Facebook: What’s happened to you? You used to be fun. You even used to be cool. I mean, we knew the “cool” phase was over when you started forwarding those friend requests from our parents, but even after that you seemed to shimmer for a while in the background of our lives, like a virtual Mayberry, or Cheers. You were a place where everybody was friendly, where everybody knew our names.
But lately, you’ve come to seem a bit more like a junkie’s habit: a diabolical cross between a compulsion and a chore. You take our time and our energy and you don’t really give that much back. Is it just me?
I don’t think it’s just me. During the past few weeks, a year-old piece on Medium by blogger Elan Morgan (also known as Schmutzie), began making the rounds of my News Feed. Schmutzie’s piece, “I Gave Up Liking Things for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity,” tells the story of how, after giving up “likes,” Schmutzie’s News Feed went from serving up the content your algorithm thought most desirable, to just showing the posts of Schmutzie’s friends. A recent update at the end of the piece reports that Schmutzie is still not liking things and is still pleased with the result.
Many of my friends and relatives are attracted to this idea and have stopped liking things on you, too. And their collective ambivalence has been noted by the more mainstream media: Alexis Madrigal wrote a piece for The Atlantic last year called “The Fall of Facebook,” which is actually about how you are dominating media these days, even though people don’t necessarily like you. In that piece, Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, reports, “In three years of research and talking to hundreds of people and everyday users, I don’t think I heard anyone say once, ‘I love Facebook.’”
So why do we not love you? Why do we almost actively dislike you?
Well, there were the early News Feed glitches, your coal-powered data centers, the social experiments, especially the one in 2014 in which you played around with making us depressed. A 2013 study showed that privacy concerns were the main reason (48%) that people cited for quitting Facebook. Now I get it: invading our privacy is the main reason you’re able to make money. And since people don’t love you, they’d be unlikely to actually pay a subscription to use you.
But on top of all that, you’ve now gone and annoyed Hank Green, along with a lot of other video content makers, with the way you report engagement and deal with “freebooted” content. What is wrong with you? Those Vlogbrothers seem like the nicest guys.
Here are some tougher questions: Given that we don’t love you, why are we still so in thrall to you? Why give up “likes” instead of just giving you up altogether?
When I was in high school, the place my friends and I all used to hang out at was this dismal donut shop across from the foundry. The décor was depressing, the music was some obnoxious country station, and a lot of the other patrons were openly hostile to our being there. But the donuts were good, and there were free refills on the coffee. And more importantly, it was where all our friends were—the only place, seemingly, that we could all agree on.
It seems like Facebook is in its crappy-donut-shop phase right now. There are a lot of reasons to leave, but in order to do that you’d ideally want to get all of your friends to leave at once and then agree on another place. How likely is that?
So we’re stuck with you, for now. Until maybe so many of our friends get sick of you at once and walk away, and all of a sudden it’s just me and Wes Laforge sitting there in the booth with the cut-up vinyl seats, a couple of greasy cups of coffee and half a cinnamon twist between us. The truth is, we don’t even really like each other that much. We’ve just got nothing better to do. Then “Achy Breaky Heart” comes on, someone starts making fun of Wes’s ponytail, and that’s it. We’re out of there. But by then, the lives we’re living are hardly recognizable.
Is that what you want Facebook? Is that the way it has to be? Maybe you should take some of the energy you put into finding new revenue streams, and instead put it toward figuring out how to be a place where people want to spend their time.
And to be clear: I think the solution lies in more than just moving some buttons around, or tweaking an algorithm here or there. Right now, you’ve got us, and our friends, and our data, but as with any drug, or any restaurant hang-out, the next big thing may be right around the corner. And if you’re not the next big thing, then you’re probably yesterday’s news.
(Oh, but hey…Thanks for serving me that ad for the Flannery O’Connor t-shirt. I didn’t know I wanted it, but of course I did. It should be here any day now!)
Photo by Obsidian Soul (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.