Why Facebook Failed

During the summer before my freshman year of college I registered for a Facebook account. Since I wasn’t yet a student at any of the schools whose “network” Facebook required all users to join, I had to pick a regional network, in my case Louisville, Kentucky. I immediately added friends from high school, church, summer camp, etc. Almost overnight the friendships that were ordinarily built around structured, shared times—like college classes—grew into 24/7 connectedness. I learned about my friends through posts and photos, and most exciting of all, relationship status updates. When I think back to the first couple years of Facebook I invariably think of the same ten or so people who made it rewarding for me. Facebook brought me further up and further into a community I desired. At times it felt unreal, but most other times it felt like it made the real times more real.

This past spring, roughly 12 years after registering for Facebook, I decided there wasn’t any point to it anymore. I deleted my profile and haven’t looked back. Though it took me until now to do it, deactivating was surprisingly easy, even routine. There just wasn’t a sense of loss. The thrill was gone.

In the early days Facebook was charming and rewarding. I logged in with a naively hopeful expectation of seeing something happy. Something close to the opposite is true now. Facebook has become a slog, a digital membership I kept for years not out of delight or even usefulness but out of serfdom to Mark Zuckerberg’s reign over the writer’s economy. For me, it’s not even ultimately about the obnoxious polarization or “fake news.” Sure, those are ills, as is Facebook’s appalling use of data. But I confess I could probably live with all those things. Facebook’s sins don’t alienate me nearly as much as its nature. There was something about the experience of social media ten years ago that was almost beautiful in its own way. Now it feels hollow beyond redemption.

Many younger Facebook users have no possible way of understanding how different the site was around 2008-2010. It’s common nowadays to refer to Facebook as part of someone’s “platform,” and that word helpfully reveals the transformation I’m talking about. Once upon a time the experience of Facebook was very much the experience of a “network,” ie, a place where people were put into contact with one another and the point of the site was to facilitate some kind of mutuality. This was evidenced by Facebook’s requirement in the beginning that new users join a preexisting college group as part of their registration. This process mapped Facebook users into a specific location and helped the website facilitate something genuinely local. Flawed? Misleading? Certainly. But still, it was a kind of community, something that at least vaguely resembled or at least supported offline friendship.

Now, Facebook is a platform, not a network. As Michael Brendan Doughtery points out, what Facebook most resembles is a multimedia publishing company, except one not bound by the same laws as actual publishing companies. It’s a tool for individuals to bolster themselves in a digital economy. This can be literal, as in the cases of people who use Facebook professionally and flood the newsfeeds of those who “Like” their page; or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of normal Facebook users who nonetheless use the page almost exclusively to initiate some sort of self-serving interaction with others (I confess that for at least the past 2 or 3 years, this is basically how I was using the site). In the not too distant past you could scroll endlessly through your Facebook “feed without any clicking—or even seeing—any external links. Multi-level marketing, bloggers, and sensational “fake news” headlines have obliterated this experience beyond recall.

The question is why. Is it because people have changed in the past ten years and this is what they are genuinely after nowadays? Or is it that Facebook has steadily configured its website to reward people who use it a platform and punish people who want to use it as a network?

Facebook’s recent ad campaign in response to controversy over its use of data and political content is a clever acknowledgement that the site isn’t what it used to be. But fake news and political overload are symptoms, not causes. They’re symptoms of Facebook’s overall structural evolution, from a site designed to put you in close proximity with people in your life to a site that replaces you with itself.

The best example of this is Facebook’s notification system. In a previous life, a notification from Facebook was almost always to let you know that something meaningful had happened on your page: Someone asked to be your friend, someone wrote on your “wall” (an appealingly spatial term that has been replaced with ephemeral Big Data jargon, “timeline”), someone tagged you in a photo, or invited you to an event (that wasn’t a sales pitch). Again, depending on when you started using Facebook, you may have zero idea the kind of site I’m describing.

Somewhere along the road Facebook decided it would use its notification system to drive us insane—or, more accurately, to drive our attention and our money into the waiting arms of third party developers. We started getting notifications when someone we didn’t know commented on a photograph 3 days after we did, or when a “friend” we barely spoke to needed to send invites in order to get fake tokens for the game they were playing, or (my personal un-favorite) whenever someone was merely “interested” in attending some event within 100 miles of you. In 2008 a notification on Facebook meant something happened that merited a response from you. In 2019, a notification means that Facebook thinks you should spend more time on the site.

