In this bonus audio file, hear my full interview with Tamar Avishai, producer and host of the art history podcast The Lonely Palette, about Facebook and the role it plays in her life.
Tamar—a frequest guest of the show, and my fellow co-founder at the Hub & Spoke audio collective—stands out from the other guests who contributed to Episode 3.03, A Future Without Facebook, in that she has no plans to leave Facebook, and she's totally at peace with her decision to stay.
"I feel like it's given me a lot, and I don't mind saying that publicly," she told me after the interview. "It's of course more complicated, when I hold that up against what it's taken in return—my time, my data, my impulse control, my security around other people my age. But for some reason, I just don't feel it that way. They've provided me with this free service that allowed me to archive my past, build my Internet voice, and connect with people I care about. I guess I just accepted the world changing as it changed, and now I'm in it to win it."
Wade Roush: Okay well we're here to talk about Facebook and I won't start off with any agenda. Can you just start by explaining how Facebook fits into your life. And when I say Facebook I also mean Instagram and WhatsApp how often do you use them when you use them for just kind of like give me the lay of the land first.
Tamar Avishai: Okay. I don't use WhatsApp at all. I probably check Facebook every time I open an internet browser like it is my nervous tic and I open up an Internet browser anytime I lose focus doing whatever else I'm doing. So I check Facebook—I would be I would be horrified to count how many times a day. And now that my business is, like, the only thing I go on Instagram for is for the business. And so I check that in order to feel good. Again, like untold numbers of times of day.
Wade: Do you check Facebook on your on your phone ever. Or is it always on the browser.
Tamar: Both Yeah. Like anytime I have actually I never turned on Instagram notifications, for some reason. So I when I have the little red circle it's either for like I have my little social media thing like folder on my phone and so whenever there is a little red thing I of course have to check it out. So that's either Facebook or Twitter. And then I just open up Instagram, just to see if anything's happened. But yeah, I cannot let a notification go unseen.
Wade: Okay, we'll come back to some of this stuff because you're already surfacing mechanics and dynamics that they are deliberately aiming at you, right. To make it addictive, basically. How do you use Facebook like it from a utilitarian point of view. How do they. How does Facebook and Instagram work for you.
Tamar: They're different. Facebook is totally a habit. You know I'm the same age as Mark Zuckerberg. Like this all happened when I was in college and I went to University of Toronto and Canada was a little late in getting Facebook. So I think he did it his sophomore year. Like we didn't get it until my senior year. And by that point because we were kind of late, as far as universities, to get it, al my friends were already on it. So because we were that first wave of signups, I'm friends with everybody, even people I don't like and haven't talked to in 15 years. So you know if I ever tried to do this now, it wouldn't take off because I wouldn't really seek out all of these people that don't really mean anything to me. But it's like this guy who you know was in my dorm who I ran into in the cafeteria sometimes like he and I are Facebook friends and every now and then I am just like I want you know oh, that's what he's thinking like. It just kind of like, the way that that fits into my day feels like just a way that I I'm connected like to my past you know to these chapters of my life that's over. But I'm not really picking up anything new. And that's kind of interesting too.
Instagram is is totally different. Instagram, because it's purely, you know I'm promoting my podcast through it, and I have like it's the nicest thing in the world to check Instagram, because I got like fan notes, and people liking the stuff that I'm the content that I'm posting. And so I go on Instagram for a really different reason than Facebook. I go on facebook for my past and Instagram for my present. But not even me. You know, not like the nerdy girl in college who you know had only X number of friends. Instagram feels like this idealized version of me.
Wade: It sounds like on Facebook your core cohort are a bunch of people who all join Facebook all at the same time at the University of Toronto.
Tamar: Yeah. My main cohort of people that I keep track of on Facebook are you know my friends and you know well-wishers who I knew at University of Toronto when I was there and you know from 2001 to 2004; all my high school friends because we all snapped each other up as soon as we could also, because those were the people I knew who were going to other schools at the time; and then like my songwriting friends and family that I never see.
