Why I quit Facebook
I went all in, and then I quit
It all started with unfulfilled expectations: the 7 Ways To Be Insufferable On Facebook seemingly promised a Buzzfeed-like list from which I’d quickly move on, instead I found myself looking in the mirror reevaluating my use of social media. According to the article (the whole piece is worth a read) Facebook statuses are divided into two categories: unannoying and annoying. The former are statuses that do something for the reader by being either interesting/informative or funny/amusing/entertaining; the latter, serve primarily their authors and reek of image crafting, narcissism, attention craving, jealousy inducing and loneliness. Facebook, the article declares, is infested with these last five motivations and looking at my Feed and my very own posts, I couldn’t disagree.
But while the article only went as far as laying out the most egregious offenses, I will argue that the very nature of Facebook’s Feed ensures a prevalence of annoying statuses leaving users with degraded social interactions, increased unhappiness and a sense of self and personhood reduced to their digital representation; their likes, comments, photos, all of which used to sell advertisements.
This should leave us no other choice but to reject the prison nightmare of “friend” feeds with their easy broadcasting and passive consumption that aim at nothing other than themselves.
If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.—Montesquieu
Man is by nature a social animal and as such seeks connections with others; consequently, not only are we curious of what others are doing and saying but we also crave their attention and recognition. Facebook exploits this weakness of human nature by effectively turning its Feed and notification system into a dopamine delivery system that drip by drip dispenses and attracts acknowledgment.
The Feed requires minimal effort to engage with (quick like here, short comment there), its broadcasting offers maximal reach and the freshness of its content and the chance of receiving a new notification makes it addictive; something to wake up to, go to bed to, consume throughout the day and reach for when you don’t know what to do.
Because it’s quickly scrollable and often consumed on mobile devices, anything that’s not effortlessly digestible (longer posts are in fact automatically contracted and have to be explicitly expanded) struggles to compete with the short updates and photos that amplify achievements, success, wealth and showcase the most witty, joyous, bulleted versions of people’s lives, imprisoning users in the business of image-crafting and self-presenting. As an article in Slate put it:
Facebook is, after all, characterized by the very public curation of one’s assets in the form of friends, photos, biographical data, accomplishments, pithy observations, even the books we say we like. Look, we have baked beautiful cookies. We are playing with a new puppy. We are smiling in pictures (or, if we are moody, we are artfully moody.) Blandness will not do, and with some exceptions, sad stuff doesn’t make the cut, either. The site’s very design—the presence of a “Like” button, without a corresponding “Hate” button—reinforces a kind of upbeat spin doctoring. (No one will “Like” your update that the new puppy died, but they may “Like” your report that the little guy was brave up until the end.)
And nothing is as carefully vetted and curated as the pictures we post of ourselves. See what I’m doing, see who I’m with, see where I am, see how I look. Anything short of flattering doesn’t make the cut or gets untagged. This self-curation reaches farcical proportions on Instagram—Facebook’s distilled version of itself—where after having spent some time carefully curating and filtering our images, we spend even more time viewing other people’s carefully curated and filtered images. With this endless viewing comes endless comparison with our peers and with it the distorting effect of making us perceive that others are living happier, more meaningful lives, creating an alienating (from others and from ourselves) online world that is disjointed from reality.
Revealingly, several studies have found that Facebook makes people sad, eliciting feelings of envy (the most common emotion), anxiety, loneliness and even anger. To many, these conclusions might seem far-fetched or exaggerated—I had certainly paid them no heed—but rather than dismissing them out of hand maybe we should understand them to mean that using Facebook is akin to consuming empty calories; you know, the calories from fat and sugar that won’t make you sad as you consume them, will even satisfy hunger and give you a temporary high, but will provide you with no or few nutrients and leave you feeling down and sluggish afterward.
We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the internet.—Sean Parker, The Social Network
While these studies could still be taken with a grain of salt, few would dispute that Facebook’s usage has negatively impacted real life interactions by helping erode our attention-span as well as our ability to ever be fully present in the moment.
A YouTube video showing the dystopian day of a woman being ignored by her friends because they’re too busy on their phones, was recently discussed in a Times story. “Don’t click on it” a friend had implored the author “it’ll make you sad”; the underlying message being, it’ll make you sad because it’s true. As the author notes:
The video makes for some discomfiting viewing. It’s a direct hit on our smartphone-obsessed culture, needling us about our addiction to that little screen and suggesting that maybe life is just better led when it is lived rather than viewed.
Indeed, in perhaps the most emblematic scene we’re reminded how people used to hold up lighters at concerts, rocking them to the beats and the sounds of the melodies, but now they hold up phones and experience the music through the four inch screen steadfastly held above their head.
We live in a world where “every experience is being mediated and conceived around how it can be captured and augmented by our devices”; today, Facebook users have uploaded over a quarter of a trillion photos to the site and it currently averages close to 250,000 photo uploads per minute. These numbers seem to beg the questions whether any experience can be had without it being evaluated for its Facebook status potential and whether no social event can be complete without the obligatory post and picture about it.
They also prompt us to ask: What happens when we are looking at life through a camera, when we are reducing ourselves, our characters, our dispositions, our hopes, our fears, our friendships, our private moments to a set of pictures forever emblazoned on a server? Surely everything shrinks, everything flattens and we become more spectators and less actors of our lives.
