When I was in college, my high school best friend and I had a terrible falling-out. It was entirely because of Facebook.
“I think Allison got engaged?” our mutual friend Kaitlin texted me one day. “I think I saw it on Facebook?”
I denied that it could possibly be true. Surely Allison would have told me if she had — not post about it on the internet. But when I logged on, sure enough — she had announced her engagement to her boyfriend to the whole world without so much as a text message to me.
We had a flaming row shortly thereafter. Were we even friends if she couldn’t make the effort to tell me before she told everyone else? Who Even Does That?
In the black-and-white world of a girl in her late teens, I thought of things like internet etiquette as obvious, rule-bound institutions. Facebook was Facebook, texts were texts, emails were emails, chats were chats, webcamming was webcamming, phone calls were phone calls. I thought iPhones were a fad and didn’t imagine that smartphones would eventually elide many of those distinctions. Allison and I eventually resumed speaking to each other again, but our relationship never quite recovered.
In the early days, I loved Facebook. I loved being able to keep tabs on hundreds of college classmates all at once, of being able to tag all my dorm mates in the photos we took on our garbage 7 megapixel cameras, of creeping on crushes, of keeping up with every person I met at a party or in a classroom without doing very much work. I was terribly awkward and a little lazy and as a result, I never developed the skills that my parents’ generation cultivated in order to maintain their social networks.
Of the twelve years since I created a Facebook account, I only spent one year truly off the platform. And during that year, I think I glimpsed what Facebook is, and what hold it has on us. For years, deriding the fripperies of social media has practically become a national pastime, an easy piece of snobbery. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a frequently heard response would be, “Well, why not quit?” or “Don’t give your data to tech companies.”
It’s not quite so simple, given that Facebook has aimed (and in some cases, succeeded) to become indispensable. Even if you manage to live without it, Facebook may already have a “shadow profile” of you based on metadata slurped up from your contacts who do have Facebook.
But Facebook didn’t become ubiquitous because it’s useless or facile or time-wasting. In the year I was off Facebook, I thought hard about what I was missing.
Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations. We have forgotten (or perhaps never noticed) how many hours our parents spent keeping their address books up to date, knocking on doors to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was invited to the weekend BBQ, doing the rounds of phone calls with relatives, clipping out interesting newspaper articles and mailing them to a friend, putting together the cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and more. We don’t think about what it’s like to carefully file business cards alphabetically in a Rolodex. People spent a lot of time on these sorts of things, once, because the less of that work you did, the less of a social network you had.
Facebook lets me be lazy the way a man in a stereotypical 1950s office can be lazy. Facebook is the digital equivalent of my secretary, or perhaps my wife, yelling at me not to forget to wish someone a happy birthday, or to inform me I have a social engagement this evening. If someone is on Facebook, I have a direct line to them right away — as though a switchboard operator has already put them on Line 1 for me. Facebook is one step away from buying my kids their Christmas presents because I’m too busy to choose them.
Facebook turns a necessary labor of love into a profitable business.
Perhaps that’s what’s so frightening about Cambridge Analytica and the overall surveillance-based ad model. Like a black widow or a murderous butler, Facebook is the poisoner inside your home. Even with the years and years of warnings from privacy advocates, Facebook settled so firmly into the emotional labor niche in our lives, that we resisted the truth that it was spying on us to turn a quick buck. When the realization finally hits, we feel the kind of intense betrayal (and buried self-recrimination) that’s at the heart of an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery. Maybe if we didn’t want our data leaked, we should have carried our own damn drinks and opened our own damn doors.
Of course, the protagonists at the end of the classic murder mystery just swap out the butler for a new, less murderous one. No one wants to change themselves or their habits, because even if passing that work off onto someone else means placing a dangerous amount of trust in them, doing work sucks. It’s why #deletefacebook has only gotten so far — there’s no real one-to-one alternative for Facebook, and only a few are willing to upend their habits and do without it entirely.
