So Long Facebook

Last week I deactivated my Facebook account as a personal protest against Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and support of Fwd.Us, an essentially conservative political lobbying group, ostensibly driving immigration reform.  The group advertises policies and positions advocated by the likes of Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.  Many serious liberal organizations, from the Sierra Club to MoveOn, have condemned the group and ask that companies in disagreement with Zuckerberg’s political movement pull their advertising from Facebook.  Several high profile backers have also withdrawn their support, including Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX  and David Sacks, the CEO of Yammer.

One might argue that Zuckerberg’s private initiatives have nothing to do with Facebook, the social platform he created, runs, and from which he has become one of the richest young men in the world.  I argue that they are two sides of the same coin.  Facebook has long been criticized for its purposeful erosion of privacy. In my view, the site has shifted from a place where people (“friends”) connect and share their lives, to a pure marketing play designed to better match their users to advertisers.  Social goals have become subservient to marketing goals.

One practice that supports this argument is the new tactic of suggesting “Likes” in users’ news stream. Of course, when you “like” (and perhaps when you don’t “like”) the new sponsored page, you are adding to your demographic profile for better advertising targeting.  Obviously this serves the needs of advertisers at little expense to users beyond annoyance.  But I am annoyed—even being in the business of finding appropriate audiences for advertising campaigns.  Facebook can only exist because it derives revenue from advertisers (same for Google.)  I get this and yet have regarded Facebook as a private domain.  Interrupting my private space with marketing is an invasion I don’t accept.  Maybe Facebook should implement an opt-in series of questions, like OKCupid, designed to define users more precisely.  People could decide whether to answer questions or not, thereby setting their own limits with transparency on all sides.

Part of me thinks I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face by deactivating Facebook.  I like posting on Facebook.  I like sharing photos of my kids and places I’ve been. I like seeing my friends’ posts.  I like connecting to friends around the world whom I very rarely see.

About a year ago I read Robin Dunbar’s book How Many Friends Does a Person Need?  The answer is 150, based on anthropological research into the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. It’s now known as Dunbar’s Number.

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Robin Dunbar wasn’t thinking about Facebook when he developed his thesis.  But it led me to wonder if having more than 800 Facebook friends was realistic or even consistent with my use of the network.  I decided it was not, so pared down my number of friends to 160—as close as I could get to the 150 goal.  The first 500 were easy.  These were not friends by any traditional definition: people I may have met at a conference, former business associates, friends of friends.  The next 100 were more problematic because these were people I did know, but in some defined and limited context which wasn’t of lasting interest.  The final 40 were hard choices.  My criteria, at this stage, were to cut anyone who had never commented on one of my posts, or didn’t share regularly themselves.

It’s these 160 remaining friends whom I’m going to miss by not being on Facebook.  It dawned on me however that these friends were my friends long before Facebook arrived, and will remain so whether I’m on the site or not.  It even pushes me to go back to more personal forms of communication.  I’m not interested in the friends and families of my friends, unless there’s an opportunity for an old-fashioned introduction along the lines of, “Come over on Saturday and meet my friend Sue.  I think you’ll ready hit it off.”

Many of my 160 Facebook friends are people I see all the time.  I enjoy seeing the photos they post—a visual scrapbook of their everyday lives. When we get together they don’t pull out an album and show the latest photos taken at the Bay to Breakers race, though they might have posted one on Facebook.  Still, I’ll see these friends and hear all about their lives first hand.

I worry about staying connected with my Facebook friends whom I don’t see all the time—or ever.  They’re in Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, France, Japan, Austria, Canada, Chile, England; or other parts of the United States.  The onus will be on me to remain in touch.  It goes back to what makes a friend a true friend, someone with whom we share real parts of our lives, not just ephemeral details that come and go.

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What I want my friends on Facebook to know is that they are still my friends—real friends, not only social network friends.  In many ways, social media has both connected us to people and disconnected us at the same time.  We have become disconnected from real human interaction and caring.  I know someone who tallies the number of birthday wishes she gets on Facebook as evidence of something—even when Facebook provides a notice of all your friends’ birthdays!  Even if you forgot, or never had an intention of calling or even sending a card, the reminder makes it possible to spend 25 seconds and send birthday greetings.  Is that affection?  Sentiment need not be a public comment on someone’s Facebook wall.

I think back to how I have used Facebook to communicate my own emotions.  I regret many of these posts.  What drove me to unwrap often painful feelings in front of hundreds of other people, most of whom were not real friends?  Those few who were my friends understood what I was writing and asked me to stop, mostly to spare myself.  In a miserable way, each post had an intended target audience in mind.  Facebook wasn’t the platform to carry those messages.

It’s a good thing I like letters and cards sent the old-fashioned way.  I love the feel of different papers, the touch of letterpress printing, the way an envelope is lined.  I have hundreds of postcards from around the world.  I have collected hotel stationery from every continent.  I have engraved stationery, hand printed stationery, stationery I illustrate myself.  If I wrote every day I would end my life with reams of unused stationery.

So, my friends: please don’t think I’ve reverted to Luddite childishness.  You’ll still receive my emails, maybe my tweets.  And occasional written correspondence.

So long Facebook. I wish you well.

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