Dear Facebook Friends;
It is time for me to go, though I don’t want to sound melodramatic about it. I would like to correspond with many of you, but I have come to the realization we are not actually communicating with each other. This short-form web media to which so many of us have become accustomed—let’s face it, addicted—does not exist for the sake of our connections to each other. It is constructed to be a marketplace and we are the commodities.
I was an early adopter of internet social networking starting with Friendster in 2002. MySpace happened around ‘04 or ‘05 and by the time of the great financial meltdown of ‘08 everyone who had been on MySpace had migrated to Facebook. We liked its minimalist approach; compared to the cluttered cesspool of spam that was MySpace, Facebook was clean and simple. Most important was its PRIVACY. At that time you knew, without a doubt, that not a single person could see your profile, pictures, and updates if you didn’t want them to. (There was the “Beacon” fiasco but Zuckerberg quickly retracted it and apologized.) To this day I maintain the reason Facebook superseded MySpace was its superior privacy.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Then suddenly everyone else started using Facebook too. To our sometimes pleasant surprise and other times tense chagrin, old classmates, bosses, long lost friends, moms, ex lovers, and the biggest anti-contemporary-culture curmudgeons we knew were assimilated into the hive-mind of Facebook. We started to see the world through the lens Facebook created for us. Then we started to see ourselves through its format as well: collections of consumer tastes. We could no longer have a simple write-up about ourselves; our profiles became an assortment of links to movies and music and shows we could “Like” and display, like coded merit badges. To “Like” something became a part of our lexicon.
Every few months, Facebook changed. Sometimes the changes would be merely cosmetic; sometimes the format would shift and morph and evolve into something else entirely. Every time this happened I thought, “This isn’t what I signed up for,” but I got used to it and continued. Despite upsurges of indignation from time to time, we kept coming back. The biggest problem was that the privacy settings were also subject to dramatic shifts and morphs and evolutions. The very nature of what would be public vs. private became an algorithm too obtuse for the most savvy of web users and IF you thought you had it figured it out…it would change again.
Now there are major changes on the close horizon. Perhaps the biggest overhaul yet. Zuckerberg is positioning Facebook to be an internet hub, really THE internet hub; he wants it to be what AOL was in the ’90s, only exponentially bigger and more sophisticated. And unstoppable. Facebook wants to know where you are, what you are doing, and when; the best means of achieving such omnipotence is to make itself a conduit through which you consume media, connect with friends, find events and places to go, etc. They just announced deals with Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and others to make Facebook the path of least resistance to using these popular services. Now, every guilty-pleasure movie I watch will be broadcast to all my friends (yes I watched “Superman III” and I know it’s terrible but I was just curious and I only saw part of it on HBO as a kid and I turned it off after forty-five minutes please don’t judge me) and likewise I now know what my friends are doing. (Nickelback?! I thought you were cool, man.)
If I were confident that I could just turn off all the settings that do this, it would be one thing, but I’m not. Even if it seems to be the case now, I have no reason to trust that it won’t change over time. Again, Facebook is the market, we are the commodities; as products we have less and less control over what shelf we sit on and what label we wear. I am certain that the Facebook of late 2011, had it emerged this way from the start, would have never become the de facto home page of most computer users. This is why I am quitting Facebook, but it is bigger than that.
There is little room for true expression on Facebook, because we are constrained within a certain format that keeps narrowing all the time. Facebook (and other social media) design and redesign this format for a better user experience, but remember, the users they have in mind are marketers. It’s great that you posted that insightful article from The Guardian, but what do you really think? Great ideas and perspectives cannot be conveyed in a comment, nor in a “Like,” obviously. I maintain that any thought worth thinking, any idea worth expressing, any dialogue worth having has to be more than 140 characters.
Moreover, expressions are not worth much if we cannot actually spend time with them; the steady stream of posts, likes, and events re-wire our brains to prefer the short, quick, and easy. Just like pure sugar, once we’ve had a big dose and the insulin wears off we’re hungrier than ever, only we desire real nutrition even less. Often, with my stressful job, I think I don’t have the mental energy for anything more that a stream of simple bits of input, but I do. Anything worth doing takes time; instant gratification leads to emptiness or, worse, pain.
This is my call: Make it longer. Read more books, essays, poems; write more; watch challenging movies and plays; have lengthy discussions with wise friends; learn an instrument or how to take a quality photograph; go for long walks (or runs or bike rides etc.) and spend time with your own mind without distractions. Spend time with difficult ideas, let them develop in your mind, take the time to articulate them in your own words. Fingerpaint. Whatever! Embrace the long-form in every way possible. We are more than status updates.
We can do it, but we need each other. Please, encourage and challenge me, and I will do the same in return. Who’s with me?
All power to the long-form!