“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at…”
Henry David Thoreau
It seems everywhere you turn today, there is bad news, resentment, and festering anger. We see more stories about “The Others.” People with different political beliefs, people with different religious beliefs, people with different sociological beliefs than us. We get infuriated. We don’t understand The Others. “They are ruining the world,” we think. “Why can’t they see how wrong they are?”
At the same time, the data that are the digital echoes of our daily rituals are being spread to the ends of our online world. The digital ripples left behind from the wake of our beliefs and social constructs are being harvested and monetized as part of a new Gold Rush for 21st century corporations. Our energy and outrage is lining the pockets of the plutocrats. We are being sold. We are the product. We are digital chattel.
So I’m finally doing it. After many years and many interactions, I am deleting my Facebook account. You are probably seeing several other people doing the same in the light of recent news (e.g. tens of millions of accounts having data stolen from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica, Facebook possibly contributing to genocide). Initially I had the same reaction. Instead, I removed much of my personal information from my profile, deleted photos, trimmed my friends list, cleared my ad preferences, opted out of 3rd party ad platform, removed linked apps, changed my name, and other actions. But it wasn’t enough, something happened. I was exposed to the work of Marshall McLuhan.
The medium is the message
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” This book is a quite prescient take on the consequences of any medium. McLuhan proposed that it is not the content carried by a medium that is important. The personal and social consequences are shaped by the medium itself. These consequences “result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”
Facebook, as a medium, has a couple of characteristics that are disconcerting when it comes to how information flows through society.
The information we are exposed to is self-selected from our own circle of friends. We tend to gravitate towards those that share our own world view, those that we have much in common with. Our default behavior on Facebook is to live within an echo chamber where like-minded thoughts are amplified and reverberate throughout our social network.
Facebook also promotes a culture of communication that is devoid of context and subtlety. Every status update and notification competes for our limited attention span. There is a quest to maximize user engagement: the strive for more likes, shares, and comments. Sensational news headlines, pithy quotes, the latest “what TV show character are you?” quiz. We live in a world of instant gratification and a quest for the next hit of Dopamine.
On the other hand, Facebook has added benefits of drastically reducing the time and effort it takes to stay in contact with loved ones. We can more easily schedule time to get together with others that are geographically separated. We can stay in contact with friends that are no longer feasible to see in person. We get to see and hear about their day. We get to hear about their joy, and their pain. It has the possibility of bringing us closer together. But…
A cost I’m not willing to pay
For Facebook to exist, there is a cost. It takes money to run a business, to run servers, to maintain the code that the medium is built upon. Historically, we have directly traded goods or paid money in exchange for services. But Facebook operates on a model where the users no longer front the cost. The funding has shifted. We the users subsidize the cost by becoming the product that is sold. All our interactions, all our data; it’s liquid gold for those wanting to sell products or services.
There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
What sells most? Fear sells. At its core, Facebook is a medium defined and driven by Fear. Fear is what drives Facebook’s continued success. We can spread love until the cows come home on Facebook, but it won’t make a difference in the long run. It’s not the content, it’s the medium. We have to get out into the world and get our hands dirty.
I refuse to continue to be a participant on a medium that actively betrays the very principles that I believe in. I refuse to be the product. I refuse to be bullied into closing myself off from others. My life will not be driven by fear.
I choose compassion. I choose empathy. I choose listening and understanding. I choose deeper connections. I choose books and blog posts. I choose deeper thought and rational debate. I choose to pay directly for the services that augment my life. I choose not to live surrounded by a daily digest of Pithy Slogans and Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.
Goodbye, Facebook. I’m not sure I’ll miss you even the slightest bit.