On Leaving Facebook

I originally wrote this in 2014 when I deleted my facebook account. However, when I left I just ghosted from the platform and left no trace. I had intended to publish this afterwards but life moves on (as it does) and I never got around to it. Recent events reminded me of these words, and I went back to reread what I had written back then. I’ve edited it slightly to rearrange some paragraphs and clean a few items up, but the text that follows is largely intact from my original 2014 screed.

At some point in the past seven years [ed: 2007–2014] I noticed that Facebook is a long-form performance in which we really are each others’ audience inside a gilded cage. But OK, I figured, Shakespeare figured part of that out a few centuries ago, even if it was Neal Peart’s paraphrase that introduced me to the idea. Then I noticed something else. While there were many many words being written, very few ideas were being transferred between the brains behind the fingers and the brains behind the eyes. The communication was dominated by the reposts if you agree, the pictures with words, or the which color is your kitchen sponge? quiz results. Plus game spam, product spam, and spam eggs sausage and spam (which hasn’t got much spam in it).

In the fall of 2013, after yet another Facebook app update on my Android phone wanted to continue its inexorable permission creep toward its goal of siphoning off every last bit of information it can get from me, I deleted the app from my phone.

When I got an iPhone for Christmas that year, I didn’t bother installing the Facebook app. This was even though IOS does a much better job at handling permissions at runtime than Android with its “You will give us the permissions we want or no app for you!” policy.

By that point I realized that I wasn’t as compelled to check just to see if anything was happening only to spend the next few minutes scrolling mindlessly before realizing I was reading stuff I had already seen. Yet I was still logged in on my computer at home, and would usually drop in in the evening while the kids were getting ready for bed and see what news the day had brought from my Facebook cohort. It had the advantage of getting through the day’s feed in one sitting, but often I was leaving a child waiting for a bedtime story just to finish my scrolling.

In March 2014, I changed my Facebook password to a long random string which I stored in my Mac keychain. Then I logged out. Two weeks later I logged back in to see what had bubbled up to the top of the algorithmically curated heap. What I found were more pictures with words either trying to inspire me or make me feel guilty or show piety or express some sort of righteous indignation or another. A few banal comments.

So today I’m writing this to capture my reasons for why I have cut the Facebook cord.

  • Agent-based models of thoughtfulness are not thoughtfulness: Receiving birthday greetings because somebody actually remembered it and took the time to express warm wishes: Welcome. Receiving birthday greetings because a computer popped up a prompt for you to enter some text. Meh.
  • Politics, religion and polite conversation are antithetical for a reason: Turns out, I don’t care about your religion or your politics. The more I know about them, the more opportunities I have to find something to dislike. I’m fine with having conversations about such things, in fact I quite enjoy the discussion. But when the topic comes up in a post it’s almost always because somebody is signaling how right they are while simultaneously pointing out how stupid they think the holders of opposing views are. That’s not a conversation, that’s pandering.
  • Like and share if you agree. Like us on facebook. Why would I do that? What’s the value proposition to me? Yes, of course, it’s valuable to YOU, marketer dude, you measure success in units of likes or eyeballs or whatever. But what’s in it for ME? More noise. Sorry, that’s heading in the wrong direction.
  • Friend is not a verb. To call you friend, I have to not only know OF you, I have to know something ABOUT you and actually find it to be more good than bad. Friend isn’t an action I do to you, it something you are to me.
  • Social media conversations have a thin patina of authenticity. I’m fundamentally dissatisfied with the quality of the interactions I’ve had with the people I actually do want to hear from. But it’s not you, it’s us. All of us. We’re acting as if this is conversation, but it’s really not. It’s chit chat. It’s posturing. It’s signalling. It’s advertising. But it’s not going anywhere. It’s not deep conversations on topics of significance. It’s not even Readers’ Digest articles. It’s the jokes page in Readers’ Digest — where you can jump in, read a few lines, and jump out in the time it takes you to use the restroom. Yeah, we all know you do that.

