Note: Below is a piece I wrote over a year ago about Facebook, that evil, addictive entity. Since the company’s emotional manipulation of users is causing an uproar this week, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the social media I love to hate. I offer an updated conclusion in italics below.
I began 2013 by taking a hiatus from Facebook. To say that I quit or broke-up with Facebook would be a bit disingenuous; I did not delete my account and I found myself logging on from time to time out of necessity. But I ceased posting the steady stream of information and status updates that had been my normal, fairly heavy Facebook habit for the last several years – and that had reached a crescendo during last fall’s election frenzy. For six weeks, FB receded out of my daily life as quickly as it entered. The simultaneous distance from Facebook and the inability to quit completely (that family reunion planning thread was not going to follow me offline!) gave me some much-needed perspective on the social media corporate behemoth, my personal media habits, and my relationships.
I should admit that I began loathing Facebook as soon as it became clear that users’ private information would become the commodity upon which the company built a fortune. I, like so many others, took steps to monitor and manage my privacy settings, but soon realized that all the efforts to protect information from the prying eyes of strangers would not keep Facebook itself from amassing and profiting from my data.
It was at around the high point of my annoyance and disillusion with FB that Google+ launched. Hurray! An alternative! Not so fast. Cue the two major obstacles to switching social media outlets. One, Google is no more innocent than FB when it comes to exploiting users. As a corporation, its dealings are every bit as shady and invasive as FB, if not more so. Two, I could jump over to G+ but without a mass migration by my friends and family, I would be all alone in a new land. This dynamic of needing your entire social network to move into new territory in order for the alternative to be effective contributes to G+ failing to dethrone FB. A few futile attempts to get others to move to G+ and some largely ignored G+ posts later, I was back to regularly posting and connecting with friends via FB, where the action remained.
So, as last year wore on, I began to feel trapped – using the services of a company I resented, forfeiting my personal privacy and ideals in order to socialize online with friends in the space we had all collectively chosen years before we realized how FB would evolve. There were times when I loved it – seeing those first pictures of my friends’ new babies, sharing pictures of my own new little girl, reveling in the group of dear friends and family who post genuinely witty things, celebrate each other’s successes, and offer comfort when needed. This, no surprise, is what I missed during my hiatus. As my friend Jennifer Rauch found, during her study of unplugging, when you unplug from social media, you may just succeed in isolating yourself from some friends and family. And while I resent FB for harvesting my data, there is a tiny bit of me that feels disappointed in myself and my friends for letting FB dominate our relationships. Are our connections so weak that we will not email each other to share news or photos? Do we causally care so little for each other that we cannot pick up a phone to call and vent about our stresses? Are our relationships in fact so superficial that we cannot be bothered to make time for each other outside of the convenience of broadcasting via FB? A part of me fears these awful possibilities to be true.
And yet, if we gave up the ease of FB, perhaps all we would lose is a crutch that keeps us plugged in but not meaningfully connected. Well, friends, here we are nearing the winter break again and I am feeling that urge to unplug and focus on home. My annual News Media Fast is a topic for another post, but it goes hand-in-hand with another much-needed Facebook haitus. In the coming weeks, as I focus on family, festivities, and handmade gifts, a bit of research writing and a lot of sewing, I will be turning off the news, turning away from Facebook, and (ironically?) trying to post more substantive content here on this blog. I would like to begin the process of blogging my research, as the Ambulant Scholar, Amy Rubens does so well. And, I would like to also post more advocacy related to that research, my mothering, and my handwork. I am ambitious when a semester draws to a close and have many dreams for the winter break — none of them include Facebook.
So, it is satisfying to look back over this post and know that I have made a concerted effort to blog in this space. At the same time, I still (as so many of you will know) continue to use Facebook daily. Why? Because you all do, too! Social media is where we form our connections, for better or worse. Until we collectively find a new path, I’ll visit you on Facebook. But I will not, for a second, consider the company anything other than exploitative. I can’t yawn hard enough at the confirmation that they are manipulative – I think we all already knew that and the best we can do is use the service they provide as critically as possible.