3.03 | 3.22.19
Every technology has its growing pains, but Facebook, at age 15, has matured into a never-ending disaster. Here at Soonish, I’m fed up, and I’m closing my accounts at Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. In this episode, you’ll hear how I reached this point and how other Facebook users are coming to grips with the chronic problems at the social network. And you might just come away with some ideas about what to do to limit Facebook’s power over your own life.
The first signs that something was seriously wrong at Facebook surfaced in—well, when?
Was it 2014, when the company acknowledged it had experimented on users by altering the content of the news feed to see how it would affect their moods?
Was it 2015, when misinformation about alleged Muslim attacks on Buddhists in Myanmar spread on Facebook, leading to anti-Muslim riots?
Was it 2016, when journalist Maria Ressa, a critic of authoritarian Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte and founder of the news site Rappler, became the target of a tidal wave of hate messages on Facebook, many orchestrated by fake pro-Duterte accounts?
Was it 2017, when evidence began to emerge that Russian hackers had influenced the US presidential election by promoting divisive content designed to mobilize Trump voters and demotivate Clinton voters in swing states?
Was it 2018, when the world learned that Facebook had allowed the British political data firm Cambridge Analytica to acquire Facebook data on 87 million users in the U.S., and when a New York Times investigation showed that the company’s executives had tried to deflect blame for that scandal by hiring a right-wing opposition research firm to smear Facebook critic George Soros?
Was it this year, when one team of reporters showed that showed that between 2010 and 2014, Facebook let game developers bamboozle children into spending money on their parents’ credit cards without their permission, and when another team of reporters found that Facebook had been paying young users up to $20 per month to install an app that gave Facebook root access, allowing the company to decrypt and analyze all activity on their phones?
Was it last week, when a white-nationalist gunman in New Zealand live-streamed his terror attack on Facebook, and hundreds of thousands of copies of the video ricocheted around the network for hours?
No matter when you start the clock, we’ve now had plenty of time to perceive Facebook’s failures in all their depth and breadth. And we’ve been able to pinpoint some of the root causes—including a fundamental disregard for user privacy and a fixation on a business model that surveils users and manipulates the content of the news feed to foment outrage and maximize opportunities for targeted advertising.
“I don’t want Facebook to go away—I want it to get better,” writes Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab. I’d like that too. But I’ve given up waiting. Part of me wants to shout “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” But really, I’m just sad. I’ve been on Facebook for 12 years; I’ve used it to stay in touch with friends both old and new; I’ve used it to share news about major events in my life and to keep up with the big events in others’ lives. But I’ve come to believe that Facebook, as a service and as a company, is fundamentally flawed.
And I do mean fundamentally. The problems at Facebook aren’t the unintended side effects of its technology and its business model. They are the actual, intended effects. As disastrous as the tribal warfare fueled by the Facebook news feed has been for the countries where Facebook operates, these divisive, polarizing, and therefore “engaging” messages are exactly what Facebook was built to promote. Facebook’s core functions are “to deploy its algorithms to amplify content that generates strong emotional responses among its users, and then convert what it learns about our interests and desires into targeted ads,” writes Siva Vaidhyanathan. “This is what makes Facebook Facebook.”
But even as the curtain is pulled back, Facebook’s hold on its users has barely weakened. One recent study by a group of behavioral economists asked users how much money it would take to persuade them to stay off Facebook for a year. The average answers ranged from $1,000 to $2,000.
"Just about everyone uses Facebook today—not because they like it, but because it’s the only way they know how to keep up with friends and family,” Mark Hurst, one of the guests in this episode, has written. “And yet, most people can sense that something about Facebook is a bit ‘off.’ Every week brings new revelations that the company has deceived its users—or enabled others to do so—for financial gain.”
With every new revelation, a few more people may reach their breaking point. (I hit mine in mid-November, when the New York Times chronicled Facebook’s smear campaign against opponents and showed that the resistance to acknowledging or addressing the problems at Facebook started at the very top of the company.) But leaving Facebook is still tricky, for the exact reason Hurst mentions: every other way of staying in touch with our friends is less convenient.
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg will follow through on his promise in March 2019 to rebuild Facebook around encrypted messaging within small groups. Maybe he won’t. Either way, it’s going to be hard to regain users’ trust and make people feel good about using the service. What was clear from the hours I spent interviewing friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about Facebook is that no one—not even users who plan to stay—is satisfied with the company.
The aim of this episode is simple: to give listeners more perspectives and more data to think with as they ponder what to do about Facebook: keep using it, but more advisedly? Cut way back? Walk away? All of these are valid strategies that will send a message to Facebook and make your own life happier. Doing nothing probably won’t.
