My relationship with social media has been a strained and inconsistent one. At certain times over the years, I've been an early adopter of new technologies. Other times, I've been a hold out refusing to try apps or networks that friends and coworkers are excited about. I've had and deleted accounts on some social networks repeatedly. Facebook. Twitter. Tumblr. Deleted the accounts. Created new accounts. Deleted them again. Going around and around, I can't seem to reach an equilibrium.
You Cannot Escape Facebook
You can't escape Facebook. I say that as someone who hasn't had an account since I deleted my last one in 2014.
After some careless online searching to find out what percentage of the United States population is on Facebook, I see different numbers, but it looks like in early 2017 around 68% of U.S. adults were on the network. My age is also in the range of the most common age group of Facebook users (ages 25 to 34). On top of that, "Half of internet users who do not use Facebook themselves live with someone who does. In addition, some 24% of Facebook non-adopters who live with an account holder say that they look at photos or posts on that person's account."
Other people don't seem nearly as bothered by things that get under my skin about social media. They integrate Facebook into their lives as easily as brushing their teeth or wearing deodorant (neither of which became popular until the mid nineteen-hundreds by the way). Facebook is just how people talk to other people they know. It's how they find out who's pregnant, arrange get-togethers, and know who started a new job or got a new puppy.
During meetings at work, I see coworkers scrolling through Facebook. During the lulls in conversations during meals, I see friends scrolling through Facebook. When Netflix is paused, there it is. It's waiting in grocery store lines. I see Facebook out of the corner of my eye everywhere.
Since you're reading this, you're online. Statistically, that means you most likely have a Facebook account. If you read to the end of this post, you might find yourself dismissing what I say or defending why you use the site. I can imagine what replies I would get about what value so-and-so gets out of the social network.
- "I just use it to see funny posts."
- "It's how I stay in contact with extended family."
- "It's handy for news."
Believe me, I get it. I've heard it. But this is my website so I get to talk about why Crystal Bulmahn doesn't have, or want, a Facebook account.
So what's my problem with Facebook?
I've had tons of difficulties, but I can summarize most of them under three main ideas.
1. It damages your ability to focus intently or do cognitively demanding work.
I'd cite a bunch of studies that contribute to this claim, but honestly, I'm really crap at getting my hands on studies, and I have next to no experience interpreting them. Instead, I read a bunch of books and articles that say "such-and-such study showed this-or-that" and I build up a general impression over time of what is probably more true. (I think this method needs improvement, but that's a topic for another day.) For now, I'll link you to Deep Work, a book I think explains with better support how Facebook isn't helping you focus or think.
What has made it concrete for me to understand, however, is a comparison between myself and myself while I regularly used social media.
Me on social media:
- I feel a compulsion to see if there's anything new on the site/app.
- I feel a compulsion to find or do something worth sharing.
- I feel a compulsion to upload recent, flattering pictures of myself.
- I take thirty selfies in five minutes trying to find one I like, and I hate them all.
- An hour or more can easily disappear while I mindlessly click through the photos of someone I have no actual desire to interact with.
- I can't handle the quiet moments of boredom. After 4 seconds of downtime, I reach for my phone...
Time spent on social media is also time I don't spend reading a book, listening to an audiobook, actually talking to loved ones, working on projects, cleaning my home, exercising, etc. Attention is a scarce resource that can be better spent on non social media pursuits.
Me not on social media:
In addition to feeling the opposite of everything I listed above, I also feel a sense of relief. It's like extra time has been found and added to my days. I don't have to experience life through a filter of judging which moments are worth sharing.
2. Social pressure
In my less than three decades of life, social expectations have changed dramatically. I got my first cell phone at the age of seventeen. Now young children often receive cell phones so they are always reachable by their parents. We are training a generation from childhood that they better damn-well pay attention to their notifications. It could be their parents. How many parents have gotten worried or upset when their child didn't answer the phone or reply fast enough to a text message?
Here's a real life example I heard recently: a parent was unhappy their child let their phone die during school because they played games on it all day. "I don't pay your cell phone bill to not be able to reach you," they said.
I get a lot of flak from people about not being responsive enough across many mediums: phone calls, texts, instant messages, and email. This (historically) sudden ability for anyone to feel like it's perfectly okay to demand instant communication with another person who isn't in the same room feels like it has at times completely eroded my ability to be unreachable.
Being able to choose to be unreachable is essential for being able to choose when you will be able to concentrate on difficult tasks.
Every social media network comes with another inbox or two, opening more lines of communication for people to think they could reach me through. I can't even blame them, because who would imagine someone on a social network wouldn't be interested in socializing on it? I've experienced friends snappily telling me that I would have known about an event if only I was on Facebook. But the truth is, I don't want to receive the types of information or invitations that aren't given to me personally by some other means of communication.
Social media is a never ending deluge of inane thoughts and personally curated highlights of people's lives. I don't have to be their audience.
The structure of how Facebook is built is meant to trap you. They want to keep you on or coming back to the site as much as possible so that you see more ads and share more personal information. The people you know inadvertently get in on the act too. For example, Facebook is more likely to advertise something to you that your friends have "Liked." Another example is that Facebook has a propriety credit scoring algorithm that uses information about who your friends are to rate your credit worthiness. These scores are most likely sold to other companies.
If any of that shocks you, I don't think you've fully absorbed that free apps and services are paid for by selling your personal information, selling your attention to advertisers, or both. In a world where true costs are factored in and all participants are fairly compensated, Facebook should be paying you!
Because Facebook is "free" it is hard to say that handing over all of our personal data costs us anything directly. That New Yorker article I just linked says something more subtle is going on. However, I've personally found that there ARE costs for me that are direct enough to understand. Time, attention, stress, and seeing ads that make me buy stuff I wouldn't have otherwise bought. Targeted ads = you spend more money. It is harder to ignore advertisements or intrusions that are custom tailored to exploit you. I think it's laughable that Google, Facebook, or any company ever spins this as a favor to you.
What about other social media?
Facebook aside, there are other social media platforms that I currently have accounts on. Each of my other accounts exists for specific reasons or uses. Many of the reasons I outlined above for not having a Facebook account could potentially be applied towards these other networks, but from my own experiences, Facebook leaves a much worse taste behind. I haven't found any compelling benefit to maintaining even a skeleton account.
Contrast this with Goodreads. Goodreads has a database of books that I've never found lacking. This makes it very handy for keeping track of what I've read or want to read. There is an option to export all of your lists of books to a spreadsheet, which is perfect for periodic backups. I also don't mind a web search for my name returning a result saying I've read hundreds of books. And finally, no one expects me to maintain a constant presence on the site.
I compare having Social Media accounts to having a credit card. If you can control your habits and use it responsibly, then arguments to cut up all credit cards/delete all accounts because they're evil don't need to apply to you. If having a Goodreads account gives me something I want in benefits, and it is easy to avoid any negatives, then the choice seems simple. If circumstance change, I can and should re-evaluate.
Facebook just doesn't meet the cut.
Update added Dec. 14, 2017
This former Facebook executive says, "he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children "aren’t allowed to use that shit.""