By Jaigris Hodson, Assistant Professor, College of Interdisciplinary Studies
As a social media researcher, lecturer and consultant, I'm plugged in to the ways we connect online. But in 2014, I cut the cord on my Facebook account. When people find out, the conversation usually goes something like this:
"Whaaaaaaat? You're a social media expert and you aren't on Facebook? You study social media!"
My reasons are both personal and political. I've made a choice about how I spend my time and who has access to my shopping habits, personal interests and other sellable bits of data. But most importantly, I know I don't need a Facebook account to be a very good social media researcher and consultant. Here's why.
No Facebook? No problem
Facebook is always changing. Algorithms are tweaked to address problems like fake news, or to make more money for businesses that advertise on Facebook. Most of these changes are invisible to the average user. My job is to learn about these changes through professional literature or Facebook's news and video releases. I research the platform, but I don't need to use the platform to do so successfully.
When I learn something, new like how to increase a post's reach, I work on changing my clients' approach on Facebook. My lack of personal engagement on Facebook gives me professional distance. Because I'm not swayed by what I see in my own (filtered) feed, I base my advice on research about how audiences outside my own limited network are operating online. Being away from Facebook may not make me better at giving social media advice, but it certainly isn't hurting my performance.
The darker side of Facebook
I abstain from the social network to avoid entangling myself in its negative impact on democratic communication, surveillance mechanisms and the isolating nature of toxic individualism. While Facebook isn't solely responsible for these trends, as the biggest fish in the online sea, it carries an outsized responsibility.
Are you convinced there are enough privacy protections in place, and that Facebook always acts in your best interest?
Facebook has been used as a tool to influence democratic communication, which is worrying for those concerned with how communication tools impact public reason and democratic deliberation. Filter bubbles ensure we're likely to see things we already agree with, due both to personal preferences and the algorithmic gaming of those preferences. By using both the "organic" algorithmic tendencies of the medium, and the "boosted" or advertising algorithms, Facebook can be manipulated by those who seek to serve others with specific propaganda.
We have given strangers at Facebook, and the companies that pay for access, unprecedented amounts of information once reserved for a small number of people in our lives. By updating statuses, liking posts or lingering on a video, we're giving away unprecedented amounts of information about where we are, what we're doing and our preferences.
Facebook sells this information to marketers. In return, users have the opportunity to give Facebook even more detailed information. Some say the use of Facebook is a fair trade for this data but consider how powerful this data could be if misused. Are you convinced there are enough privacy protections in place, and that Facebook always acts in your best interest?
Facebook has a mandate to make money for shareholders. Therefore, it dutifully delivers messages that encourage consumerism. Studies have shown creating an individualist mentality makes people more likely to buy products. So naturally, Facebook puts the individual at the center of everything they do.
Some would say individualism is a defining feature of the networked society. However, when taken to an extreme, individualism takes us away from our communities and creates a world in which we are bowling alone and encouraged to spend more time alone and less with each other. This leads to psychological distress and the breakdown of community.
Finding meaning offline
Even if you don't work in social media, keeping up with your online networks can feel like a full-time job. Like other addictions, Facebook initially delivers feelings of happiness, euphoria or satisfaction, only to devolve into an encumbrance. Before I quit Facebook, that's how I felt. I'd check the social network to alleviate boredom or difficult feelings. It served as a substitute for meaningful action and social interaction, exacerbating a few negative tendencies.
- Feeding escapist tendencies: Facebook maximizes our escapist tendencies, plying us with constant updates and notifications. There's something new every time you refresh your feed. If you don't refresh, mobile notifications will alert you to what's new. If you want to escape, Facebook is optimized to pull you in.
- Surveillance and letting go: We've all had that ex we couldn't get over, or that old classmate we check on from time to time. Not only can this be an unhealthy way to maintain negative attachments (it was for me), but it's also a form of surveillance. I don't like running into old acquaintances only to be asked about personal posts. I can adjust my privacy settings, but navigating the ins and outs can be a lot of work, particularly with the constant stream of changes.
- Finding meaning online: Documenting my life on Facebook felt meaningful, but it wasn't. Commenting on unjust stories on Facebook doesn't help those in need. Showing up to a rally or writing a letter means more than a comment or status update.
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I left Facebook because I wanted to increase connection with those who matter to me. I didn't want my need for meaning, inability to let go or desire to escape become fuel that feeds Facebook's content machine, nor did I want my life to be a content source that makes money for others. I didn't want to be duped into working a second "job" for no pay, and I was tired of feeling like I needed Facebook, when in reality, Facebook needs all of us.
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