I was just like you. I am just like you.
The ‘f’ beckons to me. It sucks me in. It knows just how to push my buttons. How to tease me. How to pull me in.
The f has a direct line to my dopamine reward system.
For years, it was fun. I had great times. It made me feel close with old friends, long-lost cousins. The sight of that f was soothing, I found solace in its promise of never-ending distraction.
This promise of benign escape is powerful, but it’s built on the denial of realities that were never hidden, yet were still somehow repressed: the f uses me.
I am its means, not its end.
The f monetizes my distraction in return for a fleeting illusion of sociability.
We don’t usually think of Facebook as a robot. But that’s what it is.
A machine for producing an easy facsimile of a social life, one stripped of the risks and the sweat and the awkwardness and the depth.
Spending time on Facebook is to socializing what masturbation is to sex.
On some level, we know this.
Through an involved process of trial and error involving the exhaustive, ongoing dissection of billions of pieces of data, the f has identified precisely what each of us wants to hear.
On that foundation, it has extended an iron promise to us to keep delivering it, ceaselessly, forever.
Like a rat in a cocaine-dispensing lab cage, we’re just going to keep pressing that lever over and over for one more hit, forever.
The first step is to accept that, humbly.
Once we do, we can start to divine the shape of the trap, its scope and its scale, its features and its quirks.
We need to know our prison intimately, map it in careful detail, before we can start to devise a plan to tunnel out of it.
The first step, though, is to see it clearly:
It’s a trap,
and we’re in it.
What exactly is it that we’re doing when we post on Facebook? What is the service that Facebook provides? What is the quid we get in response for our attention-share quo?
We understand, vaguely, that not every single thing each of our friends writes on Facebook is served up to us when we log on. We’re aware, dimly, that there is some secret sauce picking out some posts and shielding us from others. But we seldom want to inquire further.
The f relies on us not to inquire further.
Let us inquire further.
For the average Facebook user, the proportion of friends’ posts that will ever be brought to your attention is a tiny fraction of the whole. This brings us to a first, crucial insight:
Facebook’s basic function is to hide what our friends are doing from us.
That is its killer feature.
There are dozens, hundreds of other apps and websites out there to show you what your friends are doing. By and large, they’re not nearly as successful.
Only Facebook had the vision to turn the premise on its head.
While the competition leaves us defenseless in the face of the firehose torrent of inanities our nearest and dearest spew, the f specializes in sifting through the muck. The robot weeds out the bulk of it, sparing us the worst of the stuff the horrible people we have the misfortune to call “friends” share with it. The f saves us from the embarrassment and the stultifying boredom of being friends with our friends.
Make no mistake: the f is thorough. It weeds out anything that might bore us or upset us or in any way challenge the boundries of our personal comfort zone, wherever those boundries might be drawn.
Facebook is a breakthrough technology for the automation of censorship.
Facebook makes it its business to know what you don’t want to know before you suffer the indignity of knowing it.
It shields you from that fate via the simple, elegant expedient of not telling you.
It isn’t perfect.
But that is its its logic and its goal: the end state it is working toward. Leveraging a mountain of cash and data and misallocating the talents of some of the greatest software minds of our time, the f comes closer to fulfilling its promise every single day.
This is, to be sure, the opposite of what we tell ourselves the f is for. We imagine we’re going into the f to “keep up with our friends”.
In doing so, we accept the fiction that the robot is relatively transparent, that it presents us a view of our social field that is in some sense genuine, undistorted, neutral.
The robot asks us to trust it with a fundamental building block of our humanity: our sociability.
It needs us to trust it, to believe it’s doing what a very close, very social friend would do for us: pick out the very best gossip, and shut up about the rest.
But there’s a fundamental asymmetry at work here.
What the f needs from us is different from what we need it to need from us.
Unlike a good, trustworthy friend who happens a be a bit of a gossip, the f is entirely amoral. It engages us purely to profit from us.
If a friend insisted on mentioning a product he’s contractually obligated to promote in every annecdote, we’d quickly peg him for a psychopath. We’d wonder if it was a good idea to keep spending time with him. Somehow, on the f, we accept it.
Driven by this imperative, the social field the f presents us is fundamentally distorted, drained of humanity, emptied of seriousness, dumbed down and idiotized until all our social lives look the same: one big mass of holidays and smiling kids, uplifting memes, funny videos or “edgy” political content we just happen to completely agree with every single time…a sprawling blob of virality clinically emptied of meaning. For f’s sake.
Our relationship with this content stream long ago turned schizophrenic: we can’t get enough of it, but we secretly loathe it, and ourselves for falling pray to it.
This came home to me with terrifying precision watching this video — mislabeled college humor despite being possibly the most terrifying three minutes on YouTube:
There’s a riff in there about “drifting from tab to tab full of content you hate like a hungry ghost who will never be full” that captures the experience of being ruthlessly exploited by the f day after day better than just about anything else I’ve seen online.
The video pitches itself as a condemnation of the Internet writ large, but let’s be clear: it’s not the Internet that leaves you feeling like your brain just ate at the world’s most MSGy Chinese restaurant.
It’s Facebook that does that.
Maybe it was Caleb Garling’s brilliant post on how simple — and gross — it is to trick the f’s algorithm into thinking you’re posting important news about your life. Maybe it was the classic Dangerous Minds rant against having to pay the f for the privilege of communicating with people who’ve already told the f they want to hear from you.
I can’t exactly tell.
But in the end, understanding why I’ve had enough is really not that hard.
As a writer, I specialize in Facebook algorithm kryptonite.
I write about war and famine in the most screwed up parts of Africa.
I specialize in the kind of story Facebook’s algorithm finds positively toxic.
Stories about victims of war sleeping in UN Camps standing knee-deep in pools of their own shit with their infants in their arms.
That actually happened. No, not years ago: last week.
But of course you didn’t hear about it, because this is the kind of image Facebook will never in a million years show you.
I write things people need to know about but don’t want to hear about.
I post them on Facebook.
I see them die.
At first I thought my friends were a bunch of callous shits.
Then it dawned on me. My friends aren’t ignoring these stories. The f just isn’t showing them to them. Why would it?
I post things that make people uncomfortable; there is no room for that on the f.
Am I bitter? You better believe I’m bitter.
Day in and day out I see the way Facebook sanitizes my friends’ experience of their social lives. I see the way it flatters and flattens, the way it homogenizes and obstructs, the way it drains sociability of intimacy and depth and meaning.
I’ve seen how efficiently it identifies your comfort zone and how ruthlessly it exploits that knowledge.
I understand exactly how appealing it can be. Then, at some point, something broke. Or clicked. Or both.
The Robot isn’t benign.
Its evil lies far from the places we’re used to looking for it.
It has nothing to do with your privacy, or with the Messenger app screwing around with your phone’s camera. It’s not even about the way it saps your productivity.