Bonus Audio Post
Tamar Avishai Is Staying on Facebook. Here’s Why. It’s the full audio and text of my interview about Facebook and Instagram with Tamar Avishai, host and producer of The Lonely Palette and my co-founder at Hub & Spoke. Unlike most of my other guests on this episode, Tamar has no plans to leave Facebook—and she’s totally at peace with that decision.
Mentioned In This Episode
Pew Research Center: Americans Are Changing Their Relationship with Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg, A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking, March 6, 2019
Stride & Saunter, Kip Clark’s podcast
Rudi Seitz, For Bloggers: How to Leave Facebook, January 29, 2019
Techtonic, Mark Hurst’s show on WFMU
Inbound Boston, Ashira Morris’s newsletter about events in Boston
Victoria, B.C., Mayor Deletes Facebook, Citing Online Vitriol and Anger, The Star, March 25, 2018
GroupMe, a free private chat app from Microsoft
Wade Roush, You Don’t Need Tech Companies to Reboot Your City’s Economy, Scientific American, February 2019
Wade Roush, I’m Leaving Facebook (text of my announcement), November 20, 2018
In February 2019 I was a guest on How Do We Fix It, a policy podcast from Richard Davies and Jim Meigs, and we talked about the ways in which Facebook has forfeited users’ trust, and whether it’s time to bring antitrust regulation to bear on the company.
0:07 Cold open (audio montage)
1:27 Soonish theme and introduction
1:51 An unwise choice at Ford
4:06 The Ford Pinto of the Internet
7:53 Meet our special advisory panel
9:44 Facebook does have its uses
13:48 A community designed to encourage dependency
15:14 Constant surveillance
20:00 Waiting for more data
23:55 Leaving is painful
26:14 Ex-Facebookers who never looked back
29:53 Exit strategies
32:03 Conscious unfriending
33:52 The reducetarian approach
35:40 We don't have to wait for Facebook to fix itself
36:47 Sensing intrusion
39:35 The opposite of Facebook
40:12 End credits and announcements
The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.
All additional music is by Titlecard Music and Sound.
If you like the show, please rate and review Soonish on Apple Podcasts / iTunes! The more ratings we get, the more people will find the show.
You can also support the show with a per-episode donation at patreon.com/soonish. Listener support makes all the difference!
Special thanks to Kip Clark, Joseph Fridman, and Mark Pelofsky for reviewing drafts of this episode.
Kip Clark: If 100 percent is I'm quitting and I'm leaving I'm 80 percent there
Rudi Seitz: There’s a lot that pulls me back and that has continued to be the case even as I become increasingly skeptical and frustrated with Facebook.
Deborah: It's a drug that you use to relieve the pain caused by the drug. So yeah, it's an addiction.
Nick Andersen: we've seen through the way that Facebook is able to tailor ads to say white nationalists with a passion for Nazis and crocheting.
Peter Fairley: There does some does seem to be research suggesting that the algorithms have pernicious effects.
Tova Perlmutter: It's extremely valuable to me personally and yet I am deeply troubled by what it is as a company.
Tamar Avishai: This is not a college student’s mistake. This is a grownup’s mistake.
Ashira Morris: If you're trying to leave Facebook. The bottom line is one, you can. It is possible. Two, you need an exit strategy.
Mark Hurst: Just leave. See how it goes. The water’s fine. Come on out!
The future is shaped by technology. But technology is shaped by us.
Wade Roush: You’re listening to Soonish. I’m Wade Roush. And this is an episode about Facebook. But I actually want to start by taking a quick detour to talk about an infamous little piece automotive history.
In 1968, Ford Motor Company decided to build a new compact car to compete with small cars being imported from Japan. Ford called its new compact the Pinto.
A two-door sedan version of the Pinto hit the market in 1970, and a Pinto hatchback came out in 1971. They sold pretty well. There was just one problem. Ford’s engineers realized that they’d chosen an unwise location for the Pinto’s fuel tank.
Instead of putting it above the rear axle, where it would be out of the way during a collision, they put it between the rear axle and the rear bumper, where it was relatively unprotected. So even in a low-speed collision, the gas tank could rupture, causing the whole vehicle to erupt in flame.
It was almost like the Pinto had a button on its rear bumper marked “Explode.” But instead of altering the design before releasing the car, Ford did a cost-benefit analysis. The company calculated that it would be so expense to relocate the fuel tank or add more shielding that it would be cheaper in the long run just to pay any damage claims that might result from the unfortunate design choice.
And that seemed like an okay plan, until actual Pintos started exploding on actual roadways. That attracted the attention of journalists and federal transportation safety investigators. In 1977 the magazine Mother Jones published internal Ford memos showing the company had put cost savings ahead of safety. And later that year the company ended up getting hit with millions of dollars in damage awards.
