Kara Swisher gave Mark Zuckerberg a spanking in the Times and warned that if he didn’t clean up his act (i.e., ban hate speech from the platform and censor Donald Trump), “we” would be leaving. It’s a symbolic statement that should be…stated, I guess, but nowhere near a real threat unless “we” actually means the 1.6 billion users on the platform. Or half that. A quarter? Even a measly one million sounds like an impossible secession.
In his 2018 book, Jaron Lanier outlines 10 arguments for quitting social media. As a written piece of work it’s not very good, so I’ll sum up the important info below— though I suspect you don’t really need to hear it, as you may instinctively know your relationship with social media and/or social media’s relationship with the world is a little problematic right now:
Facebook and its slightly-less-toxic counterparts are monopolistic profit machines that are fueled by rage. (Scott Galloway says this repeatedly on the Pivot podcast, adding that Facebook is also tearing the country apart.) This wasn’t by original design. It just turned out to be easier and cheaper to manufacture and distribute content that sparks outrage and hate, rather than content that brings people together and makes them feel good. Outrage spreads quickly and at scale. Your new baby, although very cute, (for a wrinkly newborn) only reaches a handful of people in your immediate network.
So, the nasty stuff: hate speech, bullying, arrogance, conspiracy theories, disinformation, etc. are massive money-printers for a business model (advertising) that’s based on engagement. Just like the nightly news and the Super Bowl, the engagement relies on its viewers (or at least half of them) to be disappointed, horrified, agonized; whatever happens to you emotionally when your team is losing.
The physically addictive part of social, which I’ll speak to personally since I get myself addicted to pretty much anything (most recently: my son’s animal crackers and huffing the minty-sulfur scent of T-Gel shampoo) is just like drugs or gambling. “Likes” and positive reinforcement from your social circle are vehicles for dopamine delivery. Owning the idiot anti-vaxxer you know from high school, who thinks probiotics can fight off COVID-19, with a snarky comment on his post is an adrenaline rush.
Over the past month, I’ve chosen to sit out the #BLM protests in Brooklyn.* My outrage at the NYPD made me want to jump out of my skin, the self-loathing and guilt I had for staying home, mixed with the compulsion to do something, ANYTHING, brought me back to Facebook—after a long period of not using it very often—to do a lot of speaking out.
I went after casual racists and called out distant-relatives who are Trump supporters, (which is a nice way of saying “racist.”) I’d get so worked up after wordsmithing a boo-ya comment that I’d have trouble falling asleep, as if I had done so much cocaine. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t move any racists over to the right side of history, and I realized I probably should have been messaging these people directly and individually if I really wanted to engage them, instead of making it all public and performative.
Just like I can romanticize the best parts of my drinking days and gloss over the physical injuries, emotional meltdowns, and devastating hangovers, I can think of the joys Facebook brought me during rosier times. I once found two Parisians who are probably second cousins of mine and met them in person when I was visiting their city. Actually, that’s it — that was the apex of my Facebook experience and it was eight years ago.
Facebook is not even a place to go to banter or compete with friends over bad puns like I used to, so shouldn’t it be easy to give up? No, because I believe I’ll be left in the dark without it. Because of its monopoly as the town square where everyone goes to share information, how else would I hear about things the New York Times fails to cover? The Times often doesn’t pay attention to citizen journalism until it’s been shared a bajillion times on Facebook.
When Philando Castile’s fiancée opened Facebook Live on her phone seconds after Castile was shot four times by a police officer, she called out to God first, then Facebook, as Castile drew his last breaths. Some atrocities need to be circulated quickly and at scale in order for people to pay attention and Facebook and Twitter are the only places anyone can go to do that. Lanier argues that movements like #BLM have a short honeymoon period on platforms like Facebook, then they’re simply turned into another data point by which to group people, pit them against each other, and sell them things.
I finally Googled Jaron Lanier (who of course doesn’t have any social media accounts) to find out what his deal is. He is unfortunately a 60-year-old white guy with dreadlocks, so my tribalistic online instincts tell me not to listen to a word he says. This is literally him playing a rare wind instrument, of which he is a collector:
But also he is a computer scientist, philosopher, and video game pioneer who thinks we should double down on our humanity (seek in-person connection) instead of being Mark Zuckerberg’s subservient, in-fighting, revenue-generating captives. I agree, and I could probably delete Facebook without missing it too much. Unlike a true addiction, I can go back to using Facebook moderately — congratulating people on stuff, liking stuff, and posting the occasional pic of my kids. That’s mostly because my drug of choice these days is Instagram and I’ve started to dabble in Tik Tok. I know they’re not good for me, but I’m having fun for now. I can quit if it gets out of hand. Any time I want.
*This was purely logistical so I’m supporting with funds.