By Lisa Brunette
I first joined Facebook in 2008, and this was my first status update. Some of you might remember back then the convention was to treat one's name as the beginning of a sentence, with the self as subject and awkwardly talking about yourself in the third person ("Lisa Brunette is annoyed that her shoe is untied." "Lisa Brunette is hungry for sushi."). If you've been on as long as I have, you might look back on those days with some nostalgia, and hmm... isn't that weird in itself.
I had a good excuse to be a relatively early Facebook adopter: I was a journalist at the time and involved in a new media start-up in Seattle called Crosscut. It was my job to learn as much as I could about social media.
It's been 11 years now, over a decade in which I've spent countless hours viewing posts and shares from my 'friends' and 'Like' pages, more than a decade of birthday acknowledgments and life events and politics and of joining and leaving many a group. The bulk of my activity ceased to be easily justified on professional grounds years ago, though for a long time it was fueled by the need to promote my books.
These days, I find myself rejecting Facebook's legitimate place in our lives altogether. You might have noticed I've been scaling back. The longer the stretch of time I spend away from Facebook, the less I feel like participating in it.
Eleven years is a long haul to have been on Facebook; that's as long as my first marriage. I think about the ways my time might have been put to better use: learning a language or two, reading many more books, growing plants and trees, experiencing nature, volunteering, mastering a difficult yoga pose like Astavakrasana, cultivating deeper relationships in real life.
I'm also beginning to see that Facebook's overall effect on society as a whole is probably detrimental. Through algorithmic pushes and punishments, it increases binary thinking and decreases opportunities for serendipity, locking us all in echo chambers in which what we like and what we think are rarely broadened or challenged but instead constantly reinforced and narrowed. Our behavior is all the while collected as data and used to sell us everything from new shoes to political candidates.
Facebook's even listening to us, we now know. We read confirmation of this in the reports about microphones in our digital devices picking up what we say, but it's just "keywords," they tell us, nothing to worry about, so we keep having the eerie experience of talking about something and then seeing an ad for that same something. And we keep using Facebook. Isn't that strange? Why does it have this hold on us, and how can we break it?
Facebook's privacy violation, data mining, and aggressive targeted marketing is nothing new. It's all been part of the company's modus operandi from the very beginning. Check out this post, also from 2008, my fourth public post on the platform.
Facebook creates the worst kind of feedback loop. It throws us into constant comparathons in which we can never, ever measure up to our friends and influencers - so marketers can swoop in and sell us something that promises to make us as good but can't possibly live up to that promise. The outcome, though quite lucrative for the company, isn't good for us. Social media in general, and Facebook in particular, exacerbates the depression and sense of isolation that drives so many (especially young) people to drug addiction and suicide.
An unabashedly insidious, decidedly for-profit venture, Facebook sucks us in with the illusion of connection, networking, and something not even remotely approximating true "friendship," while successfully delivering on none of these things. Facebook activity robs us of the chance to share our life events, perspectives, and anecdotes in person with real people who can engage with us in meaningful ways.
Facebook promises to be a useful tool to share information and bring people to together, but instead, human nature and the algorithms that exploit it drive the posts and activity of the lowest common denominator higher in ranking. Let's take as example my most positive Facebook group experience, one devoted to native plants in my state. What I really want to see in this group are posts about rare native plants or positive IDs on plants I've seen in my own environment. But what Facebook most often shows me are the worst posts; for example, a common one is from naive, newbie members who did not take the time to read the group rules and post pictures of beloved plants that happen to be invasive species. The ensuing storm of reactions only ensures the (unintentionally) offensive post will become more popular and more likely to be seen. This group is moderated the best I've seen of any, yet Facebook's own algorithm works against it. Despite the increasing policing done by moderators in groups and individuals on their own walls, Facebook too often falls far short of the mark.
So why participate at all? My own fears run the gamut: that I'll lose touch with people I've known (especially in far-away places I no longer live), that I'll somehow miss something important, that I won't be in the know or included or thought of. But Facebook keeps me in touch with and in front of friends based on what's good for Facebook, not me. In a world without social media, we would keep in touch with those who are important to us, and let the rest wane naturally.
There are also its ancillary tools, which have only recently been added, I suspect, in an attempt to try to make Facebook appear more useful than it actually is. Facebook Marketplace has effectively replaced Craigslist, so I suppose there's the concern that I won't have a place to go to buy and sell things you can't get in stores or at lower prices. I've also found the freely provided information from experts - that native plant group is still the best example here - to be truly useful. And while I no longer wish to participate in an events program that notifies everyone in my "friends" list every time I express interest or attend something, I did like the ease of searching and sifting through what's happening nearby.
However, that bit of return doesn't outweigh the risks and consequences, so I'm looking for ways around. I'm sure the local newspapers and radio would love me to use their events listings, there are always garage sales and flea markets in real life, and I've recently got a lot out of joining a few non-profits and going to their events instead of relying on Facebook groups to exercise my tribal impulses.
Perhaps most importantly, I want to focus on real friendships - not the elusive list of "friends" Facebook tells me I have.
As I continue to scale back on social media with a desire toward total deactivation, I hope you'll connect with me in other, arguably more meaningful, ways.
If you're in the St. Louis area, consider whether we already are or want to be friends in real life. Rather than hoping that we saw each other's recent status updates, let's have lunch and share our news in person.
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Since scaling back on social media over the past couple of months, I've already recovered enough time to have worked my way through half of Jane Austen's novels, reading the originals and watching many of the screen adaptations. Done: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. Still to go: Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. I'm inspired by her epistolary-driven storylines to dive back into letter writing, if any penpals will have me. Please let me know if you're interested!
LinkedIn is likely staying, out of professional necessity, and admittedly, we're still figuring out what best serves Brunette Games, since it provides a full-time livelihood for our entire household, plus another's. There's also the question of my labor of love, Cat in the Flock. So I can't promise you won't see any social media posts ever again; I reserve the right to change my mind.
But for the record, I don't believe that social media is really the necessity everyone seems to think it is.
Please reach out to me privately if you'd like other contact information. If you're reading this on the blog, and it sparks thoughts you want to share, please do so in the comments below. I wish you the best of luck with your own journeys through social media and beyond.