In 1978 Ford finally recalled all Pintos built between 1971 and 1976 and upgraded them with new shielding. By that point the company had already learned to put the gas tanks in a safer place in new models. And there’s no solid evidence that more Pinto owners died specifically because of the fuel tank design problem. Overall fatality rates on the road were much, much higher in the 1970s than they are today. So it’s hard to sort out the signal and the noise. But it did take years for Ford to recover from the bad press.
Now, I’m not bringing up this old story about the Ford Pinto in order to criticize Ford. Today Ford makes some of the safest cars on the road. Here is the real point I want to make:
Facebook is the Ford Pinto of the Internet.
Over the past three years there’s been an unending series of scandals and investigations and Congressional hearings, all exposing the flaws built into Facebook’s technology and its business model.
And we’ve seen how these flaws are blowing up public discourse and democracy itself in the countries that Facebook’s 2.2 billion users call home. I’m not going to dwell on all of the problems in this episode. I’ll just highlight what I think is the biggest problems, which is Facebook’s core business model of targeted advertising, or what I think of as the emotion pump.
Facebook watches you to learn what makes you happy and what makes you angry, and it uses that data to sell targeted ads. It also keeps track of what’s most engaging for everyone else, and then its shows you more of that stuff, the better to keep you scrolling, so that you’ll see more ads and more provocative stories, so that you’ll keep scrolling, and so on.
Now, the insidious thing all this is that the content that keeps people most engaged is also the most polarizing and the most likely to be false or inflammatory. But it’s in Facebook’s interest to keep priming that emotion pump so that you’ll keep scrolling.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when Facebook posts end up fanning the flames of ethnic hatred and political unrest in countries like Myanmar, the Phillippines, and the United States.
Okay. I could spend the whole episode talking just about what’s broken at Facebook, but I just said I wouldn’t do that. And really, I don’t need to, because the stories have been all over the news ever since the 2016 election.
(Which, by the way, very likely got tipped in Donald Trump’s favor because of inflammatory ads and posts placed on Facebook by Russian hackers.)
Now, finally, it looks like executives at Facebook are waking up to these problems and talking about ways to fix them. In March of 2019, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he wants to take the company in a new direction, away from its emphasis on the public news feed and toward support for private messaging within smaller groups.
But that’s a little like a car manufacturer saying, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re thinking about maybe recalling those unsafe vehicles we sold you and making the new models better someday.’ You still wouldn’t feel great about getting into your old 1971 Ford Pinto.
And that probably explains why data from Nielsen and polls from the Pew Research Center show that Americans have been spending way less time on Facebook over the last year or two.
That’s definitely true for me. I decided back in November 2018 that I was going to leave Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp. Once I’ve finished this episode and released it to the world, I’m out. I’ll be shutting down my accounts. Because I’m tired of feeding the Facebook monster with my clicks and my attention.
But I’m trying not to leave in a big huff. My goal is to try to sign off in a thoughtful way that might help other people decide what they should do about Facebook. And that’s what this episode is about.
I’ve been talking with a bunch of friends and colleagues about Facebook, and today I want to share some of those conversations with you. If you’re still on Facebook, the ideas that my friends shared might help you decide whether to stay or go, and if you do decide to leave, how to do it as painlessly as possible.
The whole idea here at Soonish is that we humans can shape our own future, by choosing which technologies we want with us in that future. If that’s true, then we have to be able to walk away from technologies that are as broken and problematic as Facebook, or this idea about our free will to choose is just fake. And that is not a possibility I’m willing to accept.
Okay, it’s time to meet the people you’re going to be hearing from in this episode. These are all folks who saw my Facebook post about leaving last November and volunteered to talk with me. You can think of them as the special advisory panel for this episode.
Tova Perlmutter: Hi I'm Tova Perlmutter. I've been friends with Wade for about 30 years since we were in college together.
Rudi Seitz: Hi I'm Rudy Seitz and I'm a software developer and musician.
Kip Clark: My name is Kip Clark. And I do a number of things, I think, that are all bound by curiosity and playfulness. That includes the podcast I produce, that includes improv comedy, and I’m also a big fan of video games.
Tamar Avishai: My name is Tamar Avishai. I am an art historian.
Peter Fairley: I'm Peter Fairley. I am a freelance journalist. I split my time between Victoria British Columbia up in Canada and San Francisco.
Nick Andersen: My name's Nick Anderson. I produce the masterpiece studio podcast at WGBH and I am also a senior producer at Ministry of Ideas.
Deborah: My name is Deborah. I'm a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.
Mark Hurst: My name is Mark Hurst and I'm the host of a weekly FM radio show called Techtonic on WFMU, a Jersey City New Jersey based freeform independent radio station.
