For a little while now I’ve been thinking about leaving Facebook. It’s been fun and everything, but when I start to take an objective look at the contents of my “News” feed I started to notice some really unpleasant trends in the kinds of conversations which were going on there. There were a lot of things I didn’t really want to be reading; a lot of diatribes which made me wonder “do you not all realise that your comments are going public, for everyone to see?” It has really started to unnerve me that the “social” element of this “social network” was becoming a warts-and-all, competitive hive of everybody’s subconscious — and, quite frankly, I don’t know if I want to be exposed to that.
But, of course, like most people who threaten to leave and become clean: I realised I was addicted.
And of course, I’ve been clinging on by rationalising my Facebook addiction by using that age-old excuse: it’s an easy way to keep in touch with people. Bu really? A lot of the people I’m “friends” with on Facebook I haven’t spoken to in years — nor do I really want to speak to them. That’s not a judgement on them, it’s just that people move on; friends come and go; some keep in touch, others float away. Why do we feel the need to cling on to everybody, all of the time? I don’t need Facebook to keep me in touch with the people I care about: I have telephone numbers, email, skype, postal addresses for all of those people anyway.
What really swung me though, what really snapped me into cold realisation was reading this essay by Zadie Smith. It’s a fascinating, lengthy read. There’s some really insightful, philosophical thinking contained in there, but this particular passage really got me thinking:
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.
With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.
I’ve realised that when it comes down to it, it’s not the content of my Facebook feed which I have a gripe with — after all: I choose who my friends are, and I choose to read or not read what’s going on in my social network. No, it’s the idea of my virtual personality being diluted down to a prescribed format; having my online activities influenced by omnipotent software; essentially, having my online self owned. Facebook has been created as a vision of an idealistic future dictated by one man: Mark Zuckerberg. I find that really quite scary, because history teaches us that one-man dictatorships can have a huge influence over societies, and the authority they wield can make people do horrible things.
So, I’m going to be exporting my data, updating my address book and then I’ll be leaving the hive mind. Don’t worry, I’ll still be able to keep tabs on you all if I like; I can always take one more hit by just running a search for you in Google. It’s likely that Facebook’s default privacy settings are broadcasting your every activity to the wider world, right now.