Social Media_Facebook_Addiction by Your DOST. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Six Weeks Without Facebook (And Counting)

How Abandoning the World’s Largest Social Network Helped Me Be a Better Person

This year, my New Years resolution was to stop using Facebook. While my relationship with the world’s largest social networking platform has had its ups and downs over the years, I found that over time its continued presence in my life had slowly and subtly become an increasingly negative presence. I’m just over six weeks in, and so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive impact giving up Facebook has had on my emotional health and well-being.

On the positive side, Facebook is a great way to see what’s going on with friends and family, and it’s also a good tool for reconnecting with people with whom you’ve fallen out of touch. With over 1.5 billion users, it’s by far the world’s largest social network, bringing together people from all corners of the world. Campaigns launched on Facebook have been instrumental in helping mobilize people to bring about much-needed social change and political reform. It is an incredible showcase of humanity, from its very best to its very worst.

But if there’s a single word that defines Facebook for me more than any other, that word is “addictive”. Even after deleting the app from my phone and whittling the number of friends I was following down to a bare minimum about a year and a half ago, I still found myself frequently checking the site at all hours of the day and night, often without being consciously aware I was doing so.

And that’s no accident; Facebook’s very survival depends on as many people as possible spending as much time using the site as possible. Everything Facebook does is designed to keep people engaged with the site and the content it provides, particularly when that content is paid for by its advertisers. As a platform, it is unparalleled in its ability to both trigger and alleviate people’s innate fear of missing out on what’s going on in their social circles. As Nir Eyal, a Stanford professor who’s also a former game designer, puts it in his recent book:

“Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation. Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.

Facebook has spent billions of dollars purchasing competing companies like Instagram and WhatsApp as well as developing their own in-house instant messenging and live streaming video functionality designed to keep people on their properties and give them as few reasons as possible to go elsewhere. These efforts have been so successful that user loyalty experiments performed by Facebook engineers several years ago that deliberately introduced bugs into the Android version of its mobile app revealed that people wouldn’t abandon the site even when its app crashed all the time.

Addiction by Dixie Lawrence. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

My personal Facebook habit was not only taking time and attention away from my real-life friends and family, it was also making me a less happy and centered person. I even found myself thinking less of some longtime friends and acquaintances because Facebook made me much more aware of how they felt about various political views and causes through the pages and posts that they liked, shared, or engaged with. On more than one occasion I found myself up far beyond my normal bedtime trying to get the last word in a political argument on Facebook that I knew full well was unlikely to change anyone’s mind and would probably just lead to hurt feelings and misunderstandings. I have no idea how many of of my real-life friendships were damaged by these interactions and I likely never will.

As one recent study found, Facebook can help polarize people and push them into more extreme positions, making them less likely to empathize or communicate in a productive way with others who have different views on social or political issues. The end result is that many people actually end up rejecting facts that challenge their preconceptions. Some clickbait sites have even started taking making money off this phenomenon by creating false viral content that plays on ugly and hate-filled stereotypes in order to provoke outrage and attract visitors to their sites.

While the scourge of clickbait is common to all social networks, it can have a greater impact on Facebook, which goes further than other social networks in curating the experience of individual users. The algorithms used to determine what shows up on a user’s timeline can even be tweaked or altered to manipulate their emotional reactions, as Facebook did in a highly publicized 2012 experiment. Facebook is continuously tweaking and optimizing its site to maximize engagement and revenue, and highlighting content that they know its users will have strong emotional reactions to is a great way to do that, even if those emotions are negative ones.

For example, if Facebook knows that I’m likely to click or comment on a certain kind of political post, then it’s more likely to show me that kind of post again in the future, even if that content has no value beyond its ability to make me want to post an angry reply, thus keeping me on the site longer and exposing me to more advertising. That’s great for Facebook and its advertisers, but it’s not so great for my personal mental health and well-being.

Screenies. by Ariel Dovas. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

And all of this takes on an even more disturbing dimension when Facebook’s massive userbase and targeting algorithms are leveraged by political campaigns. According to The Guardian, Ted Cruz and other 2016 Presidential candidates are spending millions of dollars in this election cycle micro-targeting voter groups on Facebook and serving them content that is custom-tailored to appeal to their specific issues and concerns. Facebook can even identify which users are “political influencers” and enable campaigns to target them directly with viral content. As author Clay Shirky explained in a recent series of Tweets, the entire universe of 150 million registered American voters is only a medium-sized group when compared to Facebook’s 1.5 billion person userbase. At this point, the company’s ability to influence voters is much greater than the tools and techniques that have been traditionally used by campaigns, and whoever ends up winning the 2016 election may well have Facebook to credit for his or her victory.

Facebook… by Thomas Leuthard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Then there’s the question of privacy. Just making sure that you’re not inadvertently sharing too much of your own personal information with other Facebook users requires navigating an ever-changing and often-inscrutable array of user privacy and security settings. And that only covers activity on the site; even when you’re not active on Facebook, the company is still tracking your activity online and using that information to serve you ads and help curate what content that appears in your timeline. Every time you click a “Like” button or use your Facebook credentials to log into a third party site, you’re also sharing information about yourself with Facebook and its advertisers. No matter how much you lock down your account, your friends may still be unintentionally sharing information about you by installing Facebook apps that share their friend lists and other information with third parties.

This is how Facebook is able to gather the kind of rich information that makes it such a valuable platform for advertisers. And to be fair, they’re not the only ones: Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft, and dozens of other companies also track people’s online activity. Facebook’s unique advantage is being able to pair this data with intimate personal information about people’s likes, wants, and desires that they volunteer as part of their activity on the site. The real-life consequences of this kind of tracking can include lowered credit scores, price discrimination, denial of insurance coverage, lost job opportunities, and even identity theft.

Bags and bags and iPad by Theodore Lee. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Despite everything I’ve written here, I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that Facebook is a deliberately evil corporation. I know people who work there, and they are good and decent people trying to make the world a better place. The problems that I have with Facebook are largely ones that are natural consequences of the company’s need to attract and retain customers while supporting itself through advertising revenue. Facebook is incredibly good at what it does and since the collapse of MySpace no other social network has come close to challenging its dominance.

I also want to be clear that just because I have some issues with Facebook does not necessarily mean that I think any of its competitors are any better. Twitter in particular has some pretty serious issues, most notably its well-documented and self-acknowledged problems with people using it as a platform for harassment.

Instead, my goal is to help people (including those of my friends who still use the site) understand why Facebook was no longer adding value to my life and how it was taking time away from engaging with my family and expressing myself in more meaningful ways.

For many years, Facebook’s internal motto was “Move Fast and Break Things”. Intended as a challenge to its technical teams, I think it can also be read as a warning about the unforeseen consequences of fast-moving technologies that disrupt and can even break the fabric of society. We are only about a decade into the social media revolution, and it has already had profound impacts (both positive and negative) on the world around us. We owe it to ourselves to think about those impacts and decide on a personal level whether or not the positives outweigh the negatives.