re not making babies, you’re masturbating. 

Masturbation is fun but it’s no way to build a legacy. 

I think Facebook and Twitter have convinced billions of us to stop working and just masturbate. Personally, I can’t do it anymore. I want to leave something behind when I’m gone, some echo of the person that I was, with the hope that such remnants might be of use to others. That won’t happen on Social Media. 

Conclusion

I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do. In fact, more the opposite. I’m tired of other people – invisible string-pullers – telling me what to do and controlling what I see.

I’m not asking anyone to join me in this step. I think there are plenty of legitimate political and social reasons to be concerned about social media, and we should all probably be more concerned with how these platforms are managed. They are filled with malicious bots and users trying to steer political and commercial outcomes. They are full of lies and are run by companies that are absolutely compromised by their need for revenue being greater than their need to be ethical or accurate. 

I’m indignant at the loss of time and effort. I’m bothered that the platform has never been an honest partner in fostering communication. That’s not their business model. 

Their business model is making YOU believe you’re doing something useful, and then selling you stuff. Any election losses or privacy violations along the way is incidental to making sure Facebook gets a dollar out of every illegal Chinese knock-off hoodie with Bigfoot on it, or whatever bullshit ads they're showing you. 

I’m out. Can’t do it anymore. I’m deleting my Facebook account soon. I’ve handed over my Twitter account to my wife. 

I’m going to rely on our Patreon page for comments and community. You can reach me here where I know that the things I post will actually show up and be seen by people who share the same interest.

When a platform has a billion users it isn’t merely a software application anymore. Facebook is a virtual city-state, one in which you cannot own property and in which all that you create belongs to the state. Getting on Facebook and complaining about socialism is laughable. At best Facebook might have been a benevolent dictatorship, but their previous actions have shown that benevolence is not in their DNA. Like the concept of “free will” any freedom you experience on Facebook is illusory at best. I’ve seen and choose to reject the man behind the curtain. I’m walking away from Omelas.

What about the MonsterTalk Facebook page?

There is a vibrant and fun group of people in the MonsterTalk Facebook group. Karen set that page up and I expect she will continue to administer it. I hope it continues to be a fun oasis in the cultural desert of Facebook.

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