A few weeks ago, I pitched my editor a story about exploring what my experiences would be like if I avoided going on Facebook for 10 days. I expected it to be a lighthearted, humorous exploration about the withdrawals of social media addiction. After all, I had visited the site dozens of times a day, every day, for more than 10 years. Like many, I’ve come to rely on it for keeping in touch with friends, getting news, and updating people on my life.
Instead of a journey of withdrawal, however, what my little experiment quickly turned into was a meditation on just how dreadful of a place Facebook has become, though this isn’t something that really hit me until after my experiment was over. When I started using Facebook again, I had one main revelation: It’s long since stopped being the fun, exciting place it was in its heyday.
As a matter of fact, when contemplating what I felt like when I returned to Facebook after my break, the first thing that came to mind was dialogue from the opening scene of The Social Network, the 2010 film about the founding of Facebook. In that scene, Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright is trying to have a conversation with Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, but she can hardly get a word in because Zuckerberg is pinging her with three different conversations at once. It’s then, when Zuckerberg finally takes a pause, that Albright finally has a chance to squeak out an answer as to why she is breaking up with him: “Because it’s exhausting. Going out with you is like dating a Stairmaster.”
Using Facebook has become like dating Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg: It’s exhausting.
Untraining your brain
To be fully transparent, during the first day of my 10-day Facebook absence, I did feel withdrawal symptoms. I felt cut off from my friends who live in other countries. I was even concerned I might miss out on a cool event here in London, since sequestering myself from Facebook meant I wouldn’t be able to see upcoming events I might be interested in. There were even some times during the first day or two when I reflexively launched the Facebook app on my iPhone–an action triggered by instinct and muscle memory, showing just how addictive the platform is.
But those feelings quickly abated. By day three or four, not only did I not miss Facebook, I actually started feeling better mentally. I realized it was because I’d gotten off that Stairmaster for the first time in a decade. My newfound freedom from Facebook made me realize that using the site sometimes feels like work. How often have we been guilt-tripped into giving people generic birthday greetings on their walls even if they are just casual acquaintances? Let’s be honest, Facebook birthday greetings are as insincere as LinkedIn skill endorsements are. We give them because we are prompted by an algorithm to do so.
And how many times have you been offended that a friend or coworker hasn’t reacted to your latest post, whether it’s a hot selfie or your profound thoughts on the meaning of life? How many times have we liked or commented on a post because we didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings? Haven’t we all had our egos bruised when only three of our hundreds of friends have liked our last post? I’ve had friends freely admit it breeds resentment–and in retaliation, they ignore the posts of their friends who didn’t react.
But what’s even worse than hurt feelings is that many times going on Facebook can feel like you’re entering battle. I’m talking about the political fights and passive-aggressive bullshit people start with their so-called “friends” on the site. Staying away from Facebook for 10 days made clear just how much tribalism had been infecting my news feed. It’s the antithesis of Facebook’s stated mission of connecting people. Matter of fact, I know of more people who have had friendships end because of Facebook than people who have had friendships nurtured or created because of it.
There’s another, even more disturbing thing I noticed only after my return to Facebook: I felt safer off it than on it. Safe from misunderstandings that lead to fights with friends, safe from fake news and filter bubbles, and safe from my personal data being used to manipulate me for god only knows what purposes next. If there is one lasting effect the Cambridge Analytica scandal has had it’s that it shows us the more information we give to Facebook, the more the company–or its partners, or hackers–can use that information against us. And, as the 2016 elections showed, against the world.
Upon my return to Facebook, that fear–how will this photo/text/like be used to manipulate me in the future?–left me skittish about sharing information on the site. Indeed, since I came back, instead of sharing any new information I’ve instead deleted much of the biographical profile information Facebook has about me.
A necessary evil
All of this made me wonder why people stay on Facebook. It was a question I put to some friends. What was astounding was not one of them gave a positive answer in support of the site. Instead, their reasons for staying tied to Facebook usually boiled down to because something required them to be. “I don’t even have an email or phone number for my old college roommate, but can contact her via Facebook,” replied one. Another friend said he couldn’t leave Facebook because some sites and apps he uses require a Facebook login to register or work. Thankfully, that’s starting to change. But all I spoke to agreed that Facebook today isn’t the fun place it was a decade ago.
For what it’s worth, while I believe Facebook the site has lost its fun factor, I can’t say the same for the company’s other products. The standout is Instagram, which for the most part is still a joy to use. Instagram is still a place I feel excited to check out to see what my friends and others are sharing. It’s probably the social media platform where you’re least likely to get into a fight over politics or be confronted with fake news–though at least one researcher argues that it’s also a huge source of Russian propaganda.
Facebook’s other big product, WhatsApp, is also still fun and useful. And considering that it doesn’t collect as much data about you as Facebook–such as demographics and your likes–you’re less at risk of having your information used to manipulate you or others. WhatsApp also has a much better policy on privacy thanks to its end-to-end encryption; even Facebook can’t read your messages. Sadly, WhatsApp is increasingly being used to spread fake news–another problem Facebook is attempting to tackle.
Related: Delete your account
But if Facebook proper is so horrible, why am I still on it, especially after the insights I gained by not using it? In some ways, I have stepped back. Along with deleting most of my biographical data, I’ve removed the app from my phone, so the only way I can check it is through a web browser. I haven’t posted anything in weeks. Like my friends, I’ve chosen not to delete my account in part because it would cut me off from some people I want to stay in contact with.
But the second reason I haven’t given up altogether on Facebook is more positive. By nature, I’m an optimistic person who believes in the capacity of people–and companies–to change. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg and other Facebook execs promised to make the site safer and give users more control over how their data is used. If Facebook actually accomplishes this, it would begin to move back in the direction of being an enjoyable, safe place to hang out again. It’s something I’d like to see, and for that reason–that hope–I haven’t deleted my account.