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Hodson: Why I don’t use Facebook

December 7, 2017
By: 
Jaigris Hodson
Assistant Prof. Jaigris Hodson

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 own Facebook account. When I casually mention that I no longer use the social media platform to students, friends, peers or colleagues in the industry, they look at me in disbelief.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Whaaaaaaat? You’re a social media expert (their words, not mine) and you are not on Facebook?” Or, “How can you not be on Facebook? You study social media.”

Mostly, I’m met with blank stares that say, “this does not compute. Please try again.”

My reasons are both personal and political. I’ve made a choice about how I spend my personal time and who has access (and who doesn’t) to my shopping habits, personal interests and other sellable bits of data. But most importantly, it’s not necessary to have 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 either address problems like fake news or make more money for businesses that advertise on Facebook. Most of these changes are invisible to the average user. My job is to know about these changes, learn of them through professional literature, Facebook’s news and video releases or academic and marketing literature. It’s my job to do the research on the platform, but I don’t need to use the platform to do it.

 When I learn something new like how to increase a posts’ reach, I work on changing my clients’ approach on Facebook. When I giving clients new information or tweak their strategy, we begin to see what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t dependent on my personal experience of the platform. My lack of personal engagement on Facebook gives me a professional distance that is helpful. I’m not swayed by what I see in my own (filtered) feed. Instead, I base my advice on research into what audiences outside my own limited network are doing and saying online.

I might not argue that being away from Facebook makes me better at giving social media advice, but it certainly isn’t hurting my performance. I’m using the hours I gain not being on Facebook to read more about the latest trends impacting social media use on many different platforms, and I think that’s time well spent.

The darker side of Facebook

Just 10 years ago, we managed to make plans, host events and connect with friends without help from an online platform. Without Facebook, we still had meaningful social and consumer lives. Today, it’s difficult to make and keep social connections alive without it.

Nevertheless, I persist in abstaining from the social network to avoid entangling myself in its negative impact on democratic communication, surveillance mechanisms and the isolating nature of toxic individualism. Of course, Facebook is not solely responsible for these trends. But as the biggest fish in the online sea, it carries an outsized responsibility. Let’s take a closer look.

The “Wild West” of democratic communication

Recent news coverage has explored Facebook as a tool for influencing democratic communication. It’s enough to worry those concerned with how communication tools impact public reason and democratic deliberation.

  1. Filter bubbles: We’re far more likely to see mostly more of things we already agree with due both to personal preferences and the algorithmic gaming of those preferences.
  2. Facebook can be manipulated by those who seek to serve others with specific propaganda, by using both the “organic” algorithmic tendencies of the medium, and the “boosted” or advertising algorithms.
  3. By providing a buffer between people, discourse on Facebook seems to devolve quickly from discussion to more anti-social behavior such as flaming and trolling. This type of exchange is antithetical to deliberation.
Facebook and surveillance

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 or indicating other emotional reactions to posts or even lingering on a video while it is playing, we’re giving away unprecedented amounts of information about where we are, what we’re doing and our preferences.

When sold to marketers, this information is used to make money. I’ll say this again. This information is used to make Facebook money. What do we get in return? The use of Facebook. What does our use give us? The opportunity to give Facebook even more detailed information. Some people may feel the use of Facebook is a fair trade for this data. I don’t. Furthermore, this surveillance could have an even darker side if it were misused by Facebook. I’m not convinced that there are enough protections in place for users or that Facebook will always act in my best interest.

Facebook and toxic individualism

Like responsible publicly-traded companies, Facebook has a mandate to make money for shareholders. As a result, it dutifully delivers messages that encourage users to consume. Studies have shown that creating an individualist mentality makes people more likely to buy products. So it makes sense for Facebook to put the individual at the center of everything they do.

Individualism is probably much bigger than Facebook. Some would say that 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–encouraged to spend more time on our own and less with each other. This problem can be linked to psychological distress including the breakdown of community.

Again, Facebook isn’t solely responsible for any of these issues. However, they are exacerbated by our overwhelming use of this platform and similar ones to maintain our social bonds. Personally, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Finding meaning offline

Even if you don’t work in social media, keeping up with your online networks can feel like a second full time job. For some, this second job might be worth it. For others, it becomes more compulsion than fun. Like other addictions, Facebook initially delivers feelings of happiness, euphoria or satisfaction, only to devolve into a monkey on the users’ back.

Before I quit Facebook, that’s how I felt. I’d check the social network to escape, alleviate boredom, difficult feelings or social situations. I’d use it to metaphorically hang on to people I couldn’t let go and I’d use it to curb existential angst about the meaning of life and my place in the world. It served as a substitute for meaningful action and social interaction in my life. While I haven’t eliminated these negative tendencies just by leaving Facebook, I think Facebook exacerbated many of them including the following:

  1. Feeding Escapist Tendencies: There is enough in life to distract me from boredom or other negative emotions—Netflix, the Internet in general, television, radio, work, e-mail … the list goes on. But rather than spending time escaping negative emotions, psychologists recommend learning positive coping mechanismsBoredom can lead to creativity. Sadness or anger asks that we reflect on what bothers us and how to move forward. 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 your feed, your mobile notifications will soon alert you to what’s new. If you already have the tendency to want to find an escape, Facebook is optimized to pull you in.
  2. 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 on my Facebook. Sure, I can adjust my privacy settings but navigating the ins and outs of Facebook’s privacy settings can be a lot of work, particularly with the constant stream of changes.
  3. Facebook is not a substitute for finding meaning: Documenting my life on Facebook felt meaningful but it wasn’t. Commenting on injustice on Facebook felt like action but it doesn’t help those who need it. Showing up to a rally or writing a letter means more than a Facebook comment or status update.

Ultimately, I left Facebook because I wanted to increase connection with those who matter to me. My reasons are mine alone and may not hold meaning for others. But I no longer wanted my need for meaning, my inability to let go, or my desire to escape become fuel that feeds Facebook’s content machine. In other words, my life shouldn’t be a source of content that allows a media company to make money. I don’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.