On Selling My Attention Too Cheaply (Why I’m Deleting Facebook)
I was listlessly scrolling through Facebook recently over coffee when I reached something of a tipping point. I had just groggily plodded through a stretch that included, in order, a friend’s rather hysterical political musings, a sponsored advertisement for shoes, a post from a charity which fell under the strange category of “suggested content,” and another friend’s picture from somewhere much warmer and prettier than southern Alberta in October. I pondered, bleary-eyed, the math of my morning Facebook experience. 2/4 posts were some form of targeted advertising. 1/4 was a friend trying to get me worked up about something that was agitating them. And 1/4 was making me feel envious of someone else’s experience. That’s some pretty intolerable math, right there.
I have been on Facebook for the better part of a decade and have decided that this is probably about enough time to devote to bad math. This will probably not come as too much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog as I tend to be a bit grouchy about social media and what it is doing to us culturally, politically, ideologically, and emotionally. This decision feels like it’s been coming for at least a year, probably more. Indeed, this post has been half-written in my drafts folder for some time. From the first moment I signed on to Facebook, I had reservations, but for a good chunk of the last decade my misgivings about the platform were outweighed by the small pleasures of connection (personal and professional) that it offered. But the trade-off is no longer one that I’m prepared to make.
Again, none of my reasons will be particularly surprising to anyone who knows me well or who has read my writing for any length of time. But for those who may still be curious, here are a few of the more important ones:
- I have a visceral, borderline irrational hatred of being the subject of targeted advertising. I hate it that my online data is bought and sold and manipulated for the express purpose of making Silicon Valley billionaires even wealthier.
- I think that Facebook (and Twitter, to an even greater extent) could well be destroying our social fabric. This is ironic, given that the initial promise of the platform was to give everyone a voice and connect across differences, etc. But Facebook’s business model is, obviously, driven by serving up content that makes users angry, anxious, afraid, or, similarly, which reinforces users’ own sense of righteousness. A bunch of people constantly swimming in a stream of “stuff that proves how terrible people who aren’t like me are” and “stuff that proves how right and admirable I am” has a terrible effect upon meaningful political engagement and social discourse more broadly. And this is, of course, leaving aside entirely the question of how “bad actors” can use Facebook to manipulate public opinion and steer elections.
- In addition to serving up content that walls us off in ideological silos from one another, Facebook’s business model is also quite clearly geared toward getting (and keeping) people addicted and hijacking their attention for profit. Jaron Lanier makes this point as well as anyone, in my view, describing social media as an industrial-sized persuasion and attention economy that is more about behaviour modification for profit than anything to do with “connection.” I think he’s right.
- Speaking of Lanier, he argues that Facebook, and social media more generally, is making us angrier, stupider, unhappier, and less empathetic. I could provide evidence, but do I really have to? Go scroll around for a few minutes (especially the comments section of almost anything) and see what you think.
- The performative aspect of Facebook (and other forms of social media) is contributing to skyrocketing depression and anxiety, among the young most acutely, but also for the rest of us. We are constantly parading our politics, our religion, our causes, our distractions, our titillations, our joys, our sorrows, our children, our lives before one another for approval and validation. This is not good for our mental health. Our lives were not meant to become digital products to consume and critique in the virtual public square.
- Facebook and other social media platforms inculcate a kind of “presentism” in many of us that I think does damage to our souls. We are always paying attention to the headline-grabbing, the outrageous, the shocking, the heartbreaking. The stuff that’s right in front our face. The stuff that tends to go viral. We imagine that what is recent is all that matters, and in so doing fail to cultivate the temporal bandwidth that is necessary to becoming people of solidity and depth.
Weaving through these six reasons (and others that I didn’t mention) is the simple recognition that I would like to attend differently to my life, to the lives of others, and to the world. A decade of one’s life is a pretty decent sample size upon which to make some conclusions, and I fear that in my own case these conclusions aren’t always flattering. My attention span has shrunk. I have quite likely become less charitable in my interpretations of others by virtue, at least in part, of cringing through some of what they post on Facebook. I have become more conscious of things like “likes” and “shares” and other morsels of digital affirmation that my writing accrues (or fails to accrue) online. I doubt that this has had a great effect upon my writing. I have little doubt that others can (and do) navigate Facebook more easily and responsibly than I do. But I am tired of having my attention led around by advertisers, the agendas of others, or my own desire for flattery and approval.
There will be losses that come with this decision. I will miss out on things without question. I will probably forfeit professional opportunities. I have made meaningful connections on Facebook and have been on the receiving end of significant kindness and affirmation. I recognize all this and lament these losses. As I said, though, the trade-offs just seem intolerable to me these days. I don’t like what Facebook is doing to us as a culture and I don’t like what it’s doing to me. I’m tired of selling my attention too cheaply. It’s time to attend differently.