“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
– Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of growth for Facebook, November 2017.
I tried to get off Facebook before. In 2015, I prematurely wrote an article titled “How I learned to stop worrying and quit Facebook,” a reference to the subtitle from the movie Dr. Strangelove.
My break from the social media platform was short lived, and I was soon back checking several times a day. I could rationalize this because, as an online publisher, my business demanded that I cultivate a large coterie of Facebook “friends” to whom Glasstire’s content could be “served.” But as much as I cared about Glasstire reaching its audience, if I am honest, I cared even more about those reassuring little ego-caresses Facebook gives you every time you get a comment, a “like,” or best of all, a “love” on one of your posts. That, of course, is the dopamine-driven feedback loop referenced in the quote at the beginning of this article.
Since the news broke last month that Facebook looked the other way while the personal information of “most” of its 2.2 billion users was collected by the Orwellian-sounding company Cambridge Analytica (and God knows how many other unsavory political propagandists, hackers, misanthropes, marketers and goons), I have not posted to Facebook. I haven’t brought myself to delete my account entirely, and I admit to checking a few times since then for updates. But either the people who most interest me have also quit posting, or Facebook’s kinder, gentler, “more meaningful” algorithm is just feeding up nondescript drivel. Miraculously, the result of this horror show of news is that my Facebook cravings — those dopamine hits every bit as addictive as nicotine — have evaporated. I don’t even miss it.
For this, I feel (as I’m always encouraged to by feel-good Facebook memes), grateful. I want to be rid of Facebook. The one meaningful pleasure of the site — the connection with people I would otherwise not be connected to, friends from childhood or school — is a pleasure that, after all, can be had without a social media platform. And if you’re not good about keeping up with someone without social media, how much do you really need to keep up with them anyway? How many friends and colleagues are enough — and more importantly, what real-world friends and colleagues have you seen less of as you’ve spent more time connecting to people virtually, tapping a like here and a laughing emoji there?
This is the monstrousness of Facebook: its fake connectivity to others leaves us hungry for the real thing, but we can’t go have a decent, healthy meal of human interaction because we’re hooked on Facebook’s sugar rush of comments, likes, and loves. And we give away so much of ourselves — our thoughts, our experiences, our friends and families and even our children — to this grotesque machine that vacuums up everything that makes us special or interesting or unique, and sells it to the highest bidder, to make us click, to make us buy, to make us vote, and apparently to make us parrot arguments in tearful, heated family dinners spoiled by what passes for politics in America today.
And there is another dark side to Facebook than the loss of privacy and the erosion of trust. I’m speaking of the effect Facebook has had on publishing, specifically news and magazine publishing. As an online publisher who was in the game long before Facebook ever existed (and by “long” I mean three and a half years), I have watched from my tiny patch of Internet grass how Facebook, and yes, all the other FAANG Internet giants, have taken over the dissemination of news and ideas in the world.
In the old days, a newspaper had its audience of readers. The newspaper worked to inform and entertain that audience, and if it was successful, it was rewarded by readers purchasing subscriptions. With the advent of the Internet, users no longer felt they should have to pay for content: if it’s on the web, it’s somehow less valuable than in print.
In addition to subscription revenue, print publishers had advertisers who purchased ads to reach their readers. With Facebook, advertisers stopped paying publishers to reach that publisher’s audience, and began giving their marketing dollars to Facebook to reach their own audience directly. So now publishers had not only lost their subscription revenues, they’d also lost their advertising revenues. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that Facebook retooled their algorithms a few years ago so that publishers were suddenly reaching far fewer people “organically” on their platform. Glasstire experienced it; every publisher experienced it. All of a sudden, our posts were reaching only half as many people as before. At the same time, little pop-up suggestions from Facebook began to appear suggesting that we “boost” our articles (by paying money to Facebook) to reach a bigger audience.
So publishers lost their subscription revenue; they lost their advertising revenue; and on top of that, they themselves were forced to become advertisers, paying to reach their own audience on Facebook.
You could publish the most interesting and funny and entertaining article in the history of humanity on Facebook, but if you don’t put money behind it, nobody will ever see it in their newsfeed. It simply won’t see the light of day.
I can hear people arguing that objecting to Facebook’s hardnosed business strategies is naïve and un-American. It’s true: Facebook is a great business. Its strategy of creating billions of dependent users to corner the market on internet publishing has paid off spectacularly. The company’s market capitalization is $460 billion as of writing this article, and its CEO is one of the 20 richest people in the world. Up until recently, Wall Street has given Facebook lots of likes and loves.
But I would submit that killing all independent publishing platforms is not good for fostering an educated, engaged citizenry, which is something that Wall Street is less good at estimating the value of. Because ultimately, in the world that Facebook is trying to create, there will be no Washington Post website. No Wall Street Journal, no New York Times. Not even a Fox News. Those companies may still exist, but their websites won’t. All the content that is created in the world will be served to everybody on one platform, and one platform only. You will only have one place to go for your online news. That is the logical endgame of Facebook’s business practices.
There is a saying (often misattributed to Joseph Stalin) that one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Do not for a moment think that you and I and the billions of other Facebook users are anything more to that company than a statistic, that we are anything more than the raw materials off of which they make astounding amounts of money. They don’t care about you, or your kids, or your thoughts, despite their moronic, colorful, automated messages at the top of your newsfeed that claim otherwise. They barely seem to care about the damage that may come to us, our country, and the whole world, from using their platform. This is not because they’re evil, but because they simply can’t: there are too many of us for them to keep track of, and anyway, their business model depends on keeping us hooked. And up until very recently, they were apparently just making too much money off of us — and getting away scot-free with their careless privacy and security practices — to care. Mark Zuckerberg would like us to forget his early text messages where he called the Harvard students who handed over their private information “dumb fucks” for trusting him. He’d like us to shrug that off, as he does, as mere youthful follies. But ask yourself: would you have said that when you were 19? We all do stupid things when we’re young, but fundamental decency isn’t something one grows into.
This all might sound pretty overwrought and dire, but there is good news. If you can get off Facebook (for real this time), and avoid replacing it with a similarly junky online fix like gaming or shopping, you get to rediscover a whole world of real friends and real news and real ideas. You get to remember how relatively calm your brain felt when it wasn’t getting pounded constantly by a firehose of confusing and useless, but seemingly important, information. You will be on your way to being more able to experience real gratitude and real mindfulness. And hopefully, you and I and all of us former Facebook users will be able to play our part as members of an educated and engaged citizenry, and start making our world a better place.