Wade: Okay. And by contrast Instagram for you, is all about—it's a channel for you to grow your business and promote episodes of your show and stuff like that.
Tamar: Yeah, exactly. I barely know anybody who follows me on Instagram or really who I follow. It's mostly fans stuff but I follow Instagram in that way feels more like Twitter like I check it for the news. You know Facebook is like oh that person I went to high school with who has a new baby is still alive you know and is posting some stupid recipe. You know it doesn't feel like I get much out of it other than you know I guess that release of dopamine. It doesn't feel like, I don't feel like I'm learning anything new by going on Facebook. Other than that my past is ... actually happened.
Wade: How do you feel about Facebook? And let's leave Instagram to the side for a minute. It sounds like it's not giving you a lot of jollies everyday. It's just there.
Tamar: Yeah it's purely an addiction. I wonder even if I stopped how long it would take to feel it. But you know I went to my 10 year high school reunion a few years ago and it was amazing how quickly we could all get past the bullshit. Past the bull.
Wade: It’s okay, you can swear.
Tamar: It felt like it felt like we all already knew the baseline information about each other and so we were able to go deeper because we had something that was, you know, relentlessly pushing each other's shallow information in front of each other all the time. So how do I feel about Facebook right now? Like in that way, I do feel like it is a product exactly of my generation, because of that kind of connection to the Zuck. I feel like we have that that it's exactly what people at exactly my age wanted to see if they could do. And so because we were all the college students when it became a thing for college students I feel that kind of like, I don't know, that that kind of affection for it like a little bit of loyalty to it. That said, every time I read more and more about what they're doing it's you know I can't I can't support this. It feels like I'm going to keep using it for my own purposes but I'm not like I'm not going to like it. Like I'm not going to feel like like we all could be that you know that startup in our dorm rooms. You know it's like we've all grown up past that and we know more about the world now and we make our decisions as adults. And you know I've worked in a corporation for a long time. I know how some of that sausage is made and how tempting it is. And there's an absolute betrayal of trust. This is not a college student’s mistake. This is a grownup’s mistake.
Wade: So how do you feel about staying on Facebook or are you edging toward leaving? Morally, where does that balance come out for you right now?
Tamar: I've never paid for it. So in that way I kind of feel like a free agent. I mean I know the the old standby you know if you're not buying anything you're the product. But I kind of feel like my presence on Facebook has always been more for me than for the company, Facebook. And because, even though that's not true, the not truth of that is so abstract that it's easy just to keep using it for myself, because what could be more individual and me centered than my Facebook page? They really do make it feel like the company disappears, and it's like your own personal scrapbook.
Wade: Do you feel. I mean you're being very transparent and upfront. Do you worry about that attitude being wrong in the end. Like do you think you might come to regret it. I'm circling around it's a question that's hard to put. You've said that because you seem to get a lot out of it. It's very kind of concrete, what you get out of it. And what you pay for it is more abstract. If it was less abstract, can you imagine like having more of an impetus to leave? Like you're aware of, because you follow the news, you kind of are aware of all these grown up mistakes that they're making. But you still feel like the tradeoff is in your favor somehow.
Tamar: Yeah it does feel that way, because I don't know what it means to have my information sold. It's very hard to wrap my mind around how bad that is. Any kind of of digital terrorism feels really far away. And I know I should be more worried about cyber security. I get told that all the time. And I just don't, because it's too easy to get distracted by by this concrete thing, like this actual milk I need to buy. I mean it's all these little bits floating over our heads, and all it means is that I have 15, god, like no, now 16 years’ worth of my own history that I can pull up in these photos and relationships. And I look at myself through those photos and it's like, you know, when I've gained and lost weight. I mean things that you can only see what the long view. And who I was in a photo with, who I haven't spoken to you in so long. And what my life was like then. And these are especially formative years. You know going from starting in 2003 or 2004 when we all got Facebook to today in 2018. Like those have been really important years for me.
