I signed up with Facebook some time in 2009. Eleven years later, this past June, I decided it was finally time to delete my account.
You are under surveillance
Everyone gets this by now. It’s not even a malignancy exclusive to social media as it includes the companies that manage the search engines, internet browsers, operating systems, smart TVs, home assistants, and robotic vacuum cleaners you use. But I’ll state the obvious anyway: Facebook tracks your entire life.
It used to be that Facebook only had the data you actively gave it, such as your relationship status, who you are in a relationship with, who your meatspace friends are, photos of your face. It used to be that many of us didn’t even give Facebook our real names or photos of our faces. In fact, my first Facebook profile photo was just white text on a black background spelling “GTFO!”.
Fast-forward to today where it’s almost impossible to create an anonymous Facebook account. Through a combination of strict verification processes and undisclosed heuristics based on where and how you connect to the service, it will eventually demand your true identity or ban your aspiring pseudonymous account. This is something most people are not aware of because they haven’t tried it. But my friends and I have tried it, and we know. Making an account on Facebook without revealing your real identity is practically impossible.
Once Facebook has your real identity, it can start not only collecting data on your life but also mapping your social network, i.e. all the other people in your life. It does this without requiring their consent and often in ways that they might never find out. To add insult to injury, its facial recognition software will detect faces in your photographs and ask you to be the one to snitch on your friends, documenting their names and their location on the date of the photograph. The fact that Facebook will allow you to select which of your Facebook friends will be allowed to view these photos provides you a false sense of privacy conveniently distracting from the fact that Facebook itself always has access to all of this data.
The next crucial step to complete the surveillance apparatus is to install the Facebook app on your mobile device. Just make sure to grant it access to your location data. Here Facebook will spare you the humiliation of having to actively rat out all the people you come into contact with. As long as they also have the app the ratting out will be automated. It’s now a trivial matter to link all the people who were at the same place at a specific time.
Facebook’s messenger app is the cherry on top which gives them access to all your conversations. They don’t really need the contents of your messages. In the post-Snowden world we understand that metadata is king. Metadata is enough to know almost everything about you. Reading all your messages is just the victory lap, a flex, an affirmation that they totally own you.
All of this data is stored forever in redundant copies in datacenters across the world. It will be available for Facebook to use in any way they want. It is also automatically shared with U.S.A. and government agencies of other countries, and it’s available on demand from all the other governments who don’t have their surveillance systems fully automated yet.
Feeds modify your behavior
It is my impression that people view their feeds as a convenient summary of their friends’ activities. But the social media feeds are not a simple and impartial report. They are instead, streams of curated information. They are produced by algorithms which purportedly attempt to determine what information you will find interesting. The feeds also include items you never actively asked for, under the assumption that this information you weren’t exposed to before is something you will find interesting.
Behind this perception lies an unwarranted assumption of benevolence. Supposedly, the reason the feed algorithm chose to show you some things and omit others was just to make the feed more relevant to your interests. The feed algorithm just wants what’s best for you.
But the feed algorithm is controlled by people who have the power to chose what goes in it and what stays out. Could it be that the situation is exactly the reverse of the advertised benevolence? Could it be that the people in charge of the giant tech companies intentionally shape the information in your feed to attempt to influence what you think? There is no reason to assume this is not happening. They have both the means and the motivation to do it.
Taking this one step further, in the vacuum left by the information that has been purged from these platforms they are now free to insert controlled opposition: information which mimics the true information you would want to have access too, but which has been neutered and sanitized to conform with the goals of your masters.
Indeed, “feed” is an apt term to describe the nature of this steady trickle of information curated for us by our tech oligarchs. You are fed a diet chosen by them and you are what you eat. This naming remains in the spirit of the previous generation’s method of mass control which they called “programming” and was delivered through the television and radio.
Social media makes everybody dishonest
Everything in social media is driven by reward points: likes, upvotes, hearts, whatever they are called on each platform. These are all designed to be addictive and highly coveted by the user. The result is that every action you take on social media is motivated by how many likes it will give you. The content of your posts, their quality, their timing and frequency, it is all about getting the upvotes. Whatever original purpose there might have been in you posting anything on the internet, it is now superseded by the pursuit of likes.
