About 5 months ago, I walked away from facebook and around 600 facebook friends. These weren't faceless farmville cartels or business acquaintances. All but 10 or so of the people on my friends list I've actually met in person. I do miss seeing updates from many of the people I know on facebook. I don't roll my eyes when someone posts photos of cats or food or even when they first-world-complain about problems like other travelers changing their kid's dirty diapers in the cabin of an airplane 35,000 above Lubbock. Yes, I even ... appreciate... the sincerity, (and the utter ridiculousness), of the "Prayers, People!!!1!" posts enlisting everyone's help in a mass 10am Care-Bear stare in support of their uncle's neice's cousin twice removed's cataract surgery.
Despite missing these little glimpses into my friends' everyday lives, I am on the whole much happier having walked away from it. No single factor drove my decision to leave, it was really just a combination of factors. In short, I have come to accept that facebook is simply not a healthy place for growing your relationships with other people.
As I read and posted more on facebook, I began to feel increasingly like a soldier on the front lines of a long, cold battle for reason, sanity, and perhaps most importantly of all, genuineness. The constant hail of little changes, tweaks, and improvements rain down on us like a sort of perpetual mortar fire, each asserting more and more control over the content we share, the content we see, and how we feel. Users now matter-of-factly take their acts of sedition to their own facebook walls, scrawling out step-by-step instructions to un-enable, un-default, or un-do the latest bell or whistle foisted upon them by the envelope pushers and arbitors of taste in the valley.
Facebook seemingly thrives on and despite an adversarial relationship with its own users, strike 1.
When I first started posting on facebook many years ago, I made the firm decision not to filter my posts for anyone: no filters for family, no filters for children, no filters for other "sensitive" groups. I steadfastly maintained a straight-up policy: "This is my wall. I will say whatever the fuck I want on it. You may always unfriend me if you aren't comfortable with what I have to say." It wasn't an excuse to be a dick, or to be deliberately hurtful to people. But in my little corner of facespace, there would be no iced tea-and-smiling-faces-sometimes Southern platitudes — shit would be real and everyone would see the same thing. In short, one was either on the list or off the list.
As conversations shifted away from watercooler'n'weather posts toward deeper, more complicated conversations that I wanted to have, I began to feel an increasing awareness of the blowback potential. As I would write, I would find myself asking, "Is saying this worth the torrent of shit that it will unleash from a handful of the hater-assholes on my 'friends' list?" and "Will this be worth my having to field IMs and e-mails from other friends to justify why I keep 'those dicks' around?"
In short, I was asking, "Is this that important?"
Now, the right answer is, "It's important enough." For Christ's sake, it's my goddamn facebook wall, not Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech. I'm not trying to change the world, I'm just trying to have a conversation about how I think we could make it better. But the mindfuck created by the skin-deep intellectualism of FOX News, the low-hanging fruit of sound bites and share buttons, and the ever-growing cynicism of people on the Internet are strong factors that weigh heavily on the ability to actually be a goddamn grown up for a few minutes on the Internet.
Enema flow like "Obama is a Socialist. Send him back to Africa!" wash past crowds of cheering onlookers like an Fleet float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. A post about the American healthcare system being the most costly with the worst outcomes brings out every idiot, pundit, hater, cynic, and goddamn arm chair attorney alive within 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon to tell you how big of a left-wing asshole you are.
It's clear that it's very important that we have some conversations. Just not here. Or now. On facebook. Because deep conversations just harsh all over everyone's efforts to build their personal brands.
A medium that encourages and thrives on the sharing of hollow tabloid content over substantive, timely and important conversation, strike 2.
Then there are the never-ending series of revelations which continue to ricochet off news outlets and tech blogs like sonar. Each time one of these events bubbles to the surface, it sets off a wave of posts re-re-re-clarifying the relationship we users have with our social media overlords: ping - YOU are NOT the customer, ping - YOU are the product, ping.....
In late summer of 2014, news broke of an experiement conducted by facebook where they sought to determine if negativity could be propagated across a social media stream. By artificially adjusting the relevance figures of content with negative language to appear more often in users' news feeds and subsequently analyzing the language in the users' own posts, they were able to confirm that both our individual and collective emotions could be influened by tickling the content we are shown.
Justifably, we users were outraged.
"You don't do things like this, it's not right!" they cried.
"It's fucking bullshit." they swore.
"It's time to leave!" they shouted.
One friend out of 600, Dean, left facebook for good over this so-called experiment. I guess the masses are already worn down from fighting to keep their profile photos from being used to pimp products on their friends pages, their messages from appearing in friends-of-friends-of-friends event streams, pictures of their kids close-friends-and-family only, that a sort-of facebook-induced-PMS just doesn't rate very highly on the fuck-off scale.
The contrast of Joe 6's outraged reactions to the reactions of many in the social media business and silicon valley, however, was rather chilling: "What's your problem? It's called A/B testing. We all do this, all the time: this is how you build a product, people." They're right, of course, companies A/B test products all the time. But usually, the yardstick on an A/B test is measuring the benefit or value for the users being tested — do users find this icon easier over here or over there, is red better or blue?
This experient was different on so many levels, and the inability for someone to neither discern nor appreciate that is a huge, huge red flag.
A company whose valuation is based on a lab tech's infatuation with watching millions of frustrated little white mice scurrying their way around the company's maze of a product? Strike 3.
My thoughts will continue in Part 2. In the meantime, have a listen to Benjamen Walker's excellent podcast series entitled The Dislike Club over on Soundcloud.