Ashira Morris: My name is Ashira Morris and I run in Inbound Boston which is a newsletter guide to the city of Boston. And I am Facebook-free for over four years.
Ashira: Thanks. It feels good.
Wade: You’ll recognize a couple of these names from other shows in the Hub & Spoke audio collective. Namely, Tamar Avishai from The Lonely Palette and Nick Andersen from Ministry of Ideas.
Now, as you’ll hear, most of these folks still have Facebook accounts, but they’re thinking hard about what role Facebook should have in their lives going forward. A couple of them have already left Facebook and have interesting perspectives to share on what life is like without it.
Everybody was extremely open with me about their experiences and feelings. And in almost every conversation, one of the first things that came up is that Facebook does have its uses.
Peter Fairley: I've lived really around the world, Japan France Canada U.S., and so Facebook has really been a way I would say first and foremost of staying in touch with with all of those people that I've kind of met and connected with and then moved away from, and not only connecting with them but sometimes bringing them together in fun ways.
Nick Andersen: I heard an interview the other day where someone described it as an event planner and in a phone book. And that really spoke to me because I think that's the way I use it now and that's the way I've used it for a very long time.
Tamar Avishai: 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. 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 relentlessly pushing each other’s shallow information in front of each other all the time.
Wade: So you’re saying you actually use Facebook Messenger more than the Facebook news feed?
Kip Clark: Absolutely and I think that’s been the case probably starting with my first year in college where for the first time ever I was away from a lot of my friends, and sure I would use the phone and text, but starting in 2012, I started using Facebook Messenger absolutely far more than the news feed.
Tova Perlmutter: My job is advocating for Palestinian human rights. People in Gaza you know they're living on maybe one hundred dollars a month. They have electricity only a few hours a day. They're not able to travel. They know their phones don't work a lot of the time. And so I accept friend requests and I interact with people who I feel need this connection to the outside world. And so that's a large part actually of why I keep Facebook. Is this sense that there are people for whom it's like I don't like the word lifeline but at least a pipeline to the outside world from which they are otherwise isolated. So I guess in a way I'm sort of saying that Facebook has given me a very very low cost way of doing humanitarian aid.
Deborah: I have friends right now but I don’t have community at all. I need some kind of community existence… You know, expecting people to assemble a family out of nothing is a really tall order. People really need tribes.
Wade: Do you feel like there was a possibility at one point that Facebook could be that tribe for some people, or could at last provide some semblance of a tribe?
Deborah: Oh I think it does provide a semblance, for sure, and there are some people who totally benefit from it.
Kip Clark: There is also an inner archivist in me that loves that I can scroll back through a conversation with someone I've known now for eight or nine years and see what we were saying in high school. However much it might make me shudder or blush in embarrassment. So I do appreciate the ability to explore that.
Tamar Avishai: I have 15 years’ worth of my own history that I can pull up in these photos and relationships and you know I look at myself through through those photos… And these are especially formative years. I don’t know when you joined it, but I do think 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 young adulthood.
Wade: So, yes, Facebook is useful. For a lot of folks it’s both a community gathering place and a kind of digital scrapbook of their lives. But these same folks are completely aware that Facebook is a special kind of community—on that’s designed to encourage dependency.
Rudi Seitz: For all of the flaws that Facebook has, there's always some piece of music I discover that someone's posted, some really urgent article about climate change that someone's posted. There's a lot that pulls me back and that has continued to be the case even as I become increasingly skeptical and frustrated with Facebook.
Kip Clark: I do think the more that I learn about Facebook, the less willing I am to contribute to their bottom line. But in almost a drug dependency kind of vernacular it is tough to, it is tough in my mind to wean myself off of it.
Tamar Avishai: 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 horrified to count how many times a day.
Deborah: It’s a drug. It's a drug that you use to relieve the pain caused by the drug. So yeah it's an addiction. It is an addiction.
Wade: So that’s one of the ironic things about Facebook. People use it partly just to stave off moments of loneliness. Which is not at all the same thing as actually connecting.
In fact, a lot of what Facebook shows you to fill up those lonely moments isn’t designed to challenge you or make you think or learn or connect. If anything, it’s selected to reinforce the opinions and the world view that you already have. And of course, Facebook knows what those opinions are because they’re always watching you. What’s changing, though, is that users are more aware of this constant surveillance. And they’re more and more unhappy about it.
Ashira Morris: It's not just filter bubbles, in terms of what you personally want to surround yourself with it's filter bubbles in terms of what Facebook thinks you want to surround yourself with, which I think is even more insidious.
Rudi Seitz: You know, I think, oh I'm not really telling Facebook anything, all I'm doing is logging on and consuming, and I'm consuming just by very very carefully selectively clicking on a few things but mostly just scrolling down, you know scrolling through the feed and reading things. But even that scrolling behavior reveals a ton of information about what I'm interested in what I care about what I'm willing to spend time reading and going beyond even tracking scrolling behavior.
