Why I Left Facebook

Hi. You may have noticed I haven’t been on Facebook much lately; I’ve basically quit. You probably should too, or at least drastically scale back your involvement. You’re not actually using Facebook — it’s using you.

The core problem is addiction. I have what you might call an addictive personality. Over the years, I’ve struggled with problematic use of many things — cannabis, alcohol, video games, and in recent times social media. One might wonder how I (or someone else) could become addicted to something on a computer when there’s no drug involved. The answer lies in what addiction really is: a pain-control tactic.

We’ve all got little discomforts in our lives. Some are physical and practical like a bad knee or a dull headache — these are straightforward. Others, though, are social and psychic. We all surely know the pain of heartache, loss, and loneliness. These can be a bit harder to pin down, but the pain is real all the same.

Many feel a creeping sense of “ech” in their lives — a sad malaise, a feeling of emptiness, of social dislocation. It might be the pain of uncertainty, not knowing whether you’ll have a job next week, or how you’ll pay the rent at the end of the month. It could be a sinking feeling that your job just isn’t fulfilling — but without it you’d starve. We each also carry our own personal stories of hurt, whether it’s unresolved trauma of childhood, or some accumulated neurosis. For many, it’s largely a feeling of pure isolation — of being out of the loop.

It’s mostly this last one that keeps me hooked on stuff. Growing up an autistic weirdo, I never felt I fit in. I didn’t really enjoy the things other people seemed to, and it always felt like I was missing something. But as I’ve learned how to walk among the other humans, I’ve grown to realize that they were missing it too.

There’s a severe lack of *genuine* connection in our world. Even with thousands of “friends” on Facebook and elsewhere, most people feel lonely most of the time. We bounce off neighbours and acquaintances with a “hi hawarioo”, greeting with a performed positivity and not really expecting — nor even seeking — a genuine response. It’s only in those rare moments when this pattern is disrupted that a true connection can begin.

But our world is not designed for these connections. The present economic structure depends on extreme individualism and all the misery it brings. Happy, fulfilled people do not buy things to make themselves feel better. Secure, satiated people won’t sell their time under slavish conditions for meagre pay. No — to ensure a coerced-but-apparently-willing workforce and a demand for consumables, they need pain.

And so we have social media: the perfect drug for a socially starved society. The idea itself is a wonderful one: an easy-to-use, free platform to maintain contact with the people in your lives. It’s arguably the most important invention in human history: a universal communicator, a town square, a speaker’s corner, and a public gallery — without regard for distance or time. In this light, it’s no wonder most people now use social media of some kind…so why do we still feel lonely?

It comes down to motivation: as well-meaning and altruistic as they may seem to be, the corporations behind these systems are ultimately driven by money. They have an obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits, which — for a “free” service — means maximizing advertising revenue. And that means maximizing the attention of an audience: you.

Even with an adblocker browser extension (I use Adblock Plus and/or uBlock Origin and so should you), the social media “feed” is saturated with advertising. Some is obvious, some is carefully concealed in other content, and some you’re not even meant to notice. An entire subfield of psychology exists to ensure marketing reaches its audience, with techniques so insidious they fade into the fabric of our lives. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I highly recommend Adam Curtis’ documentary “Century of the Self”. Also check out Peter Coffin’s Youtube discourse on “cultivated identity” for a contemporary application.

Plainly speaking: someone is making money whenever you look at a social media feed. And so to maximize revenue, they need merely to keep you glued to your device for as much of your time as possible. How? Addiction.

That “ech” I spoke of earlier — the sense of vague discomfort that permeates our lives — is a pain we’re constantly trying to escape. It creeps up in the interstitial moments between other activities — waiting in line for coffee, laying awake in bed, in an awkward pause of conversation, sitting on the can trapped with our own thoughts. In these moments, we all too often now reach for our devices, refresh the feed, and scroll without thinking intentionally — sometimes for hours.

The stream of palatable and readily digestible content becomes an ideal anesthetic for these moments of ech— just enough to divert the attention, but not enough to satisfy. The intermittent reward stimulus of the notification icon, and the steady stream of quantified validation from ‘likes’ are perfect for habituating use. But these things don’t fulfil the craving for social contact — they just provide a facsimile of contact; just a little dopamine hit each time, leaving you wanting more and more.

What’s worse, the feed curation algorithm itself is designed to promote content you’re likely to engage with, whether affirmatively or negatively. Content with more comments, more reactions, and more shares is promoted in importance, becoming more visible generally. As a result, controversy, drama, and polarized toxicity floats to the top of this digital collective consciousness, worsening the discourse and fouling our moods.

We’d all just log off if not for the fear of missing out (fomo). As social creatures, one of our biggest anxieties is exclusion. Social media exploits this too, showing us the fun times and aspirational imagery of others, to which we naturally compare ourselves. Study after study demonstrates that viewing this kind of content harms one’s mental health, yet this is part of our 21st century routine activities.

The images we see aren’t even a reliable representation. Few people (other than those fishing for pity or who have a pathological need for drama) post the mundane and disappointing parts of their daily existence. Instead, we curate and polish our public presentation, bragging and showing off the best trinkets and instants regardless of their actual context.

And this is to say little of the other downright dangerous aspects of this new paradigm. Our main means of remote communication in this new age is mediated by an opaque, economically-motivated, ideologically-nonneutral algorithm, whose governance lays outside democratic control. We don’t really know what they’re up to, we can’t see how it works, and we don’t have a say in it. Hell, this post will probably be buried because it knows I’m criticizing it, and there’s nothing I can do about it!

To summarize: the Facebook (et al) feed is a machine designed to capture and hold your attention by exploiting psychological vulnerabilities which make you miserable in order to sell you stuff. It is an amoral consumerist brainwashing machine that does not have your best interests in mind.

That said, there are some aspects I miss about it.

There are a few dozen people that I haven’t heard from since logging off. We don’t have a personal relationship, but their insights, interactions, and content were an enjoyable part of my day. Remaining linked to people I haven’t seen in decades without having to reach out to each individually is a nice labour-saving device. What’s more, I miss the creative outlet of being able to share what I make for the appreciation of others.

I’m going to try to participate again in a very measured form, if only to reconnect with those I’ve been missing. Regardless, if you’d like to contact me direct messages will remain the best way to do so. I’ve felt much better and much more stable since signing off from Facebook, and I don’t wish to lose that newfound peace. But I still have more work to do — other diversions replaced some of my FB time, and my mental focus is not where I’d like it to be.

I hope that this has provoked some insight and clarity in you, dear reader. I invite you to consider this course for yourself — I promise you will appreciate the benefits it can bring you. Thanks for reading.