The great irony of course, is that the constant taking, posting and viewing of photos, the checking for likes, hearts and comments, at dinner or out with friends is an isolating process; the tool selected to stay connected becomes the weapon reinforcing the feeling of being “alone together”; what binds people together—tagged posts, tagged photos, check-ins—are the very same things that maintains their isolation. We know all of this instinctively, we feel it, so much so that to enjoy dinner we now resort to such tricks and life-hacks as playing “Phone Stack” —stack up all the phone in the middle of the table, and whoever reaches for theirs before the end of the meal is responsible for the bill.
The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.—Guy Debord
Speaking of bills, we are too quick to forget that it’s advertisers who pick up Facebook’s checks; to them, we are not the people smiling in our pictures, yet alone people with bodies and messy feelings, we are our willingness to buy, a set of database entries to be targeted for advertisement. And while it’s true that the Internet runs on advertisement, the commodification of the most intimate parts of our lives, in other words the selling back to us of our personal lives, is something that really ought to give us pause; particularly because what’s so unique about it, is its capacity to enlist us as its unwitting participants.
That capacity is what Facebook is most keen to exploit as it seeks to monetize the Feed by placing unobtrusive ads within it—something it must do if it wants to make money off of its mobile device users. Already, Facebook uses the names and images of its users to endorse products in its “sponsored stories,” it has also changed its search settings to make it harder for users to hide from others so that personal information can more broadly be shown in search results, and it has started offering free Wi-Fi at participating locations with the only caveat that users must check-in first, which generates a News Feed story, gets them added to the business’s Facebook page and leads to their anonymized demographic info to be passed on to the merchant. It bears pointing out that all of this is also happening in a much more insidious manner: as users sell an image of themselves, they demonstrate their adhesion to the dominant cultural values and convey to their peers what they need, what to wear, what to have, where to eat, what to do, in effect recycling the ads they’ve seen back into the Feed.
The collation of social and commerce with ads being virtually indistinguishable from social interactions, and social interactions virtually indistinguishable from ads has the effect of moving social life further away from an authentic relation between people, to a relation between people’s images and the goods and services they consume. Writing this post I was reminded of The Society of the Spectacle, a manifesto by Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist in which he proclaimed that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” and argued that relations between commodities had supplanted relations between people, a development he traced to the state of “being” having declined into “having” and “having” into “appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.” He called this condition “the spectacle” and warned that its danger was that “the more the [spectator] contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.”
Perhaps the most uncanny part of Debord’s work is not how much truth these theses hold but rather how much they’ve grown in truth since he made them in 1967.
Quitting Facebook is cool, but, like popping your collar or wearing a fedora, you’ll probably look ridiculous to all but a select group.—The Huffington Post
When I joined Facebook in 2004 it served as an incredibly useful address book; at first exclusively of my friends in college, then as it expanded to other universities, also of the people I’d gone to high school with and finally as it opened up to the world, of anybody that I had lost track of due to time or distance. Connection was the goal, and not only did it feel good, it held the promise of real life socializing. When Facebook introduced the Feed and became the largest online photo host however, the site’s address book functionality took a back seat to the collective showcasing of our respectively wonderful lives with posts and photos intended for the people we don’t actually hang out with. One might argue that that’s the point, to keep in touch with the people who are far away, but now that we’re all fully connected keeping in touch shouldn’t boil down to online conversations and interactions revolving around images and photos when we can do something so much more personal and effective like email, chat, Skype or call. In fact what I found was that being connected on Facebook and knowing just enough of what’s going on in another person’s life leaves you with little motivation to reach for more.
Before calling it quits, I was a daily active user, had amassed over 1200 friends, was generous with my likes and comments and could attract a fair deal of activity on my posts; and yet giving it all up for good proved to be remarkably easy. I started by deleting the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone and tablet, and a few days later, without warning or goodbye, I found myself clicking on the deactivation link in my settings page. I was redirected to a confirmation page that had the profile pictures of some of my friends with the caption reading such and such will miss you. Oddly enough, the people whose smiling faces pleaded for me to stay couldn’t have been further removed from my closest friends, but come to think of it that may have been a feature and not a bug as why would any of my close friends miss me? I’ll still see them, we’ll still make plans, and I’ll still be just an email, phone call, text message away from catching up.
So far I haven’t had any regrets—I’ve found myself with more time, increased focus, sense of self and awareness—but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that my social life has suffered a drop in serendipity as a result of having made it more difficult to be invited to events and as a result of being out of sight and out of mind. Nevertheless in light of all things considered I believe it’s a relatively small price to pay that may hopefully even lead to me putting myself in the habit of proactively choosing my own adventures.
Looking back now, I confess that I used to scoff at the people who weren’t on or active on Facebook; I figured either something had gone wrong in their lives or they didn’t have much going on because they wouldn’t show proof for it.
A week or two after quitting I got a concerned text from a college friend I hadn’t spoken in years: “Is everything OK?” she asked, “I saw you’re not on Facebook anymore.”
Why yes, everything’s great, matter of fact everything’s fantastic.