Nick Andersen: We've seen through the ad the way that Facebook is able to tailor ads to say white nationalists with a passion for Nazis and crocheting, like they can do that because they can use their ad categories. So I like to pretend I’m fighting the Man by telling them I’m not interested in these things. But Facebook still knows everything it wants about me. It has reams of data about me for more than a decade of my life. So w ho am I kidding?
Peter Fairley: There does some does seem to be research suggesting that the algorithms have pernicious effects. We had a local election here out here in Victoria in October and it was extremely disturbing to me the way Facebook was used by opponents of the incumbent mayor, who is a woman, who is a lesbian, who is fairly progressive. And there were sponsored posts going around town that were incredibly demeaning. She was reelected with very strong margin. But I was I was just so disgusted at how easy it was for someone probably paying very little money to send around the kind of material that that I had to see.
Rudi Seitz: Again, it shouldn't be a surprise if you have like you know most people in the country interacting on a on a platform it shouldn't be a surprise that it's going to have an effect on our democratic process. But when it begins to look like, oh yes, it did, then you begin to think about the future.
Deborah: It seemed like Trump's election happened because of Facebook. It just seemed like Facebook had turned into a place for people to fight and poke each other with sticks. And it seemed like the machines were finally going off the rails.
Mark Hurst: Yes, and to be fair to Facebook, I don't think in the early years the the the pieces were fully in place. I think it was it was in the run up to their IPO that Sheryl Sandberg really strong arms the engineers into finding some way to monetize this thing quickly. … I think before that moment, the DNA of Facebook was always a little bit sketchy. Zuckerberg’s original aim of launching a hot or not site using the photos of of his female classmates at Harvard is just kind of gross. And that was that was the founding vision. So going from there how how good could we ever expect this thing to be? But I don't think it really got what what you might term evil until the moment when they really had a strong desire to make a boatload of money right away. And they figured out a way to monetize the details in the dossier that they were building on you and every other individual user. So it was it wasn't simply that they would manipulate the news feed in order to get you to click it although that was a big part of it. But they also on the other side of that equation they needed to figure out who you were at least as Facebook understands people which is as database records. And so when they figured out that there was money to be made from surveillance, that instituted a regime within Facebook that really served as the building blocks for the absolute mess we see today.
Wade: The mess that Mark Hurst is talking about has gotten too big to hide. And the folks I talked to who are staying on Facebook are totally aware of that mess. So it’s not that they’re in denial. Mostly they’re just waiting for more data before they decide what to do.
Tova Perlmutter: I would say I am in a holding pattern with regard to that. And that I'm pretty pragmatic would be the word, I’m not sure that’s the right word, but in the sense that I'm keeping an eye on sort of what people are doing and where they're going and if and when enough people depart the platform I will depart it too.
Wade: It's a calculation for you.
Tova Perlmutter: Absolutely. Yes, that's exactly what it is. And I guess I think there's so much value to connecting that for the moment knowing you know based on current knowledge it outweighs the ways that they're evil. But yeah I consider that subject to change, with the next revelation of what they have done.
Kip Clark: If 100 percent is I'm quitting and I'm leaving I'm 80 percent there and I really don't envision a future past age 30. And while we all have need or value in connecting to others I don't know that I will have the same voracious social or professional hunger that I have that I have as a 25 year old to meet more people to make more.
Nick Andersen: I would get off it if I could, I think I think also as a company I really question and I think probably agree with you in a lot of ways about your feelings about the company's moral and professional failings. I think the case of Myanmar and Sri Lanka and the use of Facebook as a gathering place for ethnic hatred, that the company claims to not know very much about, but continues to push the use of the platform in these markets that they are very much in control of the medium, that really bothers me.
Peter Fairley: At the moment my inclination is is kind of wait and see and I'm trying to adapt my usage to be less political, I guess, and I'm shifting my energies to other platforms. Right now I'm experimenting more with Twitter, which I haven't used much in the past. Altering my usage doesn't solve the sort of moral problem with with you know being connected to Facebook still, but it does tone it down a little bit I guess. It takes a little bit of the juice out of what I'm giving to Facebook as a corporation.
Tamar Avishai: It feels like I'm going to keep using it for my own purposes but 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 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 you know there's an absolute betrayal of trust. This is not a college student’s mistake. This is a grownup’s mistake.
Tova Perlmutter: It’s valuable to me professionally. It's extremely valuable to me personally and yet I am deeply troubled by what it is as a company and how it benefits from me and my social needs and desire. And so I totally understand and respect people like you who are leaving. And I may get to that point.