“Who’s your biggest competitor?” Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Mark Zuckerberg in one of the Congressional hearings over Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg struggled to answer even after Graham compared it to a car company. If you don’t want to buy a Ford you can buy a Chevy. But what is an alternate Facebook? But really, the harder question is — what is Facebook and why is it so hard to quit it?
In this new national debate over Facebook, it’s become apparent that it’s very difficult to pin down exactly what Facebook even is.
When technological innovations first emerge, we first understand them only in terms of replacing something older. Email replaces the postal service, streaming services replace CD players, e-readers replace books, and ride-sharing apps replace taxis.
Facebook, implicit in its name, is a replacement for a school facebook. Not all of us had these, but I assure you, they really did used to exist: they were a sort of yearbook that gets distributed at the beginning of the year, a roster of your peers with names and faces. But Facebook isn’t quite a facebook. It’s structured around a web of contacts, but it’s not an address book either. You can post status updates, but it’s not a blog. You can message people, but it’s not a chat program. Just because news publications partner with it doesn’t make it a publisher (not just a publisher, anyways). And just because video producers publish video doesn’t make it a television channel.
It’s hard to pin down what Facebook is because the platform replaces labor that was previously invisible. We have a hard time figuring out what Facebook actually is because we have a hard time admitting that at least part of what it supplanted is emotional labor — hard and valuable work that no one wants to admit was work to begin with.
Facebook opened its doors to everyone — not just college students — in 2006. As more and more people — especially parents and older relatives — joined, the social network began to chafe at me. I can still remember with searing detail an incredibly tedious conversation I had with my then-partner’s mother, who had just joined Facebook and was giving me a blow-by-blow of a status update she had made and every like and comment that had followed, in chronological order.
The more people tried to add me on there, the more paranoid I got about the postings I had made when it was just a college network for my college friends. I aggressively monitored the privacy settings of my posts, checked and double-checked what kind of information was available. Just as I was readying to quit the network, I decided to go to law school, and as it turns out, Facebook is a must-have in law school.
Everything was coordinated via a section Facebook group — events, parties, the sharing of notes, even a ridiculous ongoing Word of the Day game in which we awarded each other points for wedging a random word into a comment made in class. We were all on Facebook, every one of us, including one student who “did not use Facebook” but was in the section group via his girlfriend’s Facebook, because even if your privacy is too precious your girlfriend’s of course is not. Holed up in our apartments and libraries, law students loved Facebook, posting with a kind of frenetic regularity that noticeably vanished after graduation when we all had jobs we actually had to pay attention to. Facebook was such a scourge that students regularly deleted their Facebooks during finals. Some found that they could all-too-easily reactivate in a moment of weakness, and turned to more drastic measures: they gave their password to a friend, who changed it and safeguarded it until finals were over.
Even as Facebook took a bigger and bigger role in my social life, I was beginning to dive into privacy law and policy, starting with a reading group where my professor Phil Malone walked us through the terrifying world of data brokers, tracking cookies, ad targeting, predictions based on bulk information-gathering, surveillance by both corporations and governments. Malone, a former prosecutor, was out to provide a balanced but informed perspective. Regardless, the firehose of information about where our data was going and how it was being used could only drive the students in the reading group to the pretty unanimous conclusion: Facebook was the worst.
After being assigned reading about how social security numbers can be predicted using a birth date and place of birth (both of which, for many people at the time, were broadcast publicly on their Facebooks), I changed my birth date on Facebook in a fit of paranoia. I forgot, however, to change the privacy setting, meaning that the next year I got a flurry of birthday wishes on the wrong day.
When I joined Tinder some years later, I had to change my birth date yet again to better reflect my real age. Telling my prospective dates that I was five years older than I actually was, was too high a price to pay for my privacy.
Phil Malone, the man who instilled in me my lifelong distrust of Facebook and all data brokers, is notoriously bad at email. It was pretty well known that you’d have to pop into his office to get an answer if you hadn’t heard back from him in a day. When he moved coasts to teach at another school, we fell out of touch — until he friended me on Facebook. I now read the articles he’s reading, look at pictures of his children, and hear all about his family vacations. Getting ahold of Phil is only a click away.
