On February 22, 2011 I deleted my Facebook account. Or rather, I deactivated it. They really don’t want you to delete it, you see. You need to deactivate it first and then ask their magnanimous staff to schedule it for deletion. Then you have to wait for two weeks, during which time your account will be reactivated if you log back in.
I had been thinking about doing it for a while, but, to be honest, I didn’t have the balls. I was worried that deleting it would spell the end of my social life, such as it is, and turn me into a hermit. This was obviously ridiculous. Did people not socialize before Facebook? Would shutting down just one of the many avenues of interaction with others really have that drastic an effect? When I eventually deleted it, I felt like Sisyphus reprieved. This essay is an attempt to explain the reasoning that led me to my decision.
Firstly, I had concerns about privacy. This is probably the issue that receives the most attention, although it is by no means the only issue. Mark Zuckerberg has shown himself willing to abuse the trust that Facebook users have placed in him on more than one occasion. The following extract from an IM conversation between the 19 year old Facebook founder and an (erstwhile?) friend presage the abuses we have come to expect.
Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks.
Zuckerberg’s attempts to justify his stance on privacy have required a certain amount of mental gymnastics. In an interview with Techcrunch’s Mike Arrington, he said the following:
A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.
I really don’t know where to start with this. It’s all very well to defy conventions and legacies, and to do so with a “beginner’s mind,” when doing so has positive results. Zen musings aside, certain conventions and legacies are valuable. The keeping of promises made (in however implicit and non-binding a manner) to millions of users is a convention that really should not be discarded. Here’s another attempt to spin the issue by Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg:
Mark really does believe very much in transparency and the vision of an open society and open world, and so he wants to push people that way. I think he also understands that the way to get there is to give people granular control and comfort. He hopes you’ll get more open, and he’s kind of happy to help you get there. So for him, it’s more of a means to an end. For me, I’m not as sure.
I fail to see what making the consumer preferences of hundreds of millions of private citizens available to the world of business has to do with promoting the ends of transparency and an open society. Either Mark (I’m sure he won’t mind if I call him Mark. He is the champion of openness after all.) has got the wrong end of the stick and doesn’t grasp that it is institutional and governmental transparency that is required for an open society, or this is just another attempt to bamboozle us.
Let us be charitable for a moment and assume that he does in fact believe the Open Society schtick. Is erosion of the privacy of individuals not contrary to the ends he professes to support? Institutional transparency is a laudable goal, but it is not served by enforcing the disclosure of personal information on the internet in a way the facilitates surveillance and indexing by marketers and governments. This is not a double standard. There is no irony or hypocrisy in desiring transparency for institutions and privacy for individuals. The reason why is very simple: institutions and governments are strong and require scrutiny; individuals are weak and require protection. Mistrust in the ability of institutions to ethically dispose of the power given to them by individuals is the reason for the checks and balances included in the constitution of all modern governments.
Let’s leave aside the privacy concerns. They have been done to death. My second concern is about the effect Facebook has on social relations. In the past, distance and forgetfulness set a limit to the endurance of casual ties between people. Facebook has overturned this natural and desirable limit by becoming a surrogate social memory subject to no organic process of forgetting.
Nietzsche, of course, has dealt with the necessity of forgetfulness in his Untimely Meditation on the cow grazing in the field:
Consider the cows, grazing as you pass by; they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they move about, they eat, rest, digest, move about again, and so from morning until night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored.
This is a hard sight for man to see; for he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal.
A human being may well ask the animal: “Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?” The animal would like to answer, and say, “The reason is I always forget what I was going to say” – but then he forgets that answer too, and stays silent, so that the human being is left wondering.
It has been said that progress is the multiplication of tasks that we can carry out without thinking. In that case Facebook is a world-changing innovation in the field of social life. It is now possible for people to outsource the maintenance of their relationships to Zuckerberg and company.
In the past, neglected friendships would wither gradually. Someone might move away for school or work. At the start he would maintain contact with people from back home. Eventually, he would let most contact lapse, except for close friends and family. The hundreds of acquaintainces that he had amassed in a place would mostly be abandoned. He would meet new people, and form new friendships and romantic entanglements. This worked quite well. Time is limited for all of us and maintaining relationships takes up a lot of it. In relationships, as in many other things, depth is better than breadth. The minor stresses that distance puts on human bonds help to provide perspective. When maintaining contact is easier, it is less reliable as an indicator of feeling. The old way, in which contact is a choice and not a reflex, lets time winnow the false friends from the true.
All this still happens with Facebook, but to a lesser extent. It is easier for undesired bonds to live on, zombie-like, through guilt or inertia when old excuses for discontinuing contact are removed. The old excuses of moving house or going away to college were never an obstacle for true friends and existed solely to spare people’s feelings. Facebook does not allow one to subtly phase someone out, but only to abruptly excise them, as one would a boil – “delete.”
