BY BILL HANGLEY JR. So Facebook turns fifteen this month. Big deal. I’m turning fifty, and here’s my gift to myself: Beat it, Facebook. As in, get lost, you creepy leeches. Make tracks. Go bark up somebody else’s tree. You’re not “social.” You’re chemical – a meticulously engineered subconscious compulsion. Ever see the opening credits to that Cartoon Network show, “Robot Chicken?” Where the mad scientist forces the helpless bird to watch a hundred blaring TV screens at once? That’s you, Facebook – only us chickens aren’t tied down. We just sit there, staring at your endless scroll, waiting for that dopamine jolt of somebody saying something nice about us.
I know, I know – nobody made me sign up. Nobody made me stay. But there I was, for twelve years, me and my 2.32 billion friends, sharing, chatting, squabbling. Now I’m gone. And it feels …. Great. “But Bill!” you cry. “Think of the kittens! Think of the puppies! Think of your friends and your family and your cousin’s terribly misinformed high school buddies and ….” Well, Bill thanks you for your concern, Facebook. But let Bill share a little story about the only brain he has.
IT WAS A blustery, gray day, and I was doing one of my favorite things: rambling around Philadelphia on my bike. I was taking a break in Strawberry Mansion when I spotted the wasp’s nest. It was big. And dead. Its outer shell was gone, reduced to papery shreds. But three tiers of its once-hidden inner comb remained, delicate and doomed, bobbing and swaying in the cold wind like a ragged Chinese lantern. For a moment I was captivated: the naked nest; the iron-black branches; the glowering sky …. then suddenly, that familiar tug.
I felt my hand drawn to my camera. I pictured the picture on the screen, the little red numbers ticking up “likes” and “shares.” I felt the jets of chemical joy, the dopamine rush of rising social status … me being praised, me being affirmed; me being reminded of me, me, MEEEE ….
In other words: I looked at a wasp’s nest, but I saw Facebook. I’ve felt that tug a thousand times, and if you use social media, so have you. It’s the subconscious chemical response that drives them all: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit. We don’t even need to be logged on. All we have to do is see something we think our network will respond to — a wasp’s nest, a sunset, some outrageously offensive clickbait – and the dope taps fly open.
As the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova put it: “The mere thought of successful sharing activates our reward-processing centers.” That “mere thought” turns quickly into action, steering us away from whatever we’re seeing and back to our screens for more chemical treats. Locate stimuli, get reward, share stimuli, get more reward.
Facebook likes to talk about how it creates “connections” and “community.” But it’s more accurate to think of it as a drug dealer who gets you high on your own supply, in exchange for sales leads. All you have to do is bring it shiny objects that other people will like – or hate – enough to share. It’s all dope-driven, and the company doesn’t even need to make the dope. No wonder it’s rich.
And none of this is any secret. That day in Strawberry Mansion, it just happened to hit me particularly vividly: this is how Facebook really invades our privacy. This is our world now. A guy can’t even spend ten seconds in a parking lot looking at a dead wasp’s nest without feeling a powerful and wholly uninvited urge to go feed data into some money grubber’s website.
It took a conscious effort, but I left my camera in my bag.
NOT EVERYONE can ditch social media, and not everyone should. Yes, it exploits its users. But its users exploit Facebook, too. Facebook is the Pennsylvania Railroad of the New Gilded Age – a revolutionary communication network of unmatched potential and reach that just happens to be run by blinkered monopolists.
These new tycoons can’t be happy about the new normal they now face: the parade of ugly headlines; the eroding public trust; the record-setting fines; the attacks from public officials (“digital gangsters”); the rejection by respected news partners (“they’re not taking anything seriously”).
But none of that will slow Facebook’s growth anytime soon, or Twitter’s or Instagram’s. The digital robber barons of Silicon Valley don’t care if I quit social media any more than Phillip Morris cared when I quit cigarettes. Like Big Tobacco, Facebook’s solution to trouble in old markets will be to expand into new ones: India, Mexico, South America, Southeast Asia.
So the people who improve social media will be people who use it. Gilded Age progressives didn’t beat the railroad barons by riding horses, and anyone who wants to do any good in the 21st century, myself included, will have to engage with social media somehow.
All that said: a growing body of research shows that those who do quit Facebook tend to feel better off for it. A Stanford/New York University study is the latest: quitters lose some “news knowledge,” but they socialize more, feel better about themselves, and take less extreme political positions. The latest crop of “I quit” op-eds echoes the findings: “Living without it made me realize just how little it contributes to my life,” wrote one quitter recently. “The fallout has so far has been exactly zero,” wrote another.
For me personally, I had fun and learned a few things, but was time to go and I’m glad I’m gone. Everybody has to make their own cost-benefit calculation, but I can recommend quitting to anyone who feels like social media uses them more than they use it.
Facebook has networked half the planet – a staggering achievement. At fifteen, it’s just getting started. But I’m turning fifty. Only so many years left. And this much I know: when I look at something, I want to see it, not a Facebook post about it.
So sayonara, you royal blue glue trap.
And happy birthday to me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance journalist and Philadelphia native. His work has appeared in Phawker, the Public School Notebook, WHYY News and Reader’s Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.