I’ve never managed to leave Facebook of my own accord. My year off Facebook was kind of my choice, but was really because Facebook temporarily banned me until I agreed to stop impersonating a Pokemon.
In 2015, at the height of the controversy over Facebook’s real names policy, I logged into Facebook one morning to find that I had suddenly been saddled with big bright shiny blue checkmark. It was several hours before a Facebook representative finally emailed me. Surprise! Congratulations! You’re a verified user on Facebook!
The choice was head-spinning. Why on earth did they nonconsensually verify my profile when they had no proof that I was who I said I was? I hadn’t even added my work email to my account.
When I emailed back to ask why I had been selected, the answer was, just as most press communications from tech companies go, completely opaque and noncommittal, something about burgeoning relations with public figures. As much as it caters to my vanity, it was and still is a stretch to call me a public figure.
After a few days, I decided to have a little fun at Facebook’s expense — I changed my profile picture to a Pokemon, and my first name to “A Literal” and my last name to “Psyduck.”
The result was that I could now reply to all my friends with “PSYYYY?” while the glossy blue checkmark of verification appeared next to my not-name.
The fun and games only ended when I posted screencaps to my Twitter. Alex Stamos, Chief Security Officer at Facebook, followed me and DMed me to thank me in his friendly way for “discovering a bug.” The next day my Facebook account was locked pending the submission of identity documents that could prove I was A Literal Psyduck.
Stamos was nice about it, but that only encouraged my stubborn streak. I wasn’t going to submit to the identity police, I was going to be a Pokemon on Facebook if it killed me. An editor agreed to provide a letter verifying that I did go by the name A Literal Psyduck and an amused administrator at Yale also wrote up an endorsement.
According to Facebook’s guidelines, at least one of the documents had to include a photo ID and a birthdate — presumably to get around tricks along same lines as my dumb stunt. But therein lies the rub: there was actually no way for Facebook to verify that any photo ID actually corresponded to my Facebook profile. My profile picture was a Pokemon; my birthdate had been entered incorrectly years ago, in a fit of paranoia over how much personal information Facebook was collecting. Even if I wanted to verify my actual government-endorsed name, there was no real way for me to do it.
I refused to either provide documentation or to change my name back, and simply quit Facebook.
The first week off Facebook was exhilarating — an annoying responsibility had suddenly vanished from my life. No more obnoxious Facebook statuses from people who I barely liked or knew, no more cringeworthy viral news articles, no more impossibly facile “I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE” memes.
Then the inconveniences began to kick in. I was locked out of third party services like Scribd (which I used to upload documents) and MindBody (which I used to book haircuts). In most cases I was able to create an account with email-only and keep using the service, but in a handful of cases, there was no recourse.
Sometimes I missed being able to contact someone with the immediacy that Facebook provided, but in general, if I really needed to get ahold of someone, I could find an easy-enough way.
The real problem only began to present itself much later. I missed big personal news from people I knew. I missed dance parties and house parties and casual get-togethers. I was the last to find out about births and the last to see baby pictures. Classmates got engaged and married and I didn’t find out until after my hiatus.
The epitome of this phenomenon was when I sat down to interview my friend Dia Kayyali, an activist organizing against Facebook’s real names policy. “You’re coming to my birthday party, right?” they said, as we were leaving the cafe where I had interviewed them.
I froze in my tracks. “What party?”
“Oh,” said Dia. “I forgot you’re off Facebook.”
I experienced a severe bout of depression in the year I was off Facebook. It’s hard to say whether Facebook had anything to do with it, but that year gave me a lot of time to think about how fragile my support network was.
It was entirely my fault, of course. I have a morbid fear of voicemail. I don’t like talking on the phone. I am bad at responding to emails, let alone initiating an email conversation. Friends naturally fall out of touch with me for long stretches of time. I am one of the worst emotional laborers I know.
I don’t do the work partly because in the internet age, I don’t really have to — no one is ever going to be truly out of touch, nearly everyone is theoretically a few clicks away. But I also don’t do the work because I kind of don’t know how.