People might comment on your posts, but for them the comments serve the same function: they exist primarily to be noticed and accrue likes. There is therefore no reason for their comment to be insightful, constructive, or just basely honest. It just has to be maximally popular to have the best chance to receive the most likes. It’s also pointless to comment on posts that are not popular. So the more popular you and your posts are, the more appealing they will be for vacuous commenters. If in this situation there was ever a comment that was motivated by something other than likes, and if you were able to notice it within the noise of the vacuous comments, it would be hard to tell it apart from the rest.
Facebook specifically has the additional limitation of not having a “dislike” button. Expressing disagreement or disapproval is prohibited.
In short, if there’s no dislike button, honesty is prohibited. If there’s a like button, flattery is dishonest.
Every point I’ve made so far is in no way unique. I’m not the first and won’t be the last to point out the surveillance situation and the perverse incentives of likes. But the following point is something I haven’t seen anybody else talk about, and it is this:
“Likes” define the levels of reality
If something happens in your life and you don’t post about it on Facebook, it’s like it never happened at all.
My wife, Cleopatra, first noticed this. Cleopatra had a Facebook friend, let’s call her Alice. Alice had a very close friend who died. She did not post anything about this on Facebook. Cleopatra learned about it from the deceased person’s Facebook. So Cleopatra messaged Alice to express her condolences and ask how she was and if she wanted to meet for a coffee to not be completely alone. Note that we had never even met this person before in meatspace. She was basically something less than an acquaintance, a true “Facebook friend”.
After chatting with her for a while, Cleopatra realized that almost none of Alice’s Facebook friends who must have been aware of this loss (the same way Cleopatra learned about it) had thought to contact Alice to express the simple customary condolences. This made us think. How different would the situation be if Alice had made a dramatic post about it? It’s reasonable to assume that there would be a plethora of “sad face” reactions and comments expressing the deepest sympathies of the authors. Her Facebook friends would be competing for the most heartfelt and original comment and the winner would receive the most likes.
But because she didn’t post about it and she never appeared directly on her Facebook friends’ feeds, nothing happened. And why would anybody contact her otherwise? There were no likes to be had.
A person’s death is an extreme example. But it took an extreme example to make us notice that for people addicted to social media, reality is defined by the opportunity to acquire likes. The value of your human relationships is quantified by likes, and anything that cannot provide likes does not exist.
Anything you post is forgotten
We understand now that if you don’t post on social media, you don’t exist. But what if you actually want to post? What if you still want to share your ideas, your photos, your jokes, what you ate for lunch for some reason other than acquiring likes? Then Facebook is still not for you.
Facebook uses your posts as opportunities to receive likes and also to keep people hooked on novelty. Your posts only have value for a couple of days at most. After this, the post is no longer novel. There are new posts for the algorithm to put into feeds. Your two-day-old post goes down the memory hole. There is no convenient way to find it later and nobody will go looking for it. If somebody for some strange reason decides to visit your profile, only your latest posts will be prominently featured. You do not have the option to permanently feature something else and no convenient way to link to an old post from within a new one.
Suppose then that you want to write a 2000-word post about social media and that you take your time to include all your thoughts and structure them in a way that makes sense. It would be a complete waste of time to post this on Facebook. You might as well print it out and light it on fire. That would at least be entertaining.
Reject modernity, embrace tradition
Back in the old days of the internet (until roughly a decade ago) people used to have blogs. A blog is not much more than a website that you occasionally update with articles or “posts”. There would be all kinds of different blogs. Some were about specific topics, some would be a little about everything, some were authored by a single person and others had multiple authors. In fact, even after Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram took over everything, some stubborn curmudgeons never relinquished their old-fashioned blogs. I have more to say about blogs in a future post. But for now I’ll just say, in honor of the elders of the internet and traditional web values I have deleted my Facebook account and have resurrected my dormant blog. If you want to be my “blog friend” subscribe to my RSS and if you want to “comment”, send me an email.