We Should Probably Leave Social Media?
Facebook fucked up again, everyone. Or rather, the Cambridge Analytica fiasco has put the spotlight once again on Facebook’s data harvesting and profit practices, its exploitative business model, and its overall net-negative effect on human social relations—and maybe this time some of the criticism will stick? I don’t know. Facebook has weathered similar storms in the past and came out just as strong in the end because at the end of the day we really don’t have that much of a choice for social media platforms anymore? What Benjamin Bratton and others have called the “added value” of platforms has borne out: the more we give Facebook, the more “useful” it becomes to us, and the more useful we become to it.1
There are lots of smart comments swirling on Twitter about What To Do Next: should you deactivate your Facebook? delete it entirely? throw your phone off a bridge? institute a new governmental oversight office? In the economy of Twitter, these are presented as mutually exclusive only because the rhetorical logic of the Hot Take means that “you shouldn’t do/think about/concern yourself with X, which is what other people say, but rather Y, which is what I say.” I appreciate the combative urgency of this rhetoric; it gets the retweets. The answer in situations like this is almost always “¿por qué no los dos?” I suppose.
I’m interested in the gesture of quitting and how it serves these arguments, and why it comes up again and again in conversations about structurally exploitative situations, from social media to New York City to academia. Smarter writers than I have noted the concretization of “quit lit” as a form within an online writing economy that prizes the highly personal, immediately relevant, and suitably contrarian. Certainly publicly quitting and renouncing a thing can allow one to take an imagined moral high ground distinct from those still participating in the thing. Quitting implies that there were always better pastures elsewhere that the majority did not flock to based on a variety of reasons, some charitable and some less so. Quitting says “I was wrong, but I have seen the light, and I either implore you to do also or demand that you acknowledge my implicit superiority.”
(This is the moment where I say that I have deactivated, but not deleted, my Facebook account. I also rejoin this sentence by saying that I have used it precisely four times in the past three years: to announce that I was accepted to graduate school; to sell a piano; to circulate a friend’s medical fundraiser; and to come out as bisexual. I note that this rejoinder operates as a rhetorical legitimator for why I have not yet taken the obvious high road of quitting Facebook entirely. It also acknowledges that Facebook continues to have added value in my life insofar as it is the easiest way to reach about two hundred or so people for whom I do have a non-zero amount of presumably mutual affection.)
I am most sympathetic to those arguments that note that Facebook has supplanted any other form of digital (and indeed analog) commons we have available to us, and that quitting it renounces access to many forms of contemporary mutuality. Yes, email exists—but community message boards, local newspapers, and self-hosted blog rolls have all either burned away or never got off the ground in light of Facebook’s monolith status. Like with recycling or veganism, a single person’s actions mean more or less nothing in the face of a structural threat to life on the planet. Quitting slips here into a gentle nihilism: there is nothing to be done so go run to the hills. It is also a rational response to an overwhelming reality: there is nothing to be done so do anything you can.
For a few months last year I was a moderately avid user of Mastodon, a self-hosted, open-source Twitter clone. It never got off the ground precisely because of the added value problem: how do we convince a broad host of folks not only to quit something, but to take up a new habit? On paper, it would seem like that’s the easier tactic: give folks a real, valid alternative that serves many of the same needs, so that quitting no longer means “giving your world up.”
I remember talking to a friend who has a social network on Twitter about an order of magnitude larger than mine, about whether or not he was interested in switching to Mastodon. He told me that he had already put in so much time, energy, and labor into cultivating his platform on Twitter that he was deeply uninterested in having to start all over again on a new platform. He said that Twitter was probably his last stand: once it was gone, social media of a certain tenor was gone for him too.
I thought this was provocative because it shone a light on how difficult, temporally, affectively, and labor-wise so many social media platforms are. Much has been made already in other venues of social media as free labor for platform companies—we know in our hearts that if we’re not paying for it, we’re the product. But I wonder if we’ve paid less attention to how arduous social media labor can be. Facebook isn’t fun, lots of the time. Its interface constantly changes and grows more transparent in how it manipulates you. It’s emotionally trying in the way it constantly excavates memories, interpersonal interactions, and demands constant churning action along the way. No wonder quitting is so attractive: it’s the same as the dream of quitting a shitty and abusive job.
Bratton, Benjamin. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT P, 2015, pp. 41 ↩︎