Tamar Avishai: And so you know I was even thinking if I was going to get off Facebook and deactivate my account, there are photos from a year that I lived in Europe where the only place I could store those photos was on Facebook. So I'd have to go through all those albums and pluck all those photos out. And it's like sure Facebook owns them whatever. Why would they care. Why would they care about that like photo of that time I was in Rome. You know it feels like it means so much more to me than it does to them that why should I feel concerned about it even if that's crazy. Even if I'm telling myself a story, in my immediate day to day. That story just makes more sense to me.
Wade: Ok. All right. I'm going to take that as a given. I mean I get it. I think a lot of people probably feel exactly the same way, that basically it's not enough of an irritant in their lives yet for them to do something about it. I wonder if you feel at all guilty or bad about that attitude though. I'm not saying you should. I'm just wondering how does that feel to you. Does it feel like something's incomplete or like you're waiting for the other shoe to drop or you're kind of provisionally going to stay on Facebook.
Tamar: The only thing that I feel is worth being responsible for is if somebody can't really consent to have their own story being told through Facebook. So my husband and I have talked about this. You know we want to start a family. I see people posting pictures of their kids like it's going out of style. I mean really intimate photos. That has always struck me, that's always made me feel queasy. This isn't a photo album that you know you put on your shelf. This is the Internet. Anybody can take those photos. Even if you update your privacy settings, they're out there. So as a parent be responsible for that. When it's myself, this frog has been boiled too slowly. I haven't felt what's really so bad about it like having my information out there. And if this becomes one of those ‘I told you so’ things, it just will. Because it's very hard. I don't feel guilty for staying on Facebook. I still feel like I still feel like they do more for me than I do for them.
Wade: How do you feel when you hear that people you know are leaving Facebook?
Tamar: I think it's a very responsible decision to make. But I don't know, I feel like that connection to people that I otherwise never see and might never see again—I'm a really sentimental person. And it's nice to know that it's there.
Wade: Yeah. There is no obvious immediate substitute for it. It's so big and so multi featured that that's kind of the dilemma here. Any platform that could get big enough to have all those same superpowers would have to be profit-driven, probably, or advertising driven, and would get you right back to the same place.
Tamar: I mean I don't think it could ever happen again. That's the thing. We all joined Facebook in such good faith because we all wanted to feel connected to our friends who were in other colleges you know like that. That to me at least feels like it's irreplicable. That to me it just feels like it couldn't happen again.
Wade: That's a really good point I hadn't really thought about that. But it's definitely the product of a specific moment and now people are so jaded. Apart from the network size that you were talking about. I think people would be too cautious about giving away their personal details and putting their whole lives on a platform like that.
Tamar: I mean the whole the whole starting point was that it was this personal detail where you single or in a relationship that that separated Facebook from any kind of connection-networking platform. Right?
Wade: Well, that plus the fact that you were forced to use your real name.
Tamar: Mm hmm. Yeah. No that's true. I remember that from Friendster. Who cares about Friendster anymore? You know what's funny though is that we never thought Facebook could go anywhere. And it's you know it’s kind of watching its stock fall right now. That's you know it's been a very mythical story my entire adulthood that these kinds of tech companies run by these older millennials could just never fail, because it grabbed onto the harness of the Internet in a way that felt like it could only go up. And yeah. It's just been really interesting kind of watching poor Mark Zuckerberg. He never intended to sway the 2016 election in his dorm room. I think he wanted to think that he could. But I don't think he ever would’ve.
Tamar: And now that what's actually very interesting is that I see Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg as two very different people. I feel like would’ve. I hope that's not horribly sexist but it's like, she always felt like the like the mom kind of coming in and saying what was appropriate and what wasn't and how we were really going to you know monetize whatever. And so it's kind of interesting watching, I don't know, watching this all come down.
