Facebook makes my mother miserable. She knows it, and she’s disgusted with herself for nevertheless continuing to spend time scrolling through its endless updates. But I wish she knew that this seemingly self-sabotaging behavior is not her fault — it’s Facebook’s.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica and Internet Research Agency revelations, I realized that I didn’t actually view Facebook’s misdeeds or the evolution of its platform as that shocking or nefarious. Instead, they felt to me as inevitable and bumbling mistakes made by naive and greedy business people; mining all of our data for profit, and underestimating what bad actors could do with that information, was more or less what I expected from them.
But maybe because my mom has always gotten more out of Facebook than I ever did, her experience with the social media company is the prism through which I’ve become able to perceive the depth of this company’s betrayal of its users, and really, of itself.
And that infidelity runs deep.
I wish I could quit you
When my mom and I speak on the phone, the conversation will sometimes turn to Facebook. Like many moms, when mine first joined Facebook several years ago, she was thrilled by its ability to reconnect her with obscure classmates, and even long-lost family members living across the world (“Did you know I have 50 cousins in Chicago?!”). My mom got to unearth memories and friendships that had been lost for decades, and that was a gift Facebook gave her.
Once most of the connections were forged and retro photos posted, she started to complain to me that Facebook was a time suck; that she’ll look up, and an hour of her day will have disappeared.
It was starting to become frustrating. Then, it turned into something more.
Starting during the 2016 presidential campaign, she began telling me how Facebook could have the capacity to ruin her day. The debates she reads through dump gloom and despair on her like a political storm cloud positioned over her home office. The opinions she sees expressed by the same old classmates with whom she was once so happy to reconnect make her feel ill. Even the articles from liberal outlets can make her want to bury her face in her arms. But she doesn’t always stop scrolling; and she still hasn’t deleted her account.
My mother may or may not have been a victim of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting, psychographic profiling, and targeted political advertising (who knows!). But regardless of whether Facebook or renegade apps are to blame, the personal information she gave to Facebook when she joined, and the time she’s since spent on the platform, has been negligently exploited, at the expense of her well-being, for the sake of corporate and political gain.
The honeymoon is over
Over the last year, we’ve learned more and more about how Facebook was central to the social and political destabilization of America around the 2016 presidential election. And while it’s clear that Russian trolls and political consultants took advantage of Facebook, it’s important to remember that it is Mark Zukerberg’s company that built the tools responsible for what’s alternately called political meddling, or cyberwarfare — and that it repeatedly failed to act to safeguard its customers.
External organizations used Facebook to manipulate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its users and the political climates of entire countries. To name a few instances, Mueller’s indictments showed that it became Russian troll company Internet Research Agency’s chosen vehicle for spreading misinformation, and inciting political discord amongst both conservatives and liberals. Most recently, the series of reports that have emerged around Cambridge Analytica have shown that until 2014, Facebook allowed third-party apps to gather data about millions of users without their knowledge. So Facebook data became the basis for the targeted political ads and bot or paid social posts used to sway the US Election. Which enabled the more polarizing and politically divisive news environment and reality that makes my mother want to tear her hair out.
On top of all that, Facebook apparently looked the other way, put aside projects combatting a known problem, and failed to stop the abuse.
It’s neither just the external actors, nor just a failure to act on Facebook’s part, that transformed the platform. Facebook’s own policies took the data people like my mother gave them, and used it to feed her a product that negatively impacted the country and her own happiness. First of all, Facebook turned into a major news marketer, which caused my mom’s feed to become a jumble of opinions, articles, and fake news that she never asked to see. Second, the Facebook algorithm prioritized content for engagement. So the longer a user spent looking at something (say, a heated argument about Hillary), the more the algorithm would feed users similar content. This set the stage for a turbulent experience that prioritized time spent over value gained. Furthermore, Facebook pioneered and promoted micro-targeted advertising to everyone from publishers to politicians.
Facebook built all the tools necessary, and continued to develop features, that led to the politically exploitative and emotionally wrecking place that Facebook became for all the people still using the platform from 2016 to the present: our parents.
It’s just not worth it anymore
As a smack dab in the middle millennial, I lost any illusions I once had about Facebook’s usefulness and integrity long ago. The last time Facebook was a central part of my social life was in high school, when all I wanted in the world was to become ‘Facebook Official’ with my sort of boyfriend. Now, with 13 years of photos and over 1,200 connections, the app serves more as a nostalgia machine and a networking tool. I know if I ever need to get in touch with someone from my past, I can probably do so on Facebook. That’s a worthwhile service for which I’m willing to give up some privacy; it is still free, after all. So I ignore the ads and enable every privacy setting available to me, and I’ve kept my Facebook account — though admittedly, at arm’s length.
But my mom doesn’t have such a live-and-let-live relationship with Facebook. Instead, it still plays a role in her day, and her social life. My mom sees close friends and family in person, and speaks with them on the phone. But for that next tier of friendship, Facebook is still a hub. The life nuggets that her liberal Rabbi posts make her laugh, the photos from a 1970’s summer program an acquaintance shares are a miraculous portal. She stays on the site, giving Facebook more data with every pause and scroll (let alone like or comment), because it still provides her (and her demographic) with a meaningful service. But that service became eclipsed when partisan news and rancorous fighting started dominating the platform. No shift back to “meaningful interactions” can undo that damage, Zuck.
So why not just delete, or rarely use, the app? I’ve had an easier time discarding Facebook probably because what my mom found so valuable about it never really resonated for me: I never truly lost touch with anyone, so the fact that we can reconnect on Facebook doesn’t hold much power. Because I didn’t value Facebook — or haven’t for a long time — its missteps didn’t particularly offend me. I more saw Facebook’s demise as the unavoidable fate of tech companies that think more about “disrupting” than consequences.
But seeing my mom’s distress throws Facebook’s betrayal of its users into sharp relief. And frankly, I’m pissed.
The value proposition of Facebook was great, especially for people like my mother, who had little to no other way of reconnecting with far-flung friends. But now that it’s become America’s Dementor, sapping our opinions, data, and time for ad dollars, the value proposition seems more like a drug habit with diminishing returns, keeping people hooked to keep them pumping the platform with their thoughts and feelings, their buying and voting habits. Maybe that’s why all of Facebook’s statements about “people first” fall so flat — we all know what the game is really about, now.
My mom shouldn’t have to choose between staying in touch with friends, and a digital diet of discord. But Facebook undermined what made it a great product by irresponsibly handling its users’ data and failing to safeguard its advertising products. So the reality is that now, she does have to choose — and the choice is clear.
Even if Facebook once gave my mom the gift of reconnection and social networking, it’s just not worth it anymore. Now, it’s time to sign off.