Confessions of a Facebook Fugitive

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For one reason or another, people are often surprised to find out that I don’t use Facebook (anymore). Usually, this surprise stems from the fact that people fundamentally misunderstand my conscious decision to stay off “the Book”. Of course, there are many valid motives for deactivating a Facebook account. For example, you may notice your friend count mysteriously thinning out around exam time, only to flourish again once the end-of-term party has occurred – after all, everyone wants to get up on tagging all those pics and swapping holiday stories. However, my motives are slightly more complicated than a complete lack of impulse control coupled with a heavy tendency towards procrastination (although I suffer from that as well).

I’m a relapsed and rehabilitated ex-Facebooker in that I kicked the habit once in 2011 and returned in 2012, only to kick the habit again in 2013. In this day and age, quitting Facebook cold turkey is not by any means an easy thing to do. Internet addiction is an actual phenomenon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook addiction doesn’t soon become one as well, if it’s not considered one already. In the depths of my struggle, I would reactivate my account at off-peak hours, quickly catch myself up on the comings and goings of my various friends, acquaintances, and enemies, and then quietly deactivate again after 10 minutes of frenzied creeping. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually I managed to wean myself off of the monolith of social networking for good. I stayed off of it for over a year, and was pleased with my successful recovery from Facebookaholism – until I went on an extended travelling stint. Meeting people from all corners of the globe under short-term conditions unavoidably makes staying in touch a bit of a challenge, and Facebook suddenly became something of a necessary evil. So I was back, but not quite with a vengeance. I limited my friends list only to those people who I didn’t have a legitimate, alternative means of contact with, set my privacy settings to tin-foil hat mode, and would sign on only intermittently. Then I started law school, and as you are probably well aware, the snowballing Facebook friend explosion is practically a rite of passage during the initial excitement of orientation and the weeks beyond. For some, deleting Facebook is seen as akin to committing social suicide – after all, there is seemingly no better way to stay dialled in. So why did I do it? I have a few reasons (of which I will only touch on a few, for brevity’s sake).

For one, Facebook promotes a very particular kind of communication, and one that I don’t necessarily sanction. I’m old-school in that I still write pen and paper letters and/or maintain email correspondence with my friends in faraway places. In these messages, featuring actual sentences and paragraphs, I ask them about their jobs, and their families, and their significant others. I update them on my life and they update me on theirs in return. We swap stories. There are a handful of people that I care enough to do this with, and they represent only a tiny fraction of the amount of Facebook “friends” I had accumulated at my peak. Ultimately, I got tired of trading quality for quantity.

Relatedly, Facebook makes it a lot easier to be harassed, and I speak from experience. Blocking someone is a hopelessly ineffective technique, because despite Facebook’s prohibition against creating multiple accounts, it is way too easy to neatly evade this supposed rule. Facebook is the communicative medium of choice for a lot of people, and given that I’m very selective about who I give my contact information to, it was essentially the easiest way to get in touch with me for a lot of people who I didn’t want to be in touch with, even after I had made that latter fact explicitly clear. Not only could these people get in touch with me, they could keep getting in touch with me, far past my limit of wanting to deal with them. See: modern-day cyber-bullying as another, far more vivid illustration of this point.

Finally, I have serious concerns about Facebook’s use of my personal data. Things didn’t always used to be so shady, but in recent years, Facebook has been rolling out a lot of various changes to their privacy policies that are highly troubling. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think twice about what you say or do on Facebook. I’d wager that at least one message thread, picture, or tag of you on “the Book” could possibly be incriminating or, at the very least, highly damaging to your personal and/or professional reputation. It’s unnerving to think that messages between individual users or photos uploaded and set to be viewed by “my friends only”, for example, are potentially not as confidential as you think they are, but that’s a reality you should be prepared to face (unless you’re staunchly in the “ignorance is bliss” camp).

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has recently begun an inquiry into whether Facebook has violated a regulation whereby they were required to get the explicit consent of users before exposing their private information to new audiences. In both Canada and the United States, Facebook has been the defendant in class action suits brought by users who are upset by the fact that their names and photos were used without their consent by advertisers to endorse products in Facebook ads circulated to their friends. With these class action suits, the stakes are high – as they always are when dealing with large groups of people and huge amounts of settlement money – but somehow it seems even more significant when privacy and civil liberties, which are arguably beyond price, are also on the line.

Given the ubiquitous nature of Facebook in modern life, it’s kind of crazy to think that all of us once lived in a world before Facebook – a world where we didn’t have instant access to what the vast majority of our “social network” was doing at any given time. A world where our fingers didn’t immediately poise themselves over the f-a-c-e keys (and the rest left to autofinish) as soon as we opened our internet browsers. A world where we didn’t have to worry so much about the ominous implications of what corporations are doing with some of our most personal data.

Further, studies about the effects of Facebook usage have already started to crop up, and in the coming years, will undoubtedly multiply not only in number, but also in scope. Go to Google Scholar and type in “facebook” as a query – you’ll get some very interesting results, some positive, and some not so much. For example, there has been a demonstrated correlation between Facebooking and narcissism – surprise, surprise. Facebook has also been connected to increasing levels of dissatisfaction with one’s own life. After all, when you’re only seeing the highlight reel of other people’s lives, the fact that you’re sitting at home in sweatpants eating a microwaved meal while skimming through pictures of a group of your friends jumping on the beach in Maui suddenly seems way more depressing than it actually is on any objective level (although that’s perhaps a bad example, because that actually sounds really depressing).

I hasten to concede that Facebook is not entirely a bad thing, and that it essentially does a bang-up job of what it’s supposed to do – allow you to “connect with friends and the world around you”.  But if it’s true that nothing in life is free, at what price does that connection come?

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