His face appeared mid-news feed, just above an ad for an obstacle course race. Oh no, I thought, he’s running for president again? I stared at the image, unsure what to do. Facebook thought I wanted to see him in my feed, read the reactions to his candidacy redux, maybe share my own thoughts. Facebook guessed wrong. I closed the app.
Facebook sucked away countless hours of my life during the 2016 election. I remember compulsive content consumption, heated debates, a morass of questionable information, and after it was all over, the dawning realization that it was mostly a waste of time.
Internet arguments on politics are particularly seductive. It always feels so important to have THIS argument with THIS person on THIS thread NOW. Debates stretch over days, across continents. Let’s not stop and think about why I’m arguing virtually with someone I met at a party once six years ago, who I wouldn’t be able to pick out of a crowd without their profile photo.
By the time I’m done, I’m exhausted, yet I have accomplished no real work. I’ve only played the game that keeps Facebook’s advertising dollars rolling in.
What is the value of all that time and energy, I wonder? Infinite opportunities lost.
Burn It All Down
The 2016 election triggered one of the biggest social media clusterfucks I’ve ever seen, primarily fomented by Facebook. I’m not only talking about Russian ads, fake news, and Cambridge Analytica. The problem extends deep into the bedrock of what makes Facebook so addictive and powerful in the first place.
Shortly before the election in late 2015, my ex unfriended me after many long debates over Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. I argued with many people over the same thing. He represented the side that wanted to burn down the establishment, while I was more cautious. I pointed out that Russians seemed to be behind the hacking, and that Assange (who released the emails) probably wanted Trump elected. They were trying to manipulate us, I argued.
In retrospect, I was more or less right. So why does it feel so unsatisfying?
It’s not that I cared about being unfriended; I had barely talked to him in six years. I’m troubled about my willingness to play this game. Facebook has a way of stirring up emotions for its own benefit. Facebook connected us because, on some level, we both wanted to engage in conflict.
I’d become a pawn, exactly what I had argued against. I contributed to the clusterfuck by giving Facebook what it wanted: my constant, rapt attention.
98 Personal Data Points
Facebook is like junk food for political information and content of all kinds. It’s tasty, it’s addicting, it’s deceiving. It’s packaged to stimulate your impulsiveness. You click, watch, comment, and like, mostly without regard for what it all means. You over-consume because it never quite satisfies.
Facebook has spent 15 years and billions of dollars to acquire our attention. They use our attention to generate the 98 personal data points they use to sell advertisements.
For instance, Facebook knows I like gender neutral clothing, healthy eating, and men’s athletic wear (they put hot dudes in their ads, okay). They don’t need me to buy anything, they just need me to scroll for as long as possible. Sooner or later I’m going to stop and interact with something. A view, a click, a like, a follow; these are high-value interactions.
I don’t even need to interact. Advertisers are willing to pay to merely show up on your screen.
Facebook’s (and Instagram’s, but we’ll get to that later) only goal is to entertain your eyeballs for as long as possible so that you will either see or click ads. That’s it. That’s the entire revenue model of a company that employs over 35,000 people.
The reason Facebook shows us junk food is because that’s what drives our attention. It’ll show you whatever you want to see; whatever makes you nod your head, angers you, or bores you so that you scroll past to the next ad. Anything that makes you engage. Your Facebook news feed becomes your own personalized reality. This addictive junk food is what made me waste so many precious hours debating my ex.
Every minute you spend on Facebook helps it sell more ads. To say they are exceptional at advertising would be an understatement. Facebook is worth more than $300 billion.
[Even if you made $1 per second, every hour of the day (that’s $86,400 per day!), it would still take you 9,513 years to make $300 billion. That’s 120 lifetimes. But don’t worry—at that rate you can make your first million in just 11 days.]
Facebook capitalized on the election. It capitalizes on debate, on boredom, on excitement, on anger and every other feeling. Facebook made billions while we wasted millions of hours bickering over Hillary Clinton’s emails. We are not so much the customer as we are the product being sold.
Five Years and Four Months… And Then Some
I’ve been living part of my life on social media since Friendster and MySpace, over 15 years ago. After leaving my parents’ house at 19 and floating around for the next decade, social media gave me a sense of “tethering” I lacked. I used social media to meet people, talk to friends and family, find support, and entertain myself. When I started my blog, Facebook was my primary avenue for content promotion.
The promise of social media still entices me. We can raise money for good causes; we can share our creative work; we can learn new things; we can talk to anyone, anywhere! We can use it to organize and overthrow authoritarian regimes! How amazing is that?!
As an American who grew up on hours a day of television, I don’t think I ever realized there was a price to pay. Even if you don’t feel personally affected by the electoral quagmire, the propaganda, and the “threats to democracy” (or whatever). The price is higher than constant superficial interactions, dealing with trolls, being unfriended by an ex (oh well), and the effects on your mental health.
The price of social media is time: Nearly 2 hours a day for the average user, or about 5 years and 4 months of your life.
The average user spends 46,680 hours on social media in a lifetime. In that time you could climb Mount Everest 32 times, or run more than 10,000 marathons. Give up television, and you’ll get another 7 years and 8 months of your life back.
