With the exception of the Messenger app, I am in the middle of a three-month break from Facebook, and it feels awesome. Several friends of mine gave up social media over the years, and its addictive pull finally affected me in a way that I can notice. I knew things were getting out of hand when I looked at my phone a few times a day in order to achieve a feeling of validation. Undoubtedly, I did this without noticing for quite a long time and that frightens me.
While there’s a certain joy to getting positive feedback and even constructive criticism, it can’t be my coffee. I can’t need it. It can’t be my motivation. I don’t want it to be what I live for. And I don’t want to carry it in my pocket on demand and be disappointed if a post doesn’t do as well as I thought. And I definitely don’t want to hand this power to a company that exists only to acquire and sell my attention.
Don’t get me wrong, I do want validation. I keep a collection of positive notes from work in case I want to feel better or I need to demonstrate my value to an employer. I even give myself validation through reflecting on what I’m doing well. But in general I want a greater separation between myself and caring about how others perceive me. In a Ted Talk, actor Jordan Gordan Levitt shared how caring about Instagram made him less creative. He says:
the more attention you’re able to get, the more attention Instagram is able to sell. So it’s in Instagram’s interest for you to get as much attention as possible. And so it trains you to want that attention, to crave it, to feel stressed out when you’re not getting enough of it.
As a creator and writer, my deepest satisfaction comes when I make something and realize it is great on my own, regardless of the reaction it gets. By not needing a positive reaction, I get to enjoy it better if it comes, and I’m free to be more creative. Basically, I’m trying to be a grown-ass man here.
Facebook, however, was training me to write and think in ways that serve Facebook’s interests. It wasn’t until I took a break that I realized how deep its influence goes. For the first couple weeks of the break I not only had random witty thoughts, they were in the bite-sized format that serves Facebook’s purposes, the sort of thing that only works in that peculiar, “not announcing this to anyone in particular” format.
Curiously, I also thought of how to present it to get the best reactions. I know not to include certain types of nuance or the consideration of multiple sides on that platform. If I do, I risk a post flopping, because as we all know if you like just ONE post about cats, now you’re getting cat ads with your receipts when you shop at Target, and all your friends and co-workers think you’re on board with all the cat conclusions when you just wanted to show support to your buddy for advancing a conversation without aligning yourself with the entire enemy cat tribe. (Cats are standing in for politics and religion here.)
It’s not quite as bad as on Youtube, where literally any topic of interest to me, as a man in his 20s, from dating to video games to self-help, eventually has a suggested video trying to recruit and radicalize me into one conspiracy or another. “Having trouble with your air conditioning? It’s those pesky cat lovers, hearts full of rage, waking up every morning to sabotage our way of life.”
That’s not all Facebook or Youtube’s fault. Part of it is human nature. The algorithms have discovered what demagogues and political talk radio has known all along, that if you want get peoples’ attention, an effective strategy is to appeal to humanity’s fear of having an evil outsider tribe coming to get you.
If you were a country or special interest looking to purchase the attention of another nation’s citizens to exploit divisions and tensions to destabilize them, you’d be foolish not to use these services. I bet everyone’s doing it.
I’m taking a break from that.
Addictive without being evil
I don’t think social media companies are evil. Still, if you haven’t noticed an addictive pull yet, it’s coming. Here’s why:
In order for workers at Facebook and other ad-based social media to be secure in their jobs and feed their families, a major part of their work must be in finding ways to keep people engaged. They exist to sell our attention and the promise of modifying our behavior to advertisers, and they can speak to our insecurities on an individual level. That on its own is bad enough, but the key is that they must continually get better at it because like many publicly traded companies their model requires growth.
Even if addiction wasn’t the goal and they actively fought against it from within, features that happen to be increasingly engaging will end up staying in the programming. No malice required.
The Solution: Become the Customer, use Paid Services
Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, who I must credit as the one who has most influenced me on this topic, points out that on social media, in order for two people to talk, it can’t happen unless it’s ultimately for the benefit of an unseen third party that wants to change your behavior. When two people talk using a service they pay for, the relationship is a lot clearer and at least doesn’t have to be based on manipulation and spying. This is true even of Messenger, which exists to collect data for ads I will see somewhere, if not on Facebook. Unfortunately I can’t quite give that up yet.
In an interview with PBS, he suggests social media would be better on a subscription basis, like Netflix, because then we would be the customer. On Facebook, we are the product. He’s got me wondering if I should stop using Messenger and Gmail too and look for paid services.
Facebook is trying to satisfy drives for meaning, connection, validation. Ultimately these are good things. What I’ve been learning is that almost anything else I could be doing to get those things is better than trying to get it on Facebook, and perhaps it will be good for me not to have a fast-food version of it at arm’s length.
When I started creating posts for this blog, something interesting happened. People told me in person that it was not safe for them to “like” what I was writing in public, on Facebook, but that they thought it was really good. Given the sensitive nature of religion, I can understand that. Beyond that, I think we feel like we are being watched, and we are. By our friends, by society, and by algorithms. I think we’re starting to realize that what we’re being asked to give away is worth more than we’re getting for it. The juice is not worth the squeeze.
I don’t know if I’ll go back to Facebook or if this break will be permanent, but what I do know is that I’d rather pay for the tools with money than with my mind.