I wouldn’t call it panic or even alarm, exactly. But we could call it mild perturbation.

Nearly a fortnight ago, I finally departed the life known as Facebook. I gave a week’s warning of this revolution, and it provoked quite the reaction. Several said they were sympathetic. Some even wondered about doing the same. But a number were dismayed that anyone could conceive of such a move.

I had been considering this great leap back into the known for a while. The final push came from reading this extended essay in the LRB by John Lanchester: “You are the Product – It Zucks!”. It is well worth the time – he’s written a number of interesting investigations into the silicon world.

FB Withdrawal Symptoms

I think it took less than an hour after I had withdrawn when I received an email suggesting that I return. I have had several since. It is amusing that the initial suggestion for my withdrawal was trouble logging in. It all fits with the fact that closing the account required a degree of patience for which the modern web user is not generally known.

Then for a few days after, I found myself occasionally wondering whether I’d been a fool, overreacting to doomsayers and missing out on all the fun. FOMO is a powerful force. But it is only for the briefest of moments. I would estimate that I’ve restored at least 30 minutes a day to my life as a result, once it’s all totted up.

But in terms of connecting with others and finding/sharing quirky online stuff, I’m not really losing much. Twitter keeps me sufficiently connected with what’s going on out there; FB Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram all enable keeping in touch with friends and work contacts.

Image from Nishant Choksi (New Yorker, 2017-08-28)

So what was the big deal?

Some will suggest (probably fairly) that I’m achieving very little by sticking with those other social media tools. And I the moment FB or WhatsApp start interrupting conversations for advertising based on the topics of conversation is the moment I leave them too. It’s a sliding scale here, and without departing the grid altogether (à la Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State), we’re always going to be susceptible.

But what troubles me is the scale of FB’s operation – which, in Lanchester’s analysis, is little short of surveillance.

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

FB is an ethics-free zone. They are just not interested in the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing, it seems, only the perceptions their actions might provoke. I simply do not want to be part of that game. I just do not trust Facebook.

As I say, it’s a sliding scale – and they own Instagram, of course. But so far, these other outfits are much smaller in ambition and scale. They’re not needing, nor seeking, to integrate everything about me for their own commercial (or even, dare I say it, nefarious) ends. I’m happy to live with that level of social media at the moment.

I’m not suggesting that everyone must leave FB – only explaining why I have done. But as Lanchester says, these megacorps will only change if their users either leave in droves or demand significant changes.

Here are some other interesting recent pieces on these sorts of things:

I hope this book doesn’t come across as fueled by anger, but I don’t want to deny my anger either. The tech companies are destroying something precious… They have eroded the integrity of institutions – media, publishing – that supply the intellectual material that provokes thought and guides democracy. Their most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Interesting. I’ve been tracking some of this myself, especially since I’m now teaching A Level Computer Science. I caught up with a number of John Naughton’s talks (ironically on YouTube) over the summer and can recommend them, if you haven’t seen them already. His contributions to the ‘Talking Politics’ podcast are worth catching. He describes himself as ‘a recovering Tech Utopian’ – his 2000 book on the Internet “A Brief History of the Future” is a great exposition of that early optimism and also of the technical infrastructure. Did you ever see Aleks Krotoski’s series on BBC “The Virtual Revolution” from 2008 – this was flagging up some of this, especially the program called “The Cost of Free” (all on YouTube again..)

    One slogan I’ve been promoting to my students is from a book by Douglas Rushkoff, which I’ve not actually read, but I think the title sums up an important idea – “Program or be Programmed” – if you don’t understand the technology, it is using you, not you using it.

    Anyhow, back to lesson plans….

    1. Thanks Ed – that’s great – I have loved Aleks K’s programmes – wish she did more! Will check out Douglas Rushkoff…

  2. There was an interesting interview in Times 2 yesterday 15/11 with Jaron Lanier in advance of a book by him to be published today “Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality” The article is headed “Social Media is tearing us apart”.

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