After trying and failing Dry January two years in a row, last month I finally succeeded. Waking up on the first morning of February, a Thursday, having not had a single drop of booze for a month, I felt pretty damn good about myself. There had been plenty of temptation, but somehow I’d held strong. Buoyed by a mighty confidence that morning I resolved: ‘Usually, after an ordeal like that, I’d rush straight to the pub tonight after work, but you know what? I think I might just wait until the weekend. Be reeeal chill about it.’
Later that same day, sat in the pub at 5:30pm, I toasted a well dried January with a friend. Halfway through the first beer, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and said to my mate, ‘Hang on a minute. I’ve just gotta check somethi—…’ I paused, my finger halfway to the Facebook icon. I let it hover there for a second, the blue of the logo dissolving into the other colours and shapes I wasn’t properly seeing as I stared through the screen and into the middle distance. It hit me. Somehow I’d completely forgotten that in my December hubris I had also bundled in a Facebook embargo into the whole Dry January thing and I had deleted my account. It had seemed certain to me at the time that this was doomed to fail and that I would crack and go running back into Fuckerberg’s cold tentacle embrace before a week was up. Yet here I was, a full month behind me, not even remembering the decision to get off the social media platform in the first place. This kind of momentum should be capitalised on. I didn’t do so with the booze, so maybe here was a chance at redemption. I looked up at my beer, took a big swig, and then dragged the Facebook icon off to the top of the screen and straight into the bin that says ‘Uninstall.’
A slight pang of regret. A little shiver of anticipation. A nub of vindication that would grow and grow with each passing day.
Now, half a month later I can definitely say: Good riddance to evil rubbish. Here’s why I hope I’m never going back to Facebook:
1. The Inescapable Matrix of Advertising
It ain’t exactly a secret: Online, if you’re using a service for free, that’s probably because the actual service is you. Or more accurately, the product. We all know this. The business of the internet runs on advertising, and advertising works most effectively when there’s a higher chance that it’ll lead to a purchase because it’s something that you might actually be interested in. In other words, when it’s targeted well. Just between Google and Facebook alone, pretty much your whole identity is mapped, stored, and quantified in databases in order to better sell you shit. Your personal details, your interests, your friends—it’s all rich fodder for the digital trough at which advertisers feed. You become the most beautiful, succulent little bullseye.
Not only do we all know this, but we feel it too. We may have been conditioned—and have conditioned ourselves—to be indifferent to the feeling; we’ve told ourselves that that’s a fair price to pay for convenience: Who cares if we’re literally inviting Orwell’s Big Brother into our homes if it means we can speak into a cube and order a new juicer on next-day delivery—but deep down we cannot shake the feeling of sheer wrongness that comes with living in this voluntary panopticon. Or, at least, one would hope we can’t. For me personally, even when I was having a great time using Facebook, I could always feel the unease and general sense of ickyness that came with knowing that there were eyes on me at all times. I’d click on a link about something, and when I came back to the main feed there’d be ads related to that thing. Similarly I might Google something in another window and that info would go straight to Facebook, and then onto my feed in the form of an ad.
When I stopped using Facebook in January, I cut down my use of Google as much as possible too. I switched to a non-user-tracking search engine. Icognito mode became my friend. Suddenly, it felt like advertisers didn’t know me anymore—not nearly so disturbingly intimately well, anyway. Before it was like they lived with me, or at least dug through my garbage every night. Now, they were blinded and hobbled, shooting in the dark. It wasn’t until this break that I realised how good it felt, the sensation of not being sold anything. Obviously there are still endless reams of information about me out there, but already a difference could be felt, and the joyous lightness of not having advertisers shoving products down my throat with ruthlessly targeted efficiency made it a lot easier to decide to not go back to Facebook after January was done.
2. The Unbelievably Compulsive Time Sink
On Facebook, you can just keep scrolling. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, until you either die or the algorithm gives up. And the algorithm never gives up.