Wade: Switching back to Instagram, do you feel like that platform is like more functional for you, more useful in an actual practical sense, and then that you get even more from that than you do from Facebook so you're probably even less likely to ever leave it?
Tamar: Yeah. Instagram is like a hug every time I open it up. I feel like it's only there to feel good. For some reason it's managed to stay incredibly positive in a way that Twitter and Facebook both, any commentssection will just devolve very very fast into a really toxic swamp. And on Instagram ipeople only compliment each other. It's really lovely. And I think the simplicity of it that, you can't you know, it's not obvious or easy to repost or to share links or anything like. It’s very simple. It's just the picture. And having an art podcast, that's been very helpful for. My following on Instagram is the only one that I haven't done anything to assist financially. You know, just to see what would happen if I boosted a post on Facebook or boosted a post on Twitter. Instagram is is totally organic and it's just it's always been a place where I feel good about the people who are following me.
Wade: Do you ever see ads on Instagram and is it do they rise to the level of being annoying.
Tamar: Not compared to Facebook that it always just felt like you know they got to make a dollar or two. I appreciate that.
Wade: OK. so Instagram. No big downsides from your point of view other than that maybe they're part of Facebook.
Tamar: Only my own addiction. You know I don't see, I still don't really feel like any social media, the way that they're run, is doing any greater damage to me than the damage that I do to myself with my own addiction to social media.
Wade: Well if Facebook and Instagram disappeared tomorrow, do you feel like you would just find other things to be addicted to? Or are they like themselves the culprits in some sense?
Tamar: I never thought of myself as having an addictive personality. So you know if they went away…if I was addicted to heroin and suddenly it all disappeared you know what I find something else to be addicted to? I hope not. But that doesn't mean that that addiction isn't. You know that that heroin addiction was an incredibly powerful.
Wade: You'd probably go through some withdrawal.
Tamar: Oh yeah yeah. No. Take away my Instagram and I'd be you know sweating and vomiting and shaking. But I would miss the professional opportunities. And I'd also feel like I lost a really big chunk of my past if Facebook was gone. I don't have any other place where all of those pictures are. I wouldn't miss that news feed, really. I think that would go away pretty fast. But myown personal archive, I would miss.
Wade: Some people commented that they feel like Instagram is getting additional features that make it feel a little more like Facebook and that maybe Facebook is long term future is to evolve into something that's more like Instagram or maybe that the two platforms will merge in some ways and come out feeling more like Instagram. Do you see any signs of that and would that, how would you feel about that.
Tamar: I haven't noticed that on Instagram. Like what. What examples.
Wade: I don't know. I don't use it very much so I can't I can't really point to them. I know that it's actually pretty hard to repost. It's pretty hard to like point somebody to a specific thing on instagram. You can comment but.
Tamar: Yeah it's it's cleaner. It's what Facebook used to be. So I I remember I was in Berlin living with my best friend, and we were all in like a year or two of Facebook. And the other thing too is that we've watched Facebook evolve from its inception to what it is now. And the wall used to be like people could just type. It was this open field. And you would just end up with this like random hodgepodge of what people…like graffiti. You know you used to only be able to put the photo that you had for your profile and that was it. And when you could start adding additional you know five more photos I remember we were like, beside ourselves that we could add more photos to our profile like. Watching that evolution. I think also feels it makes us feel very, if not loyal to Facebook like it just very familiar with it.
Tamar: You know if you every now and then you go on that that time jump at no know every now and then you you can go see what web you still look like and pull up what Facebook looked like in 2005, 2006. And it's like oh yeah like remember, because we were on it all the time. And then the timeline came out and we were like Oh this is awful. But then you get used to it. And then the news feed came. We've been adjusting as the company has been growing. So, we've been guinea pigs for this company for a very long time. And so I think that's a piece of it. And then also it got so cluttered and so messy and so full of crap that it's nice to look at Instagram and get that sleek, clean…that's what we originally liked about Facebook was its interface. And so as long as Instagram keeps that interface it's very easy to stay on it.