Wade: More and more people are getting to that point. And when that moment hits, that’s when you have some thinking to do.
Mark Hurst: Well, we should first acknowledge that it’s going to be painful. There’s no getting around it that if you leave Facebook it will be less convenient in some way than it is today. And there’s no silver bullet. And I don’t have a painkiller for that. It’s going to be less convenient. That’s part of the reason why I don’t think it’s realistic that we’re going to see you know 100 million people all leave Facebook all at the same moment. People most people naturally are going to tend to want to maintain the convenience that that they enjoy, even if they’re aware intellectually of some externalities that are that are less pleasant. But there are individuals out there who are conscious enough about what’s going on in the world, and are in whatever situation that they can absorb the inconvenience of getting off Facebook. Not everybody can, and I want to be respectful of that.
Kip Clark: And so I think I’m held back less by reality and far more by my perception of a loss of social connections that if they were strong enough or had enough potential I could cultivate just as well off line. And I think a lot of us for mental health and other reasons, would be well advised to consider doing so.
Peter Fairley: What it means mostly is losing connection with with people who we really enjoy exchanging with. That’s why it’s hard to let it go. It’s such a fascinating powerful tool and I think it I think it probably has done a lot of good. I think that it has kept a lot of people together during a trying time, for the United States for example. Rather than just accepting bullshit and the hate and the violence that comes out of Trump, we’ve reminded each other on a regular basis that this isn’t normal and we never want it to become normal. So you know I see so much that’s good in the platform.
Wade: So there’s no way around it. Leaving Facebook is hard. What I can tell you, though, is that the people on my advisory panel who have left Facebook seem pretty happy about it. Especially Mark Hurst and Ashira Morris.
Mark Hurst: I deleted my account back in spring of 2018. I think it was March or April. I had had an account for a number of years. Although I had found that over the last year or two of my usage of Facebook almost everything I posted was an anti Facebook post or message of some sort. And at some point I realized, what a waste of time to go on to a service to spend my time writing about the problems of the service of the obviously what I should do is just get off of the service completely and I deleted my account and never looked back. I think it’s good for the soul to leave Facebook if you can. And as I said again to be fair a lot of people can’t reasonably break off relationships to leave Facebook. But if you can, it’s good for you. And there’s a wealth of peer-reviewed journal articles coming out that indicate that people have better mental health when they get off of Facebook and get off of Instagram. And so even if you think it doesn’t have an impact on the company itself, you are helping yourself. Just leave. See how it goes. The water’s fine. Come on out.
Ashira Morris: There were a couple of moments and the weeks after where I like thought about it. And had lingering thoughts about like oh there might be events that I’m missing or there might be. Just like these gaps where it used to be something that I relied on Facebook for and maybe didn’t realize it at the time. But after about a month, in addiction terms I guess, those cravings went away and I really have not looked back.
Wade: Did you get any blowback from friends. Like, Why aren't you on Facebook. I feel like I don't know what you're up to anymore I don't know how to reach you?
Ashira Morris: Surprisingly not a lot of blowback from friends. I like put together a little message before I left you know like farewell like I’m not going to live here anymore but I live in a lot of other places right. Like I have an email address I have a phone number like I have an Instagram and a Twitter still very good. There’s still the social media is still there. You know like find me in these other places. And. Again like the people who I have kept in touch with in an active way and not a passive way those friendships I don’t think have suffered.
Wade: Now, Ashira was an especially interesting person to have on the advisory panel, because not only is she a happy former Facebook user, but she runs an email newsletter called Inbound Boston that she started partly to prove that there is such a thing as life without Facebook.
Ashira Morris: I think that a meta-message of inbound Boston is that you don't have to be on Facebook to understand what's going on at least in Boston. No interesting things to do around the city. I think those are two things that Facebook has become the default for and I am suddenly saying, no, it doesn't have to be there's other ways that you can get this information in a digestible curated way.
Wade: In addition to all that, Ashira has some practical advice for people who are thinking about getting off Facebook.
Ashira Morris: If you're trying to leave Facebook, the bottom line is one, you can. It is possible. Two, you need an exit strategy. You should figure out what you are using it most for and how you are going to replicate that off of the platform, if you can, if it's worth it to, instead of impulsively deleting it and then realizing all of the things you relied on it for. It's helpful to take the time and like do an autopsy of sorts before it's death, and really have a holistic sense of what parts of your life are ingrained in it and how you want to create the time and space and systems to do those things outside of it. I have friends now in my adult life who live in Rwanda who live in Tasmania and I feel like I keep in touch with them just as well if not better by like you know scheduling the time to call them instead of like sending Facebook messages and we have like long email chains and like these types of communication they are more intentional and require more presence I think than Facebook is designed to do.
