Facebook’s addiction wasn’t free
Facebook is the kind of cocktail you’d never drink if you knew what was actually in it. And why would you ask, really? It’s so delicious! Look at that old schoolmate’s new baby, awwww! And, isn’t it outrageous what’s being done to our country, grraaahh? Asking for a list of ingredients when you’re getting all these emotional highs for free seem almost rude. So willful ignorance was a price most people paid gladly.
But now easy oblivion is out. Just in time for the massive hangover Facebook has wrecked upon the collective brain of society. After a decade-long bender, the long-term, corrosive mental consequences are starting to show, and they’re ripping society apart. Facebook spoke to, poked at, and inflamed the worst tendencies of people. It reduced their inhibitions against being their worst selves.
Dr Doom couldn’t have concocted a better mix of addiction, self-loathing, envy, and misery if he wanted to. The stupor that Facebook brought upon the world made its afflicted user base ripe for exploitation. And exploit Facebook did.
There’s a reason Facebook (along with Google) is soaking up almost all new advertising dollars. It’s deadly effective! The growth-hacking army from Facebook found their softest target in our weak, mushy, fallible brains. And as if people were lab rats, Facebook experimented their way through trick and inducements until billions of people ran the maze it designed.
Making addicted people do your bidding, and ignore the greater consequences of their actions, isn’t exactly a novel concept. But Facebook has perfected it. If you would have told anyone a decade ago that the average person would be checking their smartphones 46 times per day, and that many, if not most, of those checks would be with Facebook, you’d been laughed out of the room.
It truly is hard to comprehend just how deviously effective the digital addiction that Facebook is peddling has been. But it’s not until you realize just how good for business such an addiction is that you really start to shudder.
The process goes something like this: First Facebook gets you hooked. Then it relentlessly exploits your privacy until it knows more about you than your friends or family. Then it makes you feel like shit, and just in your most vulnerable state, it shows you advertising designed to exploit that state to the fullest.
And all of this happens without much objection, because its not a conscious process for most people. While its starting to dawn on some people that they might be addicted, most are oblivious to the fact. It’s like being silently poisoned by an invisible gas. You just start feeling drowsy, but you don’t know why.
What’s really insidious is that Facebook is economically disposed to make this process as terrifyingly effective as possible. To find the most vulnerable times, so it can present you with ads for the most tempting ointments.
There’ll always be a flower seller ready to offer the most beautiful bouquet when a loved one dies. Or a pharmacy eager to get your prescription business when that Xanax needs a refill. Or a junk food restaurant ready to send you comfort food. These are undeniably excellent advertisement moments. Horrifically so.
And that’s just on the individual level. Until the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook was actually bragging on their site about how they could influence voters. And of course they can! With a contraption this powerful at knowing what message to send to whom at what time for maximum commercial effect, of course it can be weaponized to strike at a democratic level.
What’s fascinating about Facebook is how unlike, say, actual drugs, the people making this weapon of mass influence and addiction can credibly find a way to tell themselves they’re doing good. We’re connecting the world! Look at this one human interest story where someone with a terminal disease found respite in a Facebook community.
And it’s not that these good things aren’t happening. It’s that they’re happening alongside this dumpster fire of deceit and exploitation. While individually meaningful, they’re aggregately a distraction.
I think Facebook knows all of this, deep down. They plundered society for attention, exploited privacy on a scale that’s hard to comprehend, and tried to get away with it for as long as possible. They knew about Cambridge Analytica for years. They threatened to sue the journalists that uncovered it. They subverted Android to steal call logs and SMS data for years (and they’re still claiming such theft is “consensual”).
The only surprise is how long it took to program a barely passing contrite set of facial expressions for the robot in chief. You’d think that with such advanced VR and AR departments that they could have used some deep learning to find just a few convincing human emotions to send.
But maybe that’s just the tale of hubris. Facebook has gotten away with so much for so long that it’s easy to see how they could think they’d get away with it forever. Just as we couldn’t have imagined how much individual and societal damage Facebook could have wrecked in a single decade, I doubt Facebook can imagine the possibility of their own demise in the decade to come.
We’re just waking up to this Facebook hangover. The first impulse will be for quick fixes, and I’m sure some of those will be helpful. But the real work to getting sober means reimagining the entire privacy-exploiting advertisement industry. It’s your job to keep up the pressure so that actually happens. Don’t just swear off Facebook for a week, then go back to your bender ways.
It never looks like one person can make a meaningful difference in the face of such towering, dominant, and monopolistic force. But that’s how all movements start. One person, then another, then another, and all of the sudden the world is different from what it was.