Lifting its signature “network” requirement was a crucial first step that signaled the trade-offs that would happen as a social network became a ridiculously lucrative media platform. The reason Facebook thrived even in the years when it required a preexisting network membership was that such a requirement made Facebook a valuable social commodity. People want to belong, and they wanted to belong to Facebook only because the real people with whom they already wanted to belong also belonged to it. In this way Facebook was actually a remarkably intuitive technology: An online gateway to offline membership.

Almost every major technological or aesthetic decision Facebook has made since has severed the connection between online and offline. Consider the site’s decision to combine its messaging feature and its inline chat feature. When Facebook introduced Chat around 2009, it was an obvious idea that made sense given the value of instant messaging. For several years there was a difference between receiving a chat and receiving a message. A chat was like a text message. An inbox message was more like an email—more personalized, thought-out, and less spontaneous.

Facebook eliminated this distinction from their system several years ago. A chat is now automatically archived as an inbox message, and an inbox message appears (if the recipient hasn’t turned off the chat feature) as a chat. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s actually a very revealing feature. Facebook’s developers decided that it wasn’t in the site’s best interest to assume that people might use an instant messaging feature differently than they use an inbox. Why not? Because such a distinction assumes that Facebook can be used differently for different purposes. That’s not what Facebook’s developers want to happen. They want a Facebook that is creating and dictating the user experience, not serving it. Collapsing the distinction between an IM and an email is a good way to encourage people to always be reachable on the platform.

Facebook is thus mostly about itself, not about the people on the other side of the screen. There’s a reason Facebook is now overrun with people trying to sell stuff: that’s what this kind of technology is actually good for. Facebook’s design is now a naked attempt to cultivate addiction, and addiction and marketing have always gone hand-in-hand (“A man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance,” wrote C.S. Lewis). In the absence of being truly connected with friends and family, tech users look for emotional fulfillment in buying and selling, in political diatribes and personal brand building. Meanwhile, the clicks just keep coming.

Nostalgia for Facebook’s more sanguine days reminds me of the conversation many Christians are having about classical liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, Rod Dreher’s bestseller The Benedict Option, Jake Meador’s new In Search of the Common Good, and other books and articles all describe a cultural transformation similar in spirit to the transformation of Facebook. These writers describe the deterioration of solid institutions and meaningful civil life in favor of a “liquid modernity,” an absolute autonomous freedom that is self-evidently ultimate. Affluence, libertine individualism, and social mobility quickly eroded and replaced it with the atomized, therapeutic self-determination that dominates our contemporary society.

I’m wondering if Facebook’s slow burn from a social network into a multi billion-dollar media platform might be some kind of symbol or symptom for this much larger (and of course, more important) cultural shift. Why did my experience of Facebook downgrade like it did? The first answer is that Facebook changed. Chasing profits and clicks, it fell into an all-too-familiar, all-too-American pattern of trying to create customers who served the product rather than a product that served its customers. This is, in a crude way, the failure of liberalism (or, if you prefer Deneen’s explanation, its success). Liberalism begins on the premise that it is meeting inalienable human needs of liberty, and it ends by creating people who are permanently indentured to morally empty social order. Facebook’s algorithms favor people who choose to manipulate them through outrage and compulsion. Liberalism’s anticulture, its own kind of algorithm, likewise favors those who can most efficiently exploit the freedoms of others.

Perhaps Facebook, in its own way, typifies the critique of classical liberalism. It’s become an engorged technology that feasts on the shortened attention spans and withered credulity of its users. Yet the site itself is succeeding marvelously, because its algorithms do with astonishing efficiency precisely what they’re designed to do: Minimize the personal and the beautiful while maximizing the perceived value of the site. Meanwhile, the only thing that can puncture Facebook’s PR is high profile scandal, like the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, much like the only serious reconsideration of American cultural mores usually comes through economic disaster or something like the #MeToo epidemic. Facebook’s response to scandal is to produce sympathetic ads while trying to get banks to fork over their clients’ personal info. Our sociopolitical response to scandal is not much better: More diversity seminars, more HR training, more outsourcing of our moral and intellectual work to corporations and pop culture—while we remain as indifferent to our inherent dysfunctions as Facebook is toward their algorithms. Our mobile society is lonely and fragmented, and ironically, all you have to do is spend a couple hours “connecting” on Facebook to experience it.