Wade: One additional trick for Ashira came up with was to print “friend cards” that she can give out just like business cards.
Ashira Morris: It says “I think you're cool” on one side and on the other side it has my email address and my phone number and my name and I'm really excited to put them to use because that's what I've been doing verbally for a while and now I have something I can give you.
Wade: That’s really awesome. And I’ll very offended if I don’t get one of those cards.
Wade: I’m kidding. It’s up to you.
Ashira: I’ve got them in my bag!
Wade: I haven’t printed my own friend cards yet, although I love the idea. But I have been thinking about what I’m going to do to compensate for being off Facebook. I have about 750 friends on Facebook. So I started off by making a spreadsheet of all of them, and figuring out which ones I really want to stay in touch with. That’s about 150 people. And I’ve been reaching to them individually to make sure we know how to reach each other by email or phone. And for my immediately family, I’ve already switched over to a different messaging platform. It’s a free app from Microsoft called GroupMe, and sharing quick updates and photos, it’s fine. I’m trying to be mindful of the fact that once I’m off Facebook, all of my friends who are still on Facebook will have to go out of their way to keep in touch with me. Here’s a bit more of my chat with my friend Tova.
Wade: I'm leaving Facebook. I'm gonna not be there anymore. Other people are leaving Facebook. How does it make you feel when you lose touch with folks that you follow on Facebook? And can you imagine finding other ways, like, being deliberate about constructing alternative ways to keep in touch with people in your own life?
Tova Perlmutter: Yeah. I mean, I'll have to. I actually had this really sinking feeling when you announced on Facebook that you were leaving it, because even though you and I had phone numbers and email addresses for each other for 20 years before Facebook came around, I think we've reconnected much more because of it. So I just thought, oh I'm going to have to really make an effort and it's an effort I want to make to be connected with you. But I have other friends that are not on Facebook, and yeah, it requires a different kind of attention.
Wade: I want to say one more thing about leaving Facebook. It’s not all or nothing. There’s a continuum here. Maybe you’ve heard of the reducetarian movement. It’s made up of people who don’t want to become vegetarians or vegans but do want to eat less meat. I’m totally there to support those people. And I think there’s also a reducetarian approach to Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp. And it just involves checking in a lot less often. Sometimes it can help to delete those apps from your phone, or at least turn off notifications.
Mark Hurst: Use it advisedly like so many other things in our lives. I think you know Netflix is wants you to watch forever and never turn it off. That's why they have the auto play. So should I say don't ever watch Netflix? No, I'd say if you if you find that you want to watch Netflix that's great. But at least know where they are trying to manipulate you, what their agenda is. A little bit of awareness can help guide you to better practices, and to use these services to a reasonable amount for entertainment relaxation whatever or in the case of some social media maybe relationships or being informed, without falling into the rabbit hole of addiction, polarization, toxicity and everything else that really they're built to bring about.
Rudi Seitz: One of the reasons you're on Facebook is because everyone else is on there but if you if you no longer felt like Facebook was the one place that you could be in touch with all of your connections it would be much easier to leave. And so I think by taking that step yourself you're helping other people take that same step.
Wade: So, let’s step back and look at the big picture. Our attitudes toward Facebook are shifting. And the role Facebook plays in our lives is changing. And Facebook itself will probably change too. The part of the business where Facebook has made its biggest stumbles and reaped its biggest profits is the news feed. Mark Zuckerberg said this March that he wants to move the company away from its reliance on the news feed toward encrypted messaging between small groups. Who knows whether he was serious. But with so many new revelations emerging every week, and with so many executives departing the company, and with so many investigations still underway, and with so much toxic content still circulating on Facebook, and with politicians talking about regulating and maybe even breaking up the company, you can bet that Zuckerberg is looking for a way out of the company’s troubles. The thing to remember is that we don’t have to wait for Facebook to fix itself. We can cut back how much we use it. Or we can walk away entirely. Both actions send a message to Facebook itself. But more importantly, they allow us to take back some control over the way we interact with our fellow humans. And on that theme, I want to bring in one more voice from our advisory panel.
Victor McElheny: I'm Victor McElheny and I'm a lifelong science journalist. I’ve really been doing this since Sputnik back in 1957, and it just gets more and more fascinating.
Wade: Victor is a retired science journalist who spent his career at newspapers like the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and then moved to MIT where he started fellowship program for midcareer science journalists. He was one of my most important mentors. Victor is in his 80s now. And he doesn’t have to figure out how to leave Facebook, because he never joined it. And I think his reasons are pretty interesting.
