Facebook’s Best Year Ever

It’s become very fashionable to hate Facebook. From messianic industrialists to the nice lady who sits near me at work, you’d be hard-pressed to find another company subjected to such universal scorn. (As a small aside, I think a Muskerberg cage match, pitting Elon against Mark with mutually-assured destruction would be must-see TV. You’re welcome, Pay-Per-View.) Facebook is irresponsible. They’re making us sad. And probably fat. Their most popular app is used by uncool, old people. Gross! They got Donald Trump elected. Their founder is pathetic. The list goes on.

#DeleteFacebook is in full swing and clear-eyed men and women everywhere—suddenly passionate about data security and privacy—are spending their time Googling the latest Facebook smear to self-righteously tweet out. Oh, the irony.

Weirdly, I suppose, of the twelve-odd years I’ve been using Facebook’s products, this past one has been the best. A combination of Medium, plus the Newsfeed and Messenger applications, has allowed for rich, unexpected and deeply rewarding connections and friendship in recent months. I’ve been exposed to new ideas and been changed by them. As my friends and colleagues kindle their torches and sharpen their pitchforks, I realized I’d be remiss not to share a few high points.

Oh the humanity

Here’s the thing about Facebook: those are real people on there. People with fears and biases and deep-seated issues. When you write, you must write carefully. And then you must go back to fix the mistakes you made. And then you must apologize for the way what you wrote hurt someone’s feelings, whether they deserve it or not. That’s called grace and Facebook gets much better if you incorporate it.

I made a rule for myself that as soon as it becomes clear that another Facebook member and I fundamentally disagree, I’ll do everything within reason to meet with them in person as soon as possible. This has happened a handful of times over the past year—in coffee shops, pubs and one memorable evening around a bonfire—and it’s pure magic. Try it. Humans are incredible.

Unpolarized

As you may recall, Charlottesville, Virginia had a pretty troubling summer and one man in particular sat near the center of that swirling, toxic, confounding, devastating mess: then Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy. I don’t know Dr. Bellamy. To my knowledge, we’ve never shared so much as a handshake. But we make our life in the same place and we both have concerns and ideas regarding the unique struggles facing the African-American community.

Each morning on the drive to my office, I’d pass a man holding a large cardboard sign emblazoned with some fresh slander against the Vice Mayor. Sometimes pseudo-political. Sometimes racist. Always embarrassing. This dude dedicated weeks of his life to airing his grievances (and brokenness) along the side of the highway. Through his jackassery, he motivated me to pen an open letter to Wes and share it on Facebook.

What followed was a series of challenging and beautiful exchanges on Messenger. I heard from Dr. Bellamy and many of his supporters in the community. We talked about my ideas and his proposed solutions. I heard from people who earnestly believe he’s part of the problem. To a word, it was respectful and courteous and constructive. Far more so, I might add, than any of the in-person town halls our city convened. I was (and still am) humbled and inspired.

In the neighborhood

Our home is in a semi-rural area. We have amazing neighbors, but they’re spread out and they’re independent folks. For reasons I can’t explain, Facebook is the right venue for us to connect over informal needs.

I’ve had neighbors drop what they’re doing and come running to help catch escaped horses. Offers to pick up groceries when we’re ill. Invitations to come cut up a fallen tree for the wood stove. And more than one collaborative lawn mower troubleshooting session. All because of Facebook.

If you’re still a member, shift your thinking away from the everyone-you’ve-ever-sort-of-known to people you encounter with some regularity. At work, school, play and with proximity to your home. Map your social media network over the kind of real-world network you’d like to inhabit.

Corporate citizenship

Recently, I’ve published a couple essays exploring something called moral design. My own work in service design and permaculture has raised questions that fall under the broad umbrella of sustainability. When I shared my most recent piece on Facebook, I mentioned a small project up the street. There’s a plan to build a new gas station on an undeveloped piece of ground and, in passing, I mentioned my concern about excessive demand on our local aquifer which supplies all the farms and homes nearby.

Next day, a friend of a friend and employee of the corporation planning to build the gas station—a man I’ve never met—messaged me, having read my essay, and asked to connect in person or by phone to hear more about my concerns and my pond. This isn’t a PR guy. He’s raising a family across town and wants to talk about agrarian values and sustainable design.

I think that’s great.

What these anecdotes have in common is that none of them involve using Facebook for idle amusement or hollow self-promotion. It is merely a tool. And, at it’s best, it’s a tool for community. So, stop thinking of yourself (or anyone) as a Facebook user. Your particular version of Facebook—whichever apps you download and humans you follow—is a membership, and it comes with some responsibility.

Here’s the thing, friends: if you’re on the internet, you and your data are the product. Google. Amazon. Apple. That’s not a Facebook thing. Any tool can be used as a weapon. Every form of media can become addictive. And consuming too much of anything will make you sick. If you want to #DeleteFacebook, go for it. Less time staring at a screen will be good for you. But spare me the theatrical exits and sanctimonious justification.


And Zuck, if you really are listening, please take this opportunity to become less manipulative, as opposed to more. When your core app went from being a timeline to a newsfeed, you gave members the false impression that Facebook will do their thinking for them. You created a new economy of narrative-shaping which involves a kind of trust, transparency and accountability you do not—and cannot—have. That was a mistake.

Don’t do better curation—get out of the curation business. You’re lousy at it. And take the marketers and publishers out of the membership. Sure, you can sell them our data, but don’t invite them to the forum. The platform you control is an extension of your own loneliness and voyeurism. Good news, we’re lonely and voyeuristic, too. And we’re in it together.

Thanks for a great year!