Don’t delete your account because of #FakeNews, do it because it’s bad for you
I can’t be the only one.
Haven’t you ever shut your browser window, closed your app, put down your phone and thought, “I really liked people more when I knew less about them.”
Or, “That’s an hour (or five) of my life that I’ll never get back.”
Maybe you’ve started too many days suddenly in a funk after finding out your friends went to a movie and you weren’t invited, your sister posted an article equating your political affiliation with extreme moral turpitude, and you wasted five minutes scrolling past 45 bachelorette photos posted by a Facebook friend of your Facebook friend who you’ve never met — and you now hope you never will.
Despite Facebook’s soft-focus declarations of goodwill — they just want us to be more connected, guys — social science research has found that’s not the case. Facebook — and social media in general — often leaves its users feeling more isolated.
Our connections have become vastly broader, but significantly shallower, as online “friendships” take the place of face-to-face ones.
You’re not crazy, you’re being manipulated
It turns out, Facebook’s developers see this as a feature, not a bug. We may say we don’t like seeing everyone else’s likes and comments, or reading way too many political posts. But if that’s what keeps us coming back, scrolling down the endless timeline, that’s what we’re going to get.
Building community doesn’t put dollars in the bank — eyes on ads does. The more minutes we spend on Facebook, and consequently viewing its advertising, the more revenue they make. The more articles we ‘like,’ the more apps we install, the more information they have available to market.
They don’t just passively collect personal information on us, either. They have admitted to manipulating user timelines to study how it affects online behavior.
Most of us no longer believe the fiction that you can tailor your feed to see “more of the kinds of articles you want to see.” But knowing they actually control and deliberately alter what you see to see how you react is creepy.
Writing about the ways that social media influences our behavior, Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris warns that such technology often acts as a virtual “slot machine,” encouraging a psychological addiction.
If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.
Pulling down to refresh the timeline is the social media equivalent of pulling the slot machine lever, Harris argues. The intermittent gratification of finding new likes, mentions, or follows creates a feedback loop that encourages more use.
Your online pusher man
While all social media apps are guilty of this to some extent, Facebook has taken this to a new level, increasingly becoming the portal to how we interact with other people online and off.
Want to share photos of your kids with their grandparents? They expect to see them on Facebook. Find out about concerns and activities in your neighborhood? There’s an active Facebook group. Ditto for your kids’ school communications, your church’s, local restaurants, and those of your local social, hobby, and political groups. Facebook is largely how they communicate. Planning a birthday party or other celebration? Better send that evite through Facebook or most people won’t see it.
This would be concerning even if the platform were totally above-board about it’s practices and intentions. But it’s not.
For example, downloading and using Messenger (which Facebook requires you to do, if you want to send or see private messages on its mobile apps), leads to repeated entreaties to sync your phone contacts. As many users recently discovered — thanks to the furor over the Cambridge Analytica debacle — Facebook then accessed your private texts on your phone as well as logging your phone calls, who you called and how long you talked. To be clear, these are not Facebook app calls and messages. These were the personal phone calls and non-Messenger text messages of Android phone users.
We learned in one fell swoop that Cambridge Analytica got information that we didn’t know we gave to Facebook!
Didn’t they promise to change?
It turns out Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have a long history of getting caught doing sketchy things with user data, then swearing to “do better” without really changing at all. (Check out this handy timeline of all of Zuckerberg and Co. apologies.)
I think the only thing that will truly change their behavior is hitting them in the wallet. And that means ditching the platform.
Congressional hearings, public shaming — none of these have led to anything more than trite apologies and self-serving ads and surveys on your timeline that entreat you to understand that “fake news has no place” or “We care about your relationships.”
I still see users sharing “news stories” from clickbait sites that use five-year-old photos linked to unrelated current information and post it as news. And they maintain numerous data-sharing deals with companies all over the world, including China’s Huawei Technologies, which is under investigation by the United States government for intellectual property theft.
But this is really about me
I’ve thought about deleting Facebook on and off almost the entire time I’ve used the platform. It takes up too much time. I definitely recognize the “variable reward” effect that Tristan Harris warns about. It’s way too easy to keep jumping from post to post, discussion to discussion, group to group, cute cat meme to cat meme, without realizing what you are giving up in return.
After using Facebook, I’m left with a general feeling of having been busy, but without much to show for it.
I know that after I delete the app, I will have to work much harder to stay in touch with people who are far away or I don’t see daily, or even monthly. Inevitably, I will miss out on many good things in addition to the bad.
The other morning I signed on to Facebook to look for a post from a friend that I had seen earlier, but forgotten to go back and read. Instead, I was greeted with a pop-up survey from Facebook asking me if I thought it was “good for the world” or “good for society” or something like that, and wanted my response: yes or no. It was early and I had not had coffee. I clicked the X to close the pop-up. But that entreaty has stayed with me for awhile.
Do I think that Facebook on the whole is good for the world? The answer, for me, now, is no.