Victor: I was getting all kinds of pitches to join Facebook and to communicate that way. And I sensed intrusion. I sensed messing up my head. What I need to do is to talk to other people and collide with them in conversation and learn things and test out ideas and begin to shape a way a sort of way of thinking about a particular subject in conversation with other people. So for me, what I need is colleagues and what I don't need is to show off the nice photo I took yesterday.
Wade: Do you get that kind of discourse and collegiality through e-mail?
Victor: Yes, yes I do. What I will do is send a message saying just saw this here's the U.R.L. to go find it. Let me know what you think. Or I will sometimes go deeper than that and say “The following three thoughts occur to me about why this is important.” And I'm doing that partly to get my own reaction down on paper or in something that is almost like a diary or whatever. But I also want them to be stimulated. I'm trying to stimulate those other people to pay attention to something that will be in a sense reinforcing to them.
Wade: That sounds so old school in some ways.
Victor: Yes, but I think this other model is worthwhile. I have this notion of politeness. Obviously if you rush up to people and communicate something to them that could be intrusive more natural. After all, we don't want to mess up our heads. We want to be able to pay attention to what we want to pay attention to without a hell of a lot of interruptions. If you're going to do anything creative with life, like make music or do poetry or get the historical facts about something straight in your mind you have to have periods of uninterrupted research and reflection.
Wade: ‘Uninterrupted research and reflection.’ If you were trying to come up with the best phrase for the opposite of what Facebook is about, that might be it. And sure, there’s a time for being reflective and there’s a time for being social. Just like there’s a time for reading a book and there’s a time for kicking back and watching Netflix. But here’s the thing. When you take more responsibility for those choices, you give technology and media companies like Facebook less space to mess with your head. And if enough of us take responsibility, we’ll be giving those companies less space to mess with our democracies.
Soonish is written and produced by me, Wade Roush.
Our opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay.
All of our other music is from Titlecard Music and Sound.
I want to thank everyone who sat down to talk with me for this episode, including Tova Perlmutter, Rudi Seitz, Kip Clark, Tamar Avishai, Peter Fairley, Nick Andersen, Mark Hurst, Ashira Morris, Victor McElheny, and my friend Deborah in Minneapolis.
At the show’s website, soonishpodcast.org, you can read a transcript of this episode that shows exactly who said what.
You’ll also find a link where you can subscribe to Ashira Morris’s newsletter, Inbound Boston, which is an incredibly useful resource for anyone who lives in or near Boston.
I have an exciting piece of news to share with you awesome Soonish listeners. In addition to producing the podcast, I’m now writing a monthly column for Scientific American magazine. It’s called Ventures and it debuted in the February 2019 issue. It’s all about technology, culture, business, and innovation. If you like Soonish, you’ll like the column, which you can find online at ScientificAmerican.com.
Did you know that Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States? It launched in 1845 and it’s still going strong. You can buy a combined digital and print subscription is just $35 a year.
If you’d like to support what I’m doing here at Soonish, there are two key ways to do that. The first is to leave a rating and a review at Apple Podcasts. There are lots of other podcast apps and directories, but Apple Podcasts is still the leader, and ratings are super important because each show’s average rating gets displayed right at the top of the show page. So the more five-star reviews a show has, the more people will say, hey this must be good, and they’ll actually listen.
The second way you can support the show is by donating on Patreon. If you go to patreon.com/soonish, you can sign up to make a per-episode gift at whatever level feels right for you. This season, if you sign up as a new supporter at the $5 per episode level or above, I’ll send you a Soonish coffee mug with the new Season Three logo on it. So along with your daily caffeine you’ll get a little dose of informed optimism. Check out the mug and all of our other cool rewards at patreon.com/soonish.
This show is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-based collective of smart, independent, story-driven podcasts.
And this week I want to recommend the latest episode of the incomparable art history podcast The Lonely Palette from Tamar Avishai, who was part of the advisory panel for this episode.
It’s about the Ansel Adams and how his brand of quote-unquote “pure” or objective photography of the American West actually managed to say a whole lot about Adams’s view on the environment and environmentalism. Tamar concentrates on one Adams photo from Grand Teton National Park, a view I plan to see myself on a big RV tour of the national parks this summer. You can see the image and hear the show at thelonelypalette.com.
Here at Hub & Spoke we’re super excited for Tamar because she’s in the running for Boston’s Best Podcast Host at Boston Magazine’s 2019 Reader Poll. You can help make sure Tamar wins by voting yourself at bostonmagazine.com/readers-poll-2019.
I’ve got one more recommendation for you. If you happen to be in the Washington DC area on April 2, you must go to the National Air & Space Museum for an IMAX screening of an amazing documentary about 20th-century space art called Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future.
I met the makers of the film this spring and I’m going to tell you all about them and about Chesley Bonestell, space artist extraordinaire, in the next episode of Soonish.
That’s it. Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back with that episode…Soonish.