When I first started using Facebook many years ago it took a little getting used. At the time it was completely different to any software I’d encountered before. I was used to discussion forums where you either created a topic in a section or replied to one – that was it. Now there was this concept of having your own wall where you could post in addition to posting on friends walls. I spent a little while pondering like this: “so friend X has posted on my wall, do I now reply by posting on their wall or commenting on their post on mine?”. Soon enough it seemed normal and I started to use Facebook the way I initially used this blog back in the day – short, punch updates on random things. While on here I’d gone more long form, so posting much less frequently but only when I had something substantial to say.
Fast forward several years after many many photos of my dog posted and I decided the time was right to deactivate Facebook and leave it behind. Here’s why.
The Early Days
I was initially very impressed with early Facebook. Unlike forum software it was designed around real world social interactions. You might meet a friend for a beer (i.e. their wall) and get chatting. Then another mutual friend drops by for a beer and a chat too (they see the conversation on your friends wall and join in). You’d see all the posts from all your friends in reverse chronological order and could keep in touch with and stay up to date with more friends than you possibly could in real life. It saved time and seemed to actually enrich friendships with those you might have lost touch with or not see as much as you used to. Augmenting real world relationships and bringing everyone closer.
I was re-connecting with people I’d lost touch with over the years and was learning more about other friends than I ever had in the real world. I felt like a part of a lot of peoples lives and it felt great. I was enthusiastic about it! I posted random links to YouTube videos, photos of my dog, created a photo series of things I found in the street (aka “Somewhere a small child is crying” with a photo of a pacifier on the kerb) and worked some of my favourite song lyrics into posts that almost nobody ever noticed.
Then Things Started To Change
Having been blogging for years before Facebook I was well used to my random musings being publicly visible and so potentially read by friends, family, anybody really. As such I’d learned to self-censor what I wrote and be mindful of who might be reading. Nowadays Twitter and Facebook are huge and especially with the former you can find yourself at the receiving end of abuse from a virtual baying mob of people for a single, out of context or inappropriate tweet.
Unfortunately for a lot of people signing up to Facebook, they were lambs to the slaughter. People have lost jobs, friends, been sued, arrested, harassed, had real world fights and a host of other such fates from ranting on Facebook. And that’s without even posting publicly.
So while Facebook modelled real world interaction and made it more efficient, it also magnified all the negative aspects of real world interactions. If you meet up with a friend and you have a disagreement (which often happens after alcohol is consumed) at least you’d go your separate ways, sleep it off and get over it. With Facebook there was no escape and no looking someone in the eye and realising it was a misunderstanding. You could have that same argument but now you’ve got dozens of witnesses, all happy to join in, baying for blood (see my book recommendation above) and blow things out of proportion. People would start falling out and commit the ultimate social faux pas – an unfriending. This seemed to be treated as a personal slight against the unfriendee that would often spill out into the real world. It was as though all the negative emotions from people would be focussed and nothing of the whole rounded individual would be seen.
I found myself at one point having to clear out a bunch of “friends” who weren’t people I knew in the real world and kept it strictly to those I did. It was a lot safer and less hassle (ask me some time over a beer and I’ll tell you a tale or two!).
People would often go the other way and instead of ranting learned to self-censor and focus on only posting the most glowingly positive aspects of their life. As though they were living the perfect happy life where everything was great and perfect! You’d meet them in the real world and of course life doesn’t work like that, so what you were seeing on Facebook was life through a lens – essentially part of their life, but only a small part. The authenticity of interactions seemed to have changed from the earlier days and I began to wonder if it was the people or the software itself. If you only interacted with angry or happy posts, was Facebook only showing you the same – like an echo chamber? Something started to feel off.
So Are We The Product?
It’s been much quoted in the tech press that Facebook users aren’t the customers, they’re the product. People enter a great deal of personal information into Facebook as well as demonstrate what they like and care about by their behaviour on the platform. This is gold dust to advertisers and to make as much money as possible Facebook want us to interact with ads and so charge advertisers a high price for that specific targeting.
While that’s factually correct, I don’t believe the engineers and product managers behind the scenes really feel that way or have that as their objectives. They’re trying to connect the world and have billions of users – so are doing a pretty good job. Trouble is, for me at least their attempt to do that really started to put me off.
What attracted me to Facebook was being able to see a reverse chronological feed of all my friends posts. Simple. Periodically I can catch up just like I’d do if in the real world I meet up for lunch with friends and we all update each other on our lives since we last met. Problem is, that’s impossible to do on Facebook now unless you manually go to the profile of every single friend.
Instead Facebook wants to figure out what you want to see, then tailor your news feed to show you it. So a bunch of clever engineers at Facebook have the feed data from billions of users and slice and dice that data to figure out for each person what sort of items they’re interested in and curate the feed to give you your own personal news feed with everything you want to see! Except of course it doesn’t work and you miss most of the interesting things. The reality of this type of software, and in fact current artificial intelligence technology, is that we’re a very long way away from it being genuinely useful in this context. The only way as things currently stand to see a curated subset of posts is for a human who knows you to choose them for you. It really is as simple as that. When a machine passes the Turing test, then I’ll revisit this statement.
But clever people like trying to solve problems like this and while there are billions of users it doesn’t matter if they alienate a few million, it’s just raindrops in the sea for the greater good. Ultimately from an engineering point of view I think they’re doing the right thing. To get so much real interaction data between humans in one place and be able to analyse it is the sort of fascinating problem I would love to be a part of. Well, second after background switching of course. So I completely understand why they’re trying to build software that can predict what you’re interested in based on your behaviour. And I’m sure this type of work will ultimately lead to smarter software, although hopefully not like those Terminator films. But as a user, it’s the opposite of what I want. It’s the equivalent of sending androids to meet up in a bar and controlling them through a virtual reality headset instead of actually going to that bar and meeting your friends. It’s a layer of abstraction I don’t want.
So when I take the fact that there’s no way to see what I want (I know you can choose ‘Most Recent’ rather than ‘Top Stories’, but it’s still a curated subset of posts) and add that the negative traits of social interaction are magnified, I realised I was no longer enjoying using Facebook. When I’d meet up with friends in the real world the communication was infinitely more meaningful than it had been through Facebook’s pages. It just wasn’t adding any value to my life.
There is no substitute for real world interaction. And that’s why after much thought I deactivated my Facebook account and haven’t looked back! I look forward to meeting up with friends and finding out what they’ve been up to. I really won’t know and not knowing makes it that much more interesting. I don’t even find myself wanting to log back in and see what’s happening. And to be honest I don’t think anybody’s even noticed I’ve left! 😀
When I read that Mark Zuckerberg has a team of people who manage his own Facebook page that proved I was right. He’s a far far smarter guy than I am and even he realises his time is better spent in places other than Facebook. So I doubt I’ll be back.