3. The Deafening Clamour of the Echo Chamber
There’s a process that occurs on Facebook that basically everyone engages in sooner or later: As time goes on, you streamline your friends list. You cull. Whether by removing people entirely or just by limiting what they can see of you and vice versa you reduce the size of the crowd in your virtual hall until it is made up of people whose opinions you can actually stomach. This is a pretty natural and understandable process. While it might be thrilling at first to engage someone in fiery debate, sooner or later you tire of it, or at least of the nonsense that some people post, whether in their space or anywhere else you might see it. So one by one you get rid of people. The racist trolls go first. Hell, you didn’t even know they were racist when you added them, but little by little they showed their true colours, so off with their heads. The misogynists, they’re trickier, they can be a little harder to spot. Sometimes they are quite subtle. But sooner or later they usually reveal themselves, so they can go too. There is of course nothing wrong with deciding that you don’t want to be surrounded by hate, but there is an inherent danger to this method. A mission creep that comes about from the natural human desire to be agreed with, and while you may start out getting rid of those you consider extreme there is always a very real chance that it won’t stop there. Speaking from personal experience, I ended up silencing people just because I knew they’d disagree with me on things. Good, smart, eloquent people with whom I had debated a number of times. Polite, enlightening discussions that grew to include others, debates out of which everyone got something. They were tiring, though, and eventually laziness took over and I made sure to subtly limit the possibility of debate. I didn’t do this a lot, but it did happen, and gradually my pool of dissenting opinion shrunk. The strength of the echo chamber increased. The rush of being surrounded by people that agree with you is formidable, but it is also dangerous. Your mind atrophies and calcifies. You limit the flow of new ideas into your space, and you suffer for it. But it is all so easy to do in Facebook’s model. We do it in real life too, but the difference is that there if you get into an exchange of ideas with someone, you cannot simply turn them off the moment your brain starts to hurt. I have wished for that ability more times than I can count in my time, but by and large I can honestly say that I am relieved that no such thing exists.
On Facebook though, it does.
4. Fake News! Get Yer Fake News Here!
I wrote a piece a little while back in which I tried to tackle the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the corporate media-stoked panic over the spread of ‘fake news’ on social media. I described the changing landscape of the media:
The power of the mainstream media is slowly waning. It still holds unbelievable sway over public consciousness — both in more overt ways like fact manipulation and more subtle, insidious ways such as value inculcation — but it is waning nonetheless, and people are slowly losing their faith in it.
And I tried to use that as context for their sudden obsession with the topic of ‘fake news’:
In the midst of all this, an endless tide of reports from those same institutions about the rise of ‘fake news’ and the dawn of a deadly ‘post-truth’ world. Who can save us from this apocalypse, they will ask in dismay. Who should be the only trusted source of information? Who, indeed? I wonder what their answer will be. It’s all very well clamping down on racist nonsense that presents itself as objective fact, or sexist tripe that tries to wear the mask of Real News, but to begin the march down the road of censorship is to walk a path lined with daggers.
There is a nuanced point to be made here. A point I am not sure I succeeded in making successfully in that piece, as after it went up I had a few people accusing me of trying to claim that the epidemic of fake news on social media was nonexistent, or negligible. That was by no means my point. Rather I was trying to highlight how the incredible democratisation of information flow brought about by social media has terrified the old gatekeepers, and how they have used the spectre of fake news to push a new form of censorship. The old giants have peddled lies for centuries, influencing the rise and fall of nations; but here they now were, rapidly losing credibility and worrying about declining readerships, when all of a sudden they had a threat they could point at, something to make them look better in our eyes again. ‘We’ve not been great to you, we know. We’re sorry for lying and swaying elections and destroying Iraq and whitewashing climate change — but look, please don’t leave us, don’t go out there, look how dangerous it is, the wolves prowl there in the dark!’
Of course there is truth to the dangers posed by Facebook-enabled fake news. It is egregiously noticeable, and it will likely get worse. It was another reason why I found it so easy to not go back to Facebook after my little break. The amount of dross shared by people on there, with seemingly no thought whatsoever for fact-checking or even common sense, is simply staggering. To their credit, Facebook has started to listen to people’s concerns a little bit—albeit in a predictably insidious way: By censoring or de-prioritising some small, independent outlets, making no distinction between progressive, reputable blogs and hate-and-lie-filled nationalist screeds.