Wade: Were you aware that there's an easy tool that lets you download everything you've ever posted on Facebook—every photograph, every status update, every comment. you can just download it all in one big zip file. Did you know that?
Tamar: I didn't know that. I would love that.
Wade: Would it make a difference to you?
Tamar: I'd use it. And then I'd probably stay on Facebook. I mean I want to have all that information I want to have those photos. I want to watch my own humor evolve as we were given these different platforms to evolve it. You know once upon a time your status was “Tamar Avishai is…” And so that totally shaped our humor. Facebook taught us how to write for the Internet. And those statuses were the same, same-ish number of characters as Twitter. and so like you know writing those like punchy little one liners that don't sound too forced or too precious and you can really pack a lot of humor into it. That's shaped who I am as a writer now. So yeah I'd love to have all those little witticisms and then my try-hards from college and all that stuff. But if I went off Facebook now, I would, like I said, I would never be connected to those people ever again because we don't have any real relationship. And I am too protective of my past. because if I don't no one will. You know I had like I said I'm super sentimental. nd I would hate to like just never never have any awareness of those people again.
Wade: Well that brings me to an interesting kind of sociological question. You mentioned that Facebook helps you kind of skip past the B.S. part when you go to a high school or college reunion. And you just said that it helps you keep in touch with these lots of people that you don't have any real relationship with. And those are both kind of interesting. So are the kinds of relationships you have on Facebook valuable? And in what sense? And why would you miss them?
Tamar: I don't know if they're valuable for any real relationship building going forward. I think it's valuable to me, and to 20 year old me, and a 25 year old me, and 28 year old me, to see myself evolve knowing that these relationships are still surrounding me even if I'm not. Even if I'm not cultivating them or nurturing them in any way/ I like who I am now more than I ever liked myself before. And so it's nice to imagine like these imagined conversations with these people who I kind of know, and it's like: ‘Oh but you only knew me then, look at me now. I'm a grown up now.’ In a way I like to keep them around because I don't need them as much.
Wade: Wow. So something just flashed into my head is that Facebook in a way is like a frozen hologram of your whole past. And to leave it would be to just be throwing it away.
Tamar: Yeah. Yeah. Like camp people who never see again. You know, I got bullied at camp and we still have that connection now where they can see that I have the successful show. There's a way that it's like I'm doing this for Tamar at age 13, to have a connection to those people who she was surrounded by, to kind of assert her adultness in the world.
Wade: There's a bunch of product managers in Silicon Valley who if they had just heard that, they'd be jumping up and down and shouting, ‘We did it! This is exactly the kind of thing we want to foster on Facebook.’ And that's probably the reason they have their claws kind of so deep into us. I mean that's a cynical and jaded way of reacting to what you just said. On the other hand it's kind of amazing that somebody built a tool that makes you feel that way and that gives you that superpower. Because it didn't exist before. So I don't know if I'm always of two minds about everything. At least two minds. I totally hear what you're saying and it's an amazing thing that has never existed before. And I wouldn't be thinking about leaving it if I weren't just like completely fed up with their missteps and their seeming incomprehension of those missteps and their inability to come up with a meaningful plan to fix them. I just feel like they're spiraling out of control and I just don't want to be part of it anymore.
Tamar: I mean if they disappeared I would absolutely find a way to go on with my life. You know like it would be a weird couple of days because I wouldn't be checking it all the time. But the idea of taking myself off of it still feels like I have…it's just not compelling enough to lose that much of my history that is so cleanly laid out in one place. I don't know when you joined it but I do think that it's really important that I and most of the people I know joined it right at its starting point. And so to lose that is to lose our whole kind of young adulthood.