I am not saying that I’m disappointed at how shallow we turned out to be, because I know that just isn’t true. What I’m disappointed in is how shallow this mode of interaction turned out to be. It’s fine for triggering Pavlovian reactions — that little squirt of dopamine (or is it serotonin?) in your brain when you have a notification waiting. The problem is that it’s not telling you that somebody just figured out how they’re going to be a better person. It’s telling you that they clicked a button to indicate their vague approval for the kitten picture you just posted.

Amazing stories are happening in your life every day. People suffer. People strive. People overcome. People succeed. People have epiphanies. People become just a little more enlightened. They discover things they didn’t know. They learn. They love. Relationships start. Relationships end. People are born. People die. Yet our communication about such things is reduced to “21 people like this”, and “Sorry for your loss.” Four words? Somebody just lost a loved one and you’re down to typing four words? Does this seem adequate to you? It doesn’t to me.

Time is the least renewable resource we have. Attention is the way we spend it. And spend it we must — the only choice we have is whether to invest wisely or not. I don’t want to have penny candy relationships…the sweet and the sour lasts for but a moment and all you’re left with is the feeling that you need to brush your teeth. I’d much rather have an interesting conversation. Share a meal. Have a drink. Visit in person. Catch up with you. This…this is a distraction.

I’m glad that you’re happy. I’m happy that you have kids, and you love them, and take pictures of them. In fact, I’d love to meet your kids, and have them running around making noise and chasing lightning bugs with my kids while we have a beer and burgers on a warm summer evening.

For everything I’ve posted on facebook, there have been any number of things I’ve held back. What made it were mostly the satirical jabs, the jokes. And occasionally the moral lessons. But you mostly haven’t heard of the times I was sad, or upset, or frustrated, or angry, or scared, or thrilled, or excited, or totally geeked out over something. Because those are things I am not likely to type about and post. I share them with people I converse with (with my voice, just to clarify), but they’ll mostly remain undocumented. So whatever you think of me based on my facebook persona, it’s not a true reflection of who I am or who I aspire to be.

And that, in a nutshell, is THE problem. Because if this is true of me, I must also infer that it is likely true of you. There are things, many things, about which you will not type, yet those are the things upon which friendships are built.

You’re an interesting person. Your facebook feed isn’t. There’s the one that’s always being witty. The one who passes along inspirational quotes. The one who’s praying for somebody. The one who likes Fox News and wants you to know it. The one who hates Fox News and wants you to know it. The worrier. The complainer. The late bloomer who wants you to know how cool he is now. The one who can’t be bothered to learn how to spell or use punctuation. The one with all the pictures of food. The one who can only communicate in pictures with words on them. The one who likes Star Trek a little too much. The one who just figured out that its okay to be who they are in public. The one who comments on porn star pages and doesn’t have their privacy settings set to keep you from knowing about it. The one who posts just for the likes to assuage their insecurity. The one who is sick of the snow. The one who is sick of the heat. The one who misses the snow. The one who wants it to stop raining. The one who’s always posting from the bar. The one who thinks their ideas are so important that you must hear about every single one. The one who’s trying to get you to sign up for a scam. The one who’s trying to warn you of a scam. The one who wishes you’d realize that Snopes exists for a reason. The one who has a chip on their shoulder against the police, the government, the church, god, gay people, poor people, rich people, celebrities, republicans, democrats, foreigners, atheists, or anybody who’s not like them. The one who’s holier than thou. The righteously indignant. Oh, the humanity.

It’s not all been bad, for certain. I have witnessed and participated in some interesting conversations, and seen more than one family helped by the tremendous generosity emanating from an ad hoc community formed around some personal tragedy — yet I am not referring to endless “prayers going up” replies: Empty words that make their utterer feel better while providing little in the way of material assistance to those in need. Hands that help may be better than lips that pray. But I’d take the praying lips over three typed words.

Since our time is finite, time spent doing thing A is time spent not doing thing B. Sadly it really is a zero sum game. So time spent maintaining shallow projections of our persona — creating our eponymous marketing brand — is time we cannot spend forming meaningful experiences, relationships, or memories with those around us.

So this is my challenge to you. Start conversations — not comment threads. Express empathy — don’t just click ‘like’. Argue back. Nurture the interesting relationships. Feed them. Strengthen them. Meet up with somebody and break bread together.

Turn up the signal. Turn down the noise. Delete your account.