Facebook is likely to become the next company worth over a trillion dollars. The average Facebook user shares details on the platform from their personal life, providing more and more data points about who they are, who they are connected to in the real world, where they live, what they are likely to buy next, what they’re worried about, etc.
Users don’t get paid for generating all this content and data. We’re not supposed to think of being on the platform and writing “what’s on our mind” as providing free labor for a trillion dollar company, but that’s what it is.
Each use (each post, like, photo upload, etc.) of a social platform increases the value of the platform and makes money for the platform company. For the average social media user, it feels like something other than work but it’s really “playbor” — play-labor. It’s consenting to letting a large corporation profit off of your personal life with no compensation. In The New Childhood, Jordan Shapiro explains that if no one posted anything on Facebook, Facebook would have no data to sell and no slot for customized advertising. The performance of You online has a unique commercial value, a value proposition. But who is the one who gets paid? Not you!
Not only do we not get paid for creating those lovely little data points from our personal lives, Facebook then sells targeted ad space to companies who can deliver the things that might save us from our insecurities, our personal crises and triumphs, our fears and joys, our life transitions. I don’t need to provide an example, just take a look around your news feed and the ads on the side bar. You already know how this works. But have you thought about “being on Facebook” as unpaid work before?
Shapiro writes, “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with communicating a public identity narrative full of value propositions. It may just be part of living in a connected world. But we do need to…recognize that the online performance is only one part of the self — the part that fits into specific kinds of containers, pathways, and boxes designed to create profit for corporate media conglomerates.”
Facebook, and other social media, has creeped me out for a long time, almost as long as I’ve had an account (I joined in 2009). Every year since then, I’ve given serious thought to deactivating my account. However, Facebook’s role in my life has felt increasingly insidious over the last five years.
When I realized that 2019 would mark my tenth year on Facebook, I thought about how much data from my private life I had given away. Ten whole years of personal details. My kids’ whole lives. The idea of continuing on that trajectory made my stomach turn, and I could not stand the thought that one day I might look back and see that now fifteen, or twenty years of my personal data had been given for free to one of the most powerful companies in the world. So, about a year ago, I said goodbye to Facebook.
Instead of using Facebook, I didn’t. At first, I would open a tab and automatically type in facebook.com, totally on autopilot. I had a few months where I experienced some fear of missing out, and would start looking at my news feed. But, I noticed that after about 15-30 seconds, I felt awful, and numb, and was not enjoying myself at all. So, I would close the tab and get off the site. Gradually, those engrained habits faded, and it was easy to not use Facebook.
Now, I don’t comment, and I don’t post. I don’t have a tab open to Facebook all day. I don’t have the app on my phone. Instead of scrolling through my feed multiple times a day, everyday, posting pictures, and keeping tabs on my 200+ friends, I just don’t. And I have a lot more time in the day.
I’ve filled that time with the things I enjoyed before Facebook. Like painting, taking a walk (without my phone), reading a book, playing a game with my kids. I’ve drastically reduced all of my screen use. I go places without my phone. I don’t look at my phone when I’m standing in line somewhere. I listen to ten minutes of news a day, and that’s it. I’m writing a novel. I pay attention to the world around me, not the world on my screen. Since last January, I’ve hopped on Facebook a handful of times, to post a link to my blog or to look up a specific event. In all of 2019, I would estimate that I spent a total of one hour on Facebook.
When I think about a person, I text or email them directly, not just stalk their feed. When I run into someone around town, I ask how they are, and I really listen to their answer. I don’t see whatever they’ve been posting on Facebook, so I really don’t know what’s happening with them unless they tell me. I like that. There’s no layer of anonymity between us. They share with me what they want me to know, and vice versa. I don’t have to wonder whether or not they saw the post I wrote three days ago about my kid having the flu, because I didn’t write it. Information I share is more directed to the person who need the information, not diffusely broadcast to everyone from my mother to the two-times-removed acquaintance that I friended three years ago and haven’t seen since.
But aren’t you less socially connected? It depends how social connectivity is measured. Facebook is about quantity, not necessarily quality. More engagement, more clicks, more activity generates more profit for the company. The platform is set up to reward quick reactions– a like, a share, a yes/no, a zero or a one. It’s not set up to stimulate long, thought-out responses or deep digestion of an idea. When I was signing off, my last post was this: “Dear Friends, I am in the process of pruning back my social media presence, and will be probably deactivating my Facebook account altogether at some point soon. I have begun to unfollow as much as I can. The best way to get in contact with me is email or text. PM me if you’d like my info. Please pm me your email address and/or phone number if you haven’t already. Thanks!”
Only a handful of people messaged me to make sure I had their phone number or email, and there are a handful of people that I have been in contact with outside of Facebook. But, without Facebook, my social interactions with people local to me has dramatically decreased. It’s a bit eerie, really. But, it has shown me what’s really important in my life, and what’s not. What’s just noise, and what is an important relationship that both parties want to make an effort to cultivate.
The relationships that have survived this social pruning have grown deeper. The deepest growth has been with my wife and my kids, which tells me that my social media use was not deepening or enriching my relationships. Using social media– the thing that’s supposed to make us more socially connected (and we think that means happier)– was actually making me more stressed, and have shallower relationships. It was diffusing my energies onto a wide, level plain, and leaving me with lots of relationships, all of them with shallow roots, even the ones that are the most important.
I’ve lived this last year with what amounts to about an hour of Facebook use, and so much more of everything that is important to me. Plus, by opting out, I have prevented the use of countless free data points from my personal life by a company whose policies and values don’t align with my own. That’s one year of not giving Facebook my personal details to profit from, and that’s worth a lot to me.
I might totally deactivate my Facebook account. I haven’t yet, but I think I will soon. Considering deactivation feels like a Matrix-y thing. Like, I’ll no longer exist in the world if I don’t have a Facebook account. To some people, that might be pretty close to the truth.
The need to feel known is a deep human need, I think. Since I have used Facebook for ten years as the representation of my social capital and my “friend” network, removing my account completely from the platform feels a little bit like erasing my entire life. I’m “friends” with nearly everyone who has been important to me at one time or another. But really, my Facebook account is just one digital representation of my life, reduced to zeros and ones. It’s not the real me, not my real life, and the real connections I have with people are not housed inside Facebook. They never were. If I deactivate my account, some of the lines of connection that appear to be there might prove to be false. But I will know that whatever remains, is based on real connection, and that will be enough for me.