We are going to be seeing an increase in believable fake news as the years go on. Machine learning AIs, bot armies, and highly credible faking of audio and video will come into prominence, turning the perception of reality into a game. Trust will be crucially undermined first, and an ever increasing apathy will follow. Facebook will likely be the main Wild West upon which this all plays out. A polarised population, paradoxically too gullible and skeptical at the same time, will be the result. The most effective antidote to that is a well-educated populace capable of critical thinking. Facebook, the beast that thrives on clicks and shares, knows that that kind of population is the opposite of what its business model needs.
5. The Tethering of Identity to an Ephemeral Virtual Market
I’m no Luddite. Technology is, obviously, amazing. Actually I should say: Technology can be amazing. It is after all a tool, and like any tool the value of its final utility will depend upon the user. It can be used for good, or ill. Put a hammer in the hand of a builder and you’ll get something good out of it. Give it to a serial killer and, well…
This is one of the more common arguments used in Facebook’s favour. That it is just a tool, and that you can get out of it whatever you want. You can be a builder, you don’t have to be a serial killer. Which is true, and I do not begrudge anyone using it in whatever way they deem good and useful. It seems to me, however, that there is a malicious streak built into Facebook’s DNA that prevents it from being an entirely neutral entity. Something that makes Facebook be less like a hammer and more like the One Ring. It may look like a simple tool, but it has an agenda of its own. The Ring wants to be found so it can return to Sauron, and Facebook wants us to spend as much time on it as possible—ultimately to pour ourselves into it wholesale—so that it can fully map our wants and needs and to control that data for advertising and more. It, like the turbo form of capitalism that we have been living with for the past few decades and which spawned it, is cancerous, and it needs infinite growth. It wants us to share as much as possible with it. It desires our very identity. Some people manage to give Facebook the absolute bare minimum, and I admire them for it, but even though I started out like that, it wasn’t long before I found myself on a bit of a slippery slope. A slope that leads to an erosion of self, of sorts.
When you use Facebook a lot you find yourself giving it more and more. More photos, more thoughts, and you begin to depend on the feedback received therein. Its insatiable hunger for You starts to get matched by your need for its feedback. Facebook knows that dependency and it carefully nurtures it. The tiny dopamine hit you receive every time someone likes something you’ve shared. It’s a micro form of the quantification of value, of your worth. There’s something very anti-human about it. The beauty of the self is that it exists away from numbers and grades. Numbers matter in accounting; they shouldn’t in human interaction. It took me a little while to realise, to see it like this, but once I did I couldn’t see it any other way: Facebook has created a pseudo-market for human interaction.
Phillip Pullman gave a speech a few years ago about the Conservative-encouraged encroachment of the profit motive into areas previously free from it. He used libraries as his case study:
And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”
Now, of course, there is a difference here between the market of pounds and dollars that Pullman is talking about and the market of Likes and shares that is found on Facebook. But nevertheless the sentiment rang true for me there too. Being able to see, to count, the amount of love a unit of human interaction gets—it’s perverse. But it’s very easy to enjoy playing the game, posting stuff for the Likes. The numbers may be abstract but the sense of validation is very real. It can suck you in. It can lay a filter over your vision, and you can start to see things in a warped way. Day to day experiences, thoughts, scenes—there’s a part, however small it may be, of your brain that becomes devoted to calculating the Like potential of everything. You become a living extension of Facebook.
The Situationists in Paris in ‘68 had a saying that embodied their manifesto: ‘Vivre sans temps mort’ — live without dead time. It was meant to be a repudiation of the societal shift that was changing citizens from producers to consumers. This is Facebook’s great trick, ultimately. It wants you to believe yourself a producer, a creator, using its platform to share yourself and your work. It’s hell of a bait and switch. In reality it is cementing your status, your identity, into a form that suits its needs: You are a consumer, fodder for advertisement and a mine of data, kept happy and placated by Likes and shares.
I met some quite amazing people through Facebook in the time that I was on there. But leaving for a month made me see things quite clearly: It’s a dystopian pile of brain-atrophying, interaction-commodifying, identity-selling horseshit. It can go fuck itself.