Shortly after I built this blog, I wrote about my decision to leave Facebook. Perhaps with an unusual (for me) abundance of snark, I titled the post Libertarians are all up in your social media.
Snark can be very factual.
I left Instagram shortly after. It seemed wildly hypocritical to reject Facebook largely on privacy grounds and stay on a Facebook-acquired social site.
So what do I think now?
Frankly, I rarely think about Facebook on my own, but it’s difficult to ignore its almost daily presence in the media (here’s a recent article, and another). There’s no question Facebook’s cultural influence is, at the moment, insurmountable and inescapable, despite my opt-out. I still feel the presence of Facebook all around me, which makes my exit more protestation than therapy (leaving was motivated by both).
Controlling the FOMO
I do miss out on quite a lot. I know this because just about everyone in my life, including my spouse, is still on these social media platforms.
I never found Facebook’s value to be commensurate with its reservoir of pettiness, and so I’ve never regretted getting out. I do consistently miss out on photos and adventures of my most cherished friends and family, but many of them are gracious enough to send me updates and photos via text.
A few years ago, my wife informed me that a friend, who many years ago moved overseas and now lives on the east coast, would be in town to speak at a local college. She learned this on Facebook, and I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I attended, my friend and I caught up, and that was that.
Should I have expected my friend to text me separately and inform me he would be in town? No. The default mode of communicating with our vast array of friends and family is via social media, and I get it. Am I going back on account of that fact? Not a chance.
Leaving Instagram was much more difficult. I was on Instagram early, well before the Facebook acquisition, and I loved it. Plus, it reduced the petty bullshit by legions, given its emphasis on photos.
But Instagram, like most social media, lost much of its charm over the years, largely on account of the monetization that came with the Facebook acquisition. I couldn’t scroll through the feed without simultaneously dodging the increasing volume of ads and contemplating the privacy implications.
I don’t think it gets better
I’m getting old, my friends. And it’s been difficult to see the promise of the web trampled by profit motive over the past several decades.
If you think about it, just about every technology used on the modern internet and our phones was taxpayer funded. Voice recognition, GPS, the internet itself: all funded by taxpayers. (For more on public investment in the technologies we use today, I recommend Mariana Mazzucato’s excellent book The Value of Everything).
These technologies could have been used for the public good, but they’re increasingly used to increase wealth inequality, make our planet less habitable, damage our democracy, and promote hate and xenophobia.
I don’t think it gets better. And I’m increasingly unwilling or unable to accept, as many assert, that the value of these tools is greater than, or even equal to, the damage they’re doing.
It’s fair to argue that we can’t go back. And it’s true. I just don’t want to be part of going forward. Not like this.
I’m a hypocrite
I mean, we’re all hypocrites, to some extent. But, yes, I’m still (sort-of) on Twitter, and I still use gmail, which is probably the most invasive service I have. (I’d appreciate advice on migrating to something else; hit me up on Twitter 😉.)
I don’t know where we go from here, at least barring massive structural change. For instance, the market valuations for these tech companies allow them to pay enormous salaries to workers whose skills would, in my opinion, be better applied to public-sector work, where social programs are designed—through a public, democratic process—to directly clothe, feed, and house our fellow humans, while pursuing possible solutions to our climate crisis.
But I also don’t blame talented individuals for pursuing financial resources that support their families and loved ones. The change needs to be bigger than any one individual.
2020 is going to be weird
Obviously, 2020 is going to be weird. And social media is going to have a lot to do with it. If, while reading this, you’ve bristled at the implication that social media is connected to any of the major social and environment issues I’ve described above, well, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
I hope, in this decade, we’ll reclaim the internet for humans and democracy. We’ll see how it plays out. But it starts this year. In many ways, our survival depends on it.