Wade: I joined it in 2004 but I went back to look at, when I downloaded my statuses I could see that I was updating my status like like three or four times a year. So I was just there in ghost form really, until about 2007 when it became more important to my work to be on it. And then you start to see a lot more. And it wasn't a generational thing for me. I guess I was already, like, God, 37 when I got on it, right? So it wasn't about keeping in touch with college friends. Although like most of my high school classes on it. And I am worried about losing touch with all of them a little bit. I'm a little bit worried. I'm not worried enough. I haven't left yet which gives me time to figure this out. But I am hoping to find ways to create alternative structures to maybe stay in touch with the most important people that I would miss. And so what I have done is made a giant spreadsheet of all of my friends on Facebook. And I've started a color code them sort of by importance. Like there's no other way of putting it. Who is on that list that I absolute can't fall out of touch with? Who is like in the second circle? Who's in the third circle? And what mechanisms can I come up with to stay in touch with those people. Short of like asking them all for their e-mail address.
Tamar: Yeah I actually I tried to do something like that, probably around 2006 when I came back from traveling and I was about to start grad school and I was looking at my Facebook group and I was thinking about all the people that I that literally we had only become friends with each other because Facebook was the shiny new thing and it's like ‘I knew your name, so.’ And I was talking to a friend about it. These are the people that I would call. These are the people that I would email. These are the people that if I got, if something really milestone-y happened to me, like I were to get engaged, they would care. And then these are the people who if I died maybe they would care. I did a purge. I was very proud of myself, like a little cleanse, like, you and I have no relationship at all except that we were in the same English course so yeah bye. But I've also, for a long time I haven't used Facebook other than as a resource, you know, to just kind of have those people there if I were to ever kind of feel nostalgic. I post only good news there. You know I don't have a vaguebook. I don't put it like ‘ fun love guys K?’ I don't use Facebook as a cry for help. It's not my friend community really. But it's a different kind of community. A nd I think we're still trying to find a word for what that is. And if you told me that this thing that I'd been you know kind of building up for all these years is a really toxic terrible thing, I would I would just need to see more concrete proof in my day to day to actually make a decision. Otherwise I just let it ride.
Tamar: I've never experienced this very specific time of young adulthood without Facebook. So I'm not saying that it hasn't been like destructive in its own way because social media is bad for the soul it's bad for the complexion. I mean you all you do in your lowest moments sit around and compare yourself to everybody's quote unquote best selves. And I've grown up in a world now where people put forward a very polished profile and that's kind of been my own goal is to polish up my own profile so that people who don't really know me anymore still think that I'm successful. I've had that since I was 20, that pressure of putting forward a good profile of being in a relationship. If you weren't in a relationship then you married your best friend quote unquote. I mean even to this day we still call each other wifey like we still send each other emails and sign it wifey because we were married on Facebook for so long and that was our way of getting around our own insecurities about being single okay.
Wade: That's totally new to me and interesting. So there was no intimation of you being lesbian or anything like that. It was like a known thing to do that.
Tamar: Oh yeah. That it was cool. It was like the cool thing to do was to marry your best friend. And you know and that screamed single by choice but it just also spoke to the fact that I was putting myself out there and I was putting this idealized version of myself out there just like we all were doing. And I think that actually has been net negative for all of our mental health because we've been tracking each other and each other's progress and each other's milestones. You know it's like my news feed first became a series of grad school acceptances and then grad school graduations and then engagement photos and then wedding photos and now the baby photos are coming. And it's like if I wasn't going kind of toe to toe with all of those things, fortunately you know, I would feel terrible every time I opened up Facebook. And I think a lot of people do. But that's just been my reality you know since 2003.
Wade: Do you ever feel boxed in or unfairly pressured to do all those things and go toe to toe because you're seeing it every damn day on Facebook?
Tamar: No. I think these are milestones that everybody feels like they need to hit in their 20s and 30s. It's just really in your face now and because we have that connectedness through social media. Like I think the genie is out of that bottle. I don't think it's going to go away.
Wade Roush: Okay. That's a good place to stop. Thank you. This has really been helpful, super helpful.