Will Facebook will ever become a substantially better experience than it is right now? That’s hard to say. Stacking the odds against it are Facebook’s gargantuan profitability and domineering of the news economy. It’s rare to see a corporation that monetizes its worst tendencies this effectively backtrack. The reason it’s difficult to imagine a better Facebook is the same reason many critics of contemporary liberalism cannot imagine a genuine renewal of our public life; repentance is always hard, but its doubly so when you have to repent from something you’re really good at.

And yet, unlike Facebook, the public square is still salted by the gospel and its army of churches, filled with the refugees of a disenchanted age. On Facebook there is only the power to curate. In the world outside we must confront un-curated reality, and come to terms with a bloody world that demands a bloody salvation. The best Facebook can offer is to help us meet up with our fellow man. The best Christ can offer is to come to us himself. Any critique of classical liberalism that doesn’t explicitly locate the remedy in the person, work, and community of Jesus, fails.

Years ago, my friends and I would laugh as we thought about what it would be like to still be on Facebook as adults with children. We were so busy laughing at the idea that we hardly noticed when it actually happened. I want more for my two-year-old son than the empty promises of going viral, accumulating “Likes” and being sucked in an endless algorithm. Yet I have to confess that the thought of his going off to college and not having a Facebook for me to keep up with is a sad thought. I can’t say definitively what his experience of the digital world will be like. But I’m pretty sure it will be a mixed bag that requires him to constantly reassess his heart, weigh his time, and choose the true, good, and beautiful above all. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really what we should be doing all the time—especially when logged in.

Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

Why Facebook Won’t Just Go Away

Comparing your first profile picture to your current one is what Facebook does best.

Over the past several days I’ve seen many of my social media friends participate in what looks like a viral experiment: Post your first ever “profile picture,” no matter how old, alongside your current photo. The results are nostalgic and charming and quite fun. It’s warming to see faces, transformed (if even slightly) by time, amidst the political screeds and clickbait links. It’s a homely and encouraging way to experience social media.

It occurred to me that this is why Facebook won’t just go away, no matter how many sins it commits against privacy, our cognitive health, or politics. The one thing Facebook threatens us all with is the one very thing it’s good at: Keeping. Facebook has become a public repository of memory, a monument by which many of us can view and re-experience our past. Facebook keeps, and in keeping, it holds for users what many of us are too embarrassed to admit out loud that we want to keep: Memories, even of the mundane and routine.

There are, of course, other ways to build repositories of memory. But many of them have fallen out of fashion. Scrapbooking has lost to Instagram. Keeping a diary depends a lot on the desire and ability to write longhand, and few have either. Technological change has tethered the ability to capture life with the obligation to share and store it digitally. Outside of the social media platforms, how much physical record of their own past do most people really own? For millions, the only meaningful artifacts to their lives are on Facebook.

Almost everything Facebook does nowadays it does poorly. It is ad-infested, link-biased, creepily intelligent, and ugly to look at. It does, however, hold onto our posts, our photos, our statuses—our digital selves. Because of that, it holds onto a part of us that we know, trembling, can disappear forever with one emptying of a virtual trash bin. We signed up for Facebook because we thought it opened up our present and defined our future. Now that future is past, and we just want to go back, and can’t. And Facebook knows it.

You Are What You Click

I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:

It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.

All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.

This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click. 

This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?

For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?

Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.

Social Media Resolutions for 2017

  1. I will be less cynical. Sarcasm and withering criticism are to social media what static is to AM radio. There’s no need for one more person’s trying too hard to be funny.
  2. I won’t start or join a “pile-on.” If I wouldn’t publicly shame a person in real life, I shouldn’t do it online.
  3. I will tweet unto others as I would have others tweet unto me.
  4. I won’t be so preoccupied with my phone that I forget the people around me. If at any time I feel defensive when someone suggests I take a break, I should interpret my defensiveness as a sign they’re right.
  5. I will be more concerned with saying what is true and helpful than building my “brand.” If someone says something better than I said it, that’s not a problem.
  6. I won’t repost meanness or trollishness, not even to mock it.
  7. I will always feel free to not chime in.
  8. I won’t “hate-click” or “hate-share.” In the new writing economy, there is no such thing. (see resolution #6)
  9. I will actively seek out and share the wisdom of others, rather than see it as a threat.
  10. I won’t sneer at those who do the opposite of these resolutions, since I already know I myself will fail them.

Eaten By Lions, Facebook Style

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media, politics, and conservative evangelicals?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.