Every year I wonder if this is the year I begin sending out Christmas cards. How would I even start? I’d probably ask people to fill out a Google Doc form, and link to it on Facebook.
In any case, it wasn’t the ambient loneliness that finally broke me and got me to change my name to “Sarah Jeong” and reactivate my profile. (Facebook, for whatever reason, did not ask to see authenticating documents for that name). It was that I suddenly needed some of my baby pictures and I didn’t have any digital versions of them anywhere except Facebook.
In the twelve years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve mostly had an uneasy, adversarial relationship with the platform. I was an avid user of Facebook in college. I posted pictures, I tagged my friends, I added interests — feeding the data beast with a granular picture of my late teens that would eventually embarrass me on Tinder over a decade later.
As privacy scandal after the privacy scandal broke in the news, I began to withdraw from Facebook. I added less information, I commented less on statuses, I stopped taking pictures of my friends.
Like every other tech reporter in the country, I downloaded my data from Facebook shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The data they had on me was mostly frozen in amber — bands I didn’t really listen to anymore, movies I was now embarrassed to say I had ever liked. (They were correct that I liked to click on ads for clothes, so it’s not like my reticence had foiled ad targeting entirely).
Mark Zuckerberg wanted Facebook to be a complete reflection of my life, for the Timeline to revolutionize how I looked back on it. He wanted Facebook to not only replace the address book and the family photo album, but all the assorted messy, inconvenient, and time-consuming rituals that bind us together. Of course, Facebook has yet to supplant all of it, but has wormed its way in in more insidious ways. Facebook events, Facebook pages, Facebook photos, and Facebook videos are for many people an integral part of the church picnic, the Christmas party, the class reunion, the baby shower. (The growing scourge of gender reveal parties with their elaborate “reveal” rituals and custom-made cakes seems particularly designed to complement documentation on social media). The completeness of Facebook allows people to create better substitutes for in-person support groups in a wide range of ever-narrowing demographics — from casual interests like Instant Pot recipes for Korean food to heavy life-altering circumstances like rare forms of cancer.
Of all people, I know why I shouldn’t trust Facebook, why my presence on its network contributes to the collective problem of its monopolistic hold on people. Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook. And because everyone is on Facebook, even the people who aren’t are having their data collected in shadow profiles. My inaction affects even the people who have managed to stay away. I know this, I barely use Facebook, I don’t even like Facebook, and I find it nearly impossible to leave.
Perhaps it would be easier if I could somehow port all my contacts in a standardized format, to wrest Facebook’s control over my extended social network away from a single platform. But even then I wonder what the point is if I am unwilling to do the hard work of being sociable.
There’s one glimmer of hope, at least — I find that I’m turning more and more to a different technological means of staying “friends.”
These are the apps that piggyback off phone numbers — iMessage, Signal, Whatsapp, Telegram — all just shinier versions of SMS. I switch from one to the other fluidly, depending on what the friend prefers. It doesn’t matter, they all work with the same identity system, the phone number, a standardized format that is regulated and administered far outside of the purview of Silicon Valley. (Of course, if you change your phone number, you may very well be one of those people who lets everyone know through Facebook).
Although WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) might be suspect here, the rest don’t deal in the advertising business, and as a result, don’t go out of their way to coax out of you as much information about you as possible. While all of these services would no doubt prefer to triumph over the others, none of them seek to suck up your entire existence into a Timeline. If they carry dangers, they are different dangers than what Facebook presents.
I have to do more work to stay in touch through these means. I have to be a little more thoughtful about making sure I’ve recently touched base, or to initiate contact to share big news. And it’s harder to cultivate that broad field of mere acquaintances to whom I’d rather not give my phone number. But these are, perhaps, sacrifices that have to be made. We’re all engaged in the project of reconstructing and reshaping our social rituals in the age of technology. It’s an inevitable project that will require invisible, sometimes unthinking work. I suppose if we have to do it, we might as well start doing it intentionally and thoughtfully.