Why I'm Leaving Facebook

The shortest version of this post is: because it's one of the only things I'm still doing on a daily basis, that I was doing when I was 18 years old. Autumn is a great time to let go of things that aren't serving us anymore; things that we don't need. So, I'm defoliating.

There's a lot more to it than that, though. I have political and personal complaints against Facebook, and I'll offer a bit of explanation on both fronts below. Then I'll tell you about what I'm going to try instead.

But first, some history. I got a Facebook account very early in the history of the site - when I still worked in Facebook games, I got a little bit of nerd-cred by telling other developers that my FBID (the unique numeric identifier for my account) was only 6 digits. I was, I think, a freshman in college, so it would've been the fall of 2003 or the spring of 2004. I can remember what the site used to look like, and what a silly social plaything it was. Of course, it was around this time that Mark Zuckerberg was telling his friends that the users were "dumb fucks" for trusting him with their personal data.[1] Most of us didn't hear about that until much later, but it's good to remember that there was never really a time of innocence or purity for the platform.

For a long time, I did have some naïveté about it. I saw the value of having a place to share pictures, thoughts, check-ins, reading material, and more with friends and family. And I even saw value in the communities created around Facebook games, which I will stop mentioning after ruefully admitting that Facebook and social games together deserve credit for starting my career in technology.

So, it's been in my personal and professional interest for a long time -- essentially my entire adult life -- to pay attention to what Facebook is, what Facebook is doing, and what it's doing to me.

So what is Facebook? It's an engine that turns pictures of your children and birthday wishes from your high-school friends into the destruction of life as we know it, as efficiently as possible, while enriching a small army of people who believe that the destruction is fine because the enrichment shows that they are good.

I still believe in the power of connection and communication; but now that I'm no longer tied to the platform for my livelihood, and have watched the tech industry from within for over a decade, the flaws in Facebook's mediation of community and communication have become harder to ignore.

I'm not going to provide a full history or accounting of Facebook's issues here. I do want to emphasize that my complaint here is deeper than "it's evil because it's capitalist," or a superficial anti-technology attitude regarding climate change, or a fanatical commitment to privacy, although of course my difficulties with capitalism and the state and my concerns for our shared future on this planet are relevant. But Facebook is not just dangerous because it wants to combine my data and our planetary carbon into shareholder value.

It's dangerous because it's so addicted to that data and that value, that it has literally enabled crimes against humanity. Two years ago Facebook was criticized by the United Nations for its role facilitating hate speech and calls for violence against the Rohingya people of Myanmar.[2] What's worse, it likely cannot stop itself from doing so again: this year, after years of sustained complaints that it hasn't taken enough responsibility for moderating dangerous content on its platform, Facebook was once again complicit in political violence, this time in Kenosha, WI. [3] And just a week ago, an ex-Facebook employee who had been responsible for monitoring and countering large-scale political manipulation on the platform released a memo detailing the company's continued failings and refusal to take adequate responsibility for its role in society.[4]

I'm not interested in participating in a platform that is structurally unable to pump the brakes, or even take its foot off the gas, with innocent pedestrians ahead.

You would think that all of that, and all the other large-scale problems with Facebook, ought to be reason enough to leave. You might be right that it ought to be! And yet, the fact that I'm still there, for now, proves that it's not. I believe we should take small personal steps to minimize large societal harms where possible, but I also believe it's not a moral failing to seek comfort or convenience in a cruel, indifferent world. There's no ethical consumption under capitalism[5], and shorter showers won't stop the seas from rising[6] - structural problems require structural solutions. So, as long as Facebook is useful or good for me, I can focus my political energy elsewhere and unwind, or make new connections, or whatever, on Facebook with a clear-enough conscience.

Here's the thing though -- Facebook is not comforting or convenient for me. It's far more often a discomfort and an inconvenience in my life. Thousands of well-educated, bright, and experienced people have spent untold person-hours leveraging psychological insights to keep me scrolling. It is better at grabbing and holding my attention than I am at wrestling it free. Not because it's rivetingly pleasurable; because it's largely uncomfortable and occasionally joyful.[7]

The content is less and less distinguishable from the ads; it all melts together. I scroll from discomfort about today's national election news, to discomfort at being reminded of how awkwardly I behaved toward an old crush, to OH WOW that is a nice pair of pants, wouldn't it be nice to look like that? It's all bad for me and I don't want it anymore.

Compounding it all is that I've developed a reflexive habit of checking Facebook as an escape from other negative feelings: anxiety about a client email, frustration at a programming problem, impatience with my children; trying to dodge these issues by checking Facebook is worse than futile. Even when I'm consciously choosing to check the site, it's objectively a poor choice for nearly any goal except wasting time and generating malaise.

For more on these themes, I can't recommend Jenny Odell's 2019 book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy[8] highly enough.

I've been working up to leaving for a long time. First my excuse was that my livelihood was there; that hasn't been true for years. More recently I believed that, all else aside, it was the best place to stay apprised of local news and connected to local activism. This is still somewhat true for me, but I've been in Asheville long enough to develop personal connections and alternative channels that will help bridge the gap on that front. For general social-media-stuff, like Linux grousing or intrusive thoughts about new puns involving Steely Dan or Dr. Bronner's soap? I have Mastodon. And then there's the real big one: how will I stay in touch with family and close friends? Well, all the other ways I already do. Group texts. Emails. Phone calls -- actual goddamn phone calls![9] Both my parents and my grandparents have "smart" picture frames that can directly receive photos of the kids.[10]

As for the rest? It's going to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. It's going to rot into mulch and fertilizer. I'll hold tight for a winter, and in time, grow new leaves to catch the sun.

  1. Facebook CEO Admits To Calling Users 'Dumb Fucks'; Ryan Tate; Gawker, 2010. ↩︎

  2. How Facebook Failed The Rohingya In Myanmar; Megha Rajagopalan, Lam Thuy Vo, Aung Naing Soe; Buzzfeed News, 2018. ↩︎

  3. Facebook Employees Are Outraged At Mark Zuckerberg's Explanations Of How It Handled The Kenosha Violence; Ryan Mac; Buzzfeed News, 2020. ↩︎

  4. “I Have Blood on My Hands”: A Whistleblower Says Facebook Ignored Global Political Manipulation; Craig Silverman, Ryan Mac, Pranav Dixit; Buzzfeed News, 2020. ↩︎

  5. 👉 👉 ↩︎

  6. Forget Shorter Showers; Derrick Jensen; Orion magazine, 2009. ↩︎

  7. How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist; Tristan Harris; Medium, 2016. ↩︎

  8. On sale at Firestorm Bookstore Co-op and other fine independent retailers ↩︎

  9. If we're not already in regular or occasional communication outside of social media and you've read all of this - please text, Signal, or email me! I'd love to talk. ↩︎

  10. Longer discussion of this point omitted for brevity and whatnot, but my kids can't meaningfully consent to have their pictures shared publicly anyway, and I'm not going to judge you over it, but neither can yours. ↩︎

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