The punctual shock that people were afforded by life events such as moves and job changes before Facebook was also an opportunity for emotional and intellectual maturation. When people can meet each other as strangers, as discrete units of humanity, free of baggage, they are free to try out new personas, activities and opinions. They can set aside past mistakes, shames and embarrassments and start afresh with little to link them to the historical version of themselves. Actions that to old acquaintances (old friends are more understanding) may appear inauthentic or incongruous, are genuine in this new light. Fear of embarrassment and judgement can lead to stagnation and a narrowing of horizons.
Much has been made of Facebook’s usefulness as a tool for revolutionary organization in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. The phrase “Facebook Generation” has been coined to denote the cosmopolitan, secular and liberal young population of these countries who have never known a world without social networking. They see the futility of ethnic and religious rivalries and covet the freedoms and fashion of the West (such as they are). This is not spin, or a psychological operation targeting the hearts and minds of the privileged in order to convince them of the goodness of globalism and mass immigration. This generation exists. I have listened to its representatives. I have exchanged brief words with some of them. Due to the magic of the internet we stood before each other as equals and shared a moment of recognition. And I was changed. (For me, these fleeting contacts have taken place through Twitter, a service that does far less to encourage its users to disclose personal information.)
Most people do not use Facebook like this. They “friend” their real friends, their extended family, acquaintances from school and work, and actual and potential romantic partners. They may have friends all over the world, but in general they have cohabited a real-world community at some point. The knowledge that contact with remote strangers is possible does have the psychological effect of making the world seem like a smaller place, but otherwise offers no insight or perspective in and of itself.
Recognition of the polysemous nature of the Facebook phenomenon is the key to understanding it. Most analyses are black and white. They either eulogize or decry, without perceiving that the very nature of Facebook and the cultural and economic movement in which it is embedded is to redistribute freedoms and attitudes as well as wealth. Such a movement is either malignant or benign, depending on your vantage point.
These two facets of social media do not constitute a dichotomy. Next time you see the question posed in those terms in an editorial or a blog post, you can save yourself some reading, safe in the knowledge that the author is bringing a shoddy conceptual apparatus to bear on the problem. The exclusive disjunction ‘or’ is inappropriate in this analysis, because Facebook is not “either a subversive tool for revolutionaries or an instrument for governmental surveillance and control.” It is both, and cannot but be both due to the precise manner of its constitution.
What do I mean by this? I mean that daily exposure to the aggregated opinions and behaviour of hundreds of people is a powerful inducement to conformity. A natural psychological propensity to place oneself between extremes of opinion is commandeered in order to flatten the intellectual landscape. Disagreement with the views of the majority are penalized quickly and brutally through defriending and confrontational comments. It becomes that much more difficult to hold opinions that deviate from those of the crowd. The congenial atmosphere and the sense that one is “amongst friends” encourage one to share opinions and editorialize, but the high social stakes (one might imagine oneself naked on a stage, or traversing a tightrope while a spiteful audience wills you to lose your footing) involved in Facebook arguments discourage unvarnished expression. Friends who might voice agreement in private do not dare to do so on Facebook because they too fear the scorn of the bien-pensant majority. Such pressure incites everybody to play it safe, resulting in increased alienation, on an individual level, from what one sees as the depressing orthodoxy of one’s peers. It lures you in with the promise of community, but instead delivers isolation.
In such an environment, where difference is extinguished and homogeneity promoted, it becomes that bit more difficult to chart one’s own course. And yet humanity owes a lot to people who did just that. There is a story about the physicist Richard Feynman: He had been traversing a fallow period in his career, expending all the energy that could have been applied to original research in keeping up with the latest publications. Upon reading a book about Crick and Watson’s investigations of DNA, he was struck by how a small team, relatively isolated from the wider scientific community and not publishing much, could arrive at an epoch-making breakthrough. John Gribbin relates this Emersonian epiphany in his biography of Feynman:
Feynman held up the pad he had been doodling on. In the middle, surrounded by all kinds of scribble, was one word, in capitals: DISREGARD. That, he told Goodstein, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress. The way for researchers like himself and Watson to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and plough their own furrow.
These, then, are my reasons. I wanted freedom from the forces of homogenization that seek to force us all, like Procrustes, into an arbitrary pattern. I wanted to reclaim the joy of ties with my fellows maintained through mutual desire and not through indifference or embarrassment. Most of all, I wanted to put an end to the tyrannical compulsion, half voyeurism and half insecurity, that led me to waste so many precious hours that could have been better spent. I have not regretted deleting my account. I sent messages to the friends I cared about and told them of my intentions. They responded with email addresses and warm wishes. I have not heard anything from the rest. I don’t disclaim their fellowship; we are all cut from the same human cloth. But do I miss knowing what they had for breakfast? Not on your life!