It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been on Facebook for nearly half my life. Of course, back in 2007 I wasn’t using Facebook nearly as much as I am today, which is a testament to the way the product has grown and how my needs have evolved.
With the recent backlash against Facebook, I became aware of the fact that you could download some interesting data that Facebook has been collecting on you over the years. I also realized I had been using Rescuetime, a tool that tracks the time spent on your computer, for the past four years. Instead of being appalled that all this data was being collected, I was actually excited that I could access and analyze my data.
Exploring My Facebook Data
First, looking at some external data, I queried Rescuetime to see how much time I spent on the social networking site. At my peak I had spent almost 175 hours (2015) and in the past four years had spent 419 hours total using Facebook (not counting mobile).
Looking at the actual Facebook data was mildly disappointing, mainly because the data wasn’t formatted in a way that was easily analyzable, instead its stored as an HTML file that allows users to explore their information through a web interface. Personally, I would’ve preferred a CSV file so that I could perform my own analysis on the data but regardless of the way the data is formatted, I was able to uncover some interesting things. First and foremost were the ad topics that targeted me, most if not all were fairly accurate which I assume was based off of which ads I clicked, pages I liked, and Facebook groups that I was part of, among other things.
Since I was given html files which were not conducive to analysis, I instead opted to run a few simple bash commands to count the number of files that Facebook had stored which helped me compile the following summary table:
It was clear that I’ve been fairly dependent for Facebook as my main tool of communication, just based off of the number of Facebook groups I’m part of and the conversations that I’ve had. Reflecting on it, I’ve realized the majority of my conversations happen on Messenger, as opposed to SMS. Even some of my phone calls are starting to take place on Messenger instead, which curiously Facebook has decided not to share with me when I downloaded my dataset.
When I have some time I may do some Natural Language Processing and sentiment analysis on my conversations to see how I come across in my conversations with people. It may even be interesting to train a bot that can talk like me and deploy that on my personal website.
Reflecting On My Usage
As I grew older and Facebook improved its product, so did my dependence on the platform. With the introduction of marketplaces, groups, messenger, third party authentication and logins, I became more and more dependent on the platform. If I wanted to buy a textbook I would go on Facebook. If I wanted to organize an event, I’d do it on Facebook. Communicating with students in my group for school projects, also took place entirely on Facebook.
Presently, the platform for me serves as a way to stay in touch with my friends, stay on top of notifications, and explore interesting groups I’m part of. This has led to a daily habit of checking Facebook, in order to stay on top of my messages and not come across as unresponsive.
This ingrained habit of checking Facebook every day is a combination of an implicit social contract to give timely responses, since I know what its like to be on the receiving end of unresponsiveness and also a fear of missing out on potentially important messages or notifications (Which is almost never the case). What was interesting as well was that Facebook started to give me notifications that I didn’t even want (i.e. This friend has posted in this group), a brilliant tactic to ensure that users are rewarded for visiting the website and continue ingraining the habit of checking Facebook daily.
Efforts to Curtail Usage
Over the past two to three years, I’ve grown aware of my own dependence on Facebook and the time I was spending on it was starting to trouble me. After my peak in 2015, I started implementing certain measures to minimize my usage, Chrome extensions like the newsfeed eradicator, which as the name implies removes the newsfeed when you use Chrome. I decided to also uninstall the Facebook application off of my phone, turn off notifications for Messenger, and installed an application called Feedless which removes the Facebook newsfeed on Safari.
Even as recent as 4 months ago I decided to purchase a Timed Lock Box, which I would lock my phone inside of, and have it unlock sometime in the early afternoon so I could avoid the temptation of checking my notifications when I woke up.
Tristan Harris, an ex-Google Ethicist, in this brilliant article, talks about the ways that technology companies are hijacking your brain. It’s a troubling trend that I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’m more than ever acutely aware of how my evolutionary programming leaves me vulnerable to be exploited by technology companies. Instead of designing products to be most useful for their users, most companies design products in a way that drives user metrics and keeps people hooked.
With all that said I recognize the immense benefit that Facebook has provided me. Without it, I wouldn’t have met many of my good friends, maintained relationships, or have had access to opportunities and information through the various groups I’m part of. However, reflecting on the data collected, and the trend of technology companies such as Facebook designing their products in a way that make them intricately addictive, I find myself more than ever questioning the potential cost of using the platform.
From this questioning arose a yearning to spend a summer exploring what the hidden costs of being plugged into Facebook have been. So after 11 years of being on Facebook, I’ve decided to take a short hiatus this summer as I start my data science internship in Los Angeles. More likely than not I’ll reactivate my account come September when I start my senior year, because its clear that the benefit of using Facebook (Especially in University) far outweighs any potential costs that I uncover. However, this summer will serve as an experiment to inform future choices I have concerning staying active on Facebook.
I’ll also be taking the opportunity to shift many of my behaviour patterns around communication and reachability. For instance, I’ll only be checking my emails every Wednesday and Sunday. More than anything I’d like to immerse myself in deep productive work, and enjoy my summer in Los Angeles free from any anxiousness over giving people timely responses. I’m excited to see what the results of this experiment are, so stay tuned as I’ll be doing a reflection piece at the end of the summer.