What could you do with all those years? If you go by the 10,000 hour rule, you could master 11 subjects. Novel writing, woodworking, popping and locking, pastry making, cryptography, rocket building, learning a dead language (this list is not exhaustive).
What exactly are we doing on social media? We’re not using it to bring down the wealthy and subvert hundreds of years of institutionalized oppression. Oppression is a lot like Facebook’s algorithms. It adapts to changing conditions and moods of the populace, but it always stays in control. Even at our best, are we really subverting Facebook? Or is it mostly subverting us?
The Amoral Landscape of the Facebook News Feed
The invisible algorithms that guide the news feed are amoral. They don’t care whether content is real or fake, right or wrong, whether it accelerates discrimination or helps spark genocide. They submit to no human code of ethics, except when it serves the goal of making profit.
That doesn’t mean Facebook can act with impunity. To pacify the masses, the masses have to play along. Facebook respects users—as far as we make them respect us. (Zuckerberg foreshadowed Facebook with “Facemash,” a hot-or-not game for comparing the physical attractiveness of women at Harvard—without their consent. It got shut down only when the administration stepped in.)
Facebook does eventually respond to criticism, usually after a great deal of blowback. Often it makes improvements, or tries to. In attempting to add transparency to political ads last year, it required a “paid for by” disclosure that was promptly subverted in a test by VICE News.
I would like to think Facebook is doing better this election. I’d like to think they are properly defended from becoming a pawn in a foreign government’s plot to spread misinformation and sow discord. I’m not so sure.
Trust is a finicky thing. Facebook manufactures trust by showing me a photo of a friend next to every post and comment. I would like to think I trust what my friends say, but the algorithms have almost complete control over what I see. Tasty morsels up front, and behind them, the ever-present ads, waiting for my view or click.
Between fake news and real news that misleads, fake ads and real ads paid for by dark money, constant ongoing privacy concerns and an entire feed founded on junk food, I think my soma holiday is over.
“If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you.”
A few years ago I started using a new method to stop myself from engaging in pointless arguments. I would leave a comment, then unfollow the thread. It helped, but it wasn’t enough. I still had to respond to and deal with arguments that sprouted up on my own posts.
It’s good to understand the types of shoddy arguments people make, and it’s good to know that some shoddy arguments are pervasive and predictable. But to be hammered with constant ill-informed political opinions from people you hardly speak to in real life… It’s not necessary. It’s not good.
When I saw the article announcing that candidate’s second run for presidency, I decided to go cold turkey. For the past four months, I have been avoiding electoral news on Facebook. I refuse to like, comment, post, or click on anything related to the 2020 election. I read electoral news only on actual news sources, and discuss it only with my real-life friends and family.
Facebook has caught on quickly by showing me fewer election-related posts. But I can’t escape the feeling that it’s always one step ahead of me. Now I see pro-woman memes and anti-capitalist rants and screencapped tweets that support trans rights. When I get tired of one type of content, Facebook outflanks me and quickly determines what else will get me to spend time on the platform.
You don’t want to be angry? Ok, watch this Black comedian make fun of white people. See how woke you are, Facebook seems to be saying.
It’s a superficial ploy, but clearly it has a pacifying effect on me. I sent a video of an Asian dad’s stand up routine to my partner, who is Filipino. Later I watched another and another, laughing at each of them. Only later did I wonder why Asian comedians always have to talk about being Asian, and why white liberals laugh so hard at jokes about white people.
Instagram is no better. In the past seven days, I’ve spent 5 hours and 20 minutes on the platform (more than on Facebook), mostly messaging and posting content, but also consuming my share of parkour videos and vacation photos. Let’s be honest. I could be using that time a lot more wisely.
Instagram is owned by Facebook—same business model, same addictive junk food content—and Instagram’s advertising revenue is ever-increasing.
To participate is to validate and strengthen the platform. Reading, watching, commenting, and sharing allows Facebook (and Instagram) to grow more and more tendrils into your subconscious. As Chamath Palihapitiya contends, “If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and reign it in.”
Is pushing back enough? Or is the only winning move not to play?
It starts to feel pointless, doesn’t it? Did Facebook show you this post to make you feel superior to other people, to validate you, to pacify you? How many anti-Facebook posts have you read? Does it ever actually have an effect on your social media usage?
Social media tries to fill the gaping hole of disconnection left by modern society, and it does a mediocre job of it. It connects and isolates us at the same time. It’s a fragmented, capitalist solution to a fragmented, capitalist problem. It can never work.
What I really want is a utopian world where social media is controlled by the people, not by the wealthy. We can begin by breaking up Facebook, as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes suggested earlier this month.
The cynic will argue Facebook is just giving us what we want. But I’m not the one with $300 billion, so I find that to be a cheap argument. Facebook clearly has the power to exacerbate my worst impulses. I can’t seem to step away. Even though it’s marred by all the bad things going on under the hood, I cling to my rosy vision of the good social media can do.
I don’t know if my vision is realistic. Maybe it’s part of the addiction.
For now, the best I can do is reduce my reliance on social media, replace it with other things, and at the very least, get my political discussions the hell off Facebook.