There was once upon a time (basically most of my 20’s) where I would share just about anything and everything to Facebook. I’m not sure I would have defined myself as someone that “over shares”, but I was certainly a highly active user of the platform, sharing every ridiculous photo and every stupid thought. As time went on, I not only adopted Facebook’s other services like Facebook Messenger and Instagram, but also other platforms like Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, etc and began actively sharing there as well thanks to the power of the network effect. Over the last few years or so, my use of these platforms gradually declined, primarily in part of gaining a deeper understanding about how the platforms operate and make money, but also due to, what I viewed, as negatively effecting my psyche.
I just want to provide a little bit of context of my personal experiences being on the other side of the screen. I worked at a digital marketing agency which specialized in social media marketing and content creation, which certainly contributed to why I quit social media all together. Due to the nature of my job, I was often on these platforms for 40 hours a week. It was here where I began understanding exactly how social media platforms work and what sort of personal data they collect. I sat in on a couple meetings with Facebook employees who shared in detail about how their advertising platform works, how to narrow our target demographics for paid media promotion, best practices for content, and which elements were needed in our content to drive engagement.
I helped inform Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram ads (of course we wouldn’t call them “ads”) which would then be promoted across social. I would create detailed reports from the data generated from these posts to see which content received the most reach, impressions, and total engagements (engagement rate). I’m oversimplifying here, but my goal here was to determine which creative elements performed the best in terms of what users would actually click on and engage with.
Facebook Needs to Collect as Much Data as it Can About You
Facebook is incentivized to collect every piece of information it can about you so that it can sell the keys to that information to advertisers – this is where the vast majority of where Facebook’s revenue comes from and at this point it’s common knowledge. What I find amusing is that a lot of this information Facebook doesn’t even have to ask for. We share this information with them by happily providing our full name, age, gender, location, political stance, and religious views. On top of that, we share our music tastes, our favorite movies, our favorite actors. We even share status updates of our thoughts – all of this data to be used to compile any even more detail advertising profile about you. This collection of personal data is how it makes it’s money – meaning that Facebook is not the product, you (the user) are the product that they sell to companies – a cliche statement, but nonetheless accurate.
We know how Facebook makes it’s money. This, in turn, motivates the company to get you addicted to spending as much time as possible on their platform so that they can serve you more ads and more clicks. The reasoning is that you are more likely to click on an ad when it’s more relevant to you and thus the need collect as much personal information about you as possible.
Welcome to the world of the attention economy. In our current, highly connected society, human attention is a scarce commodity which is why this business model is effective. What’s the harm in that? Facebook’s algorithms, it’s massive amount of data on you, as well as the advertisements themselves are designed to pull at the strings of your psyche (often at an unconscious level), to manipulate you and drive you to perform an specific action be it a click or purchasing a product or service. Yes this is basic marketing 101, but marketing to this extent has never been possible until the advent of Facebook (and social media in general).
Facebook Watches You Even When You’re Not Using Their Services
Another important fact that most people seem to be unaware of is that Facebook not only tracks everything you’re doing when you use their platforms, but they track you even when you’re not using their services. Say you’re using Facebook on your laptop, you close the tab, and then you decide to cruise the web, reading some news, watching videos, what have you. You’re still be tracked! The embedded Facebook “Like” button you see on most websites are indeed a Facebook tracker that reports back to Facebook that you visited that page. Not only is this level of tracking occurring on their platform, but it occurs even when you’re not using their service.
Furthermore, the most popular smartphone applications also contain embedded Facebook trackers (as well as other ad trackers). The Facebook application itself track you even when you’re not even using the app, and have (at least in the past) what other applications you have installed on your device.
Cesspool of Misinformation & Filter Bubble
The fact that Facebook is a cesspool of toxicity and misinformation might be a point that every single person agrees with, but to be fair Facebook isn’t entirely to blame here. As pretentious as this sounds, a lot of people lack the critical thinking to distinguish between a news article and an article that’s blatantly fake information. I am guilty of falling for misinformation as I’m certain you are – whether you’re aware of it or not. These types of misleading articles get repeatedly shared and oftentimes people will formulate their views and opinions not on the actual article itself, but simply by reading a headline! Seeing information repeatedly, you are more likely to believe it’s true – familiarity breeds trust. Granted, I’ll go out on a limb here and call almost anyone out on reading just a headline and then forming an opinion – again, I am guilty of doing the same thing. As a result, we cannot seem to agree on anything which is causing us to slide into a post-truth era.
Furthermore, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to keep us in a filter bubble. Anyone familiar with the algorithms will know you will only see content Facebook believes you’re likely to engage with. This keeps us engaging with people that oftentimes share our opinion which further exacerbates confirmation bias, but this ties back to keeping us using the platform for as long as possible because having our attention means serving us more advertisements, which means more ad revenue.
Distraction & the Obliteration of Your Attention
The average person spends 144 minutes a day on Facebook. Imagine how you could put that time to more productive and meaningful use, such as learning a new skill or spending time with your family. The notification sound which precedes a pleasant spike in dopamine leaves us in a constant state of distraction. I immediately think of Cal Newport’s books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism – two books I highly recommend.
I’m not claiming to be a productivity guru immediately after deleting my account, but I can confidently say that rather than scrolling mindlessly I’ve consciously made the decision to read more books, start writing again (which resulted in the creation of this website), and meditating frequently. I’ve also picked up old hobbies like tinkering with Linux.
Am I a Hypocrite?
Seeing as how I have been and still occasionally dabble in social media marketing, one might think I’m a hypocrite or experiencing some major cognitive dissonance. On the contrary, I believe you can still market to your target audience without the need of Facebook or having an “All Your Data Are Belong To Us” mentality. From my point of view, collecting an insane amount of personal data on users is not only unethical, it’s also completely unnecessary and disrespectful to users. Hell, I feel pretty confident that the majority of people who work in digital marketing agree with me on this and many companies, to a degree, are forced into playing the game that’s what’s expected. I will concede that as a business, opting out might be easier said than done and is very much a complicated issue. I can’t suggest that businesses get off of social media. For individuals, however, I recommend avoiding social media entirely.
Facebook’s product is not the platform – WE are the product and our DATA and ATTENTION are being sold to advertisers. It is important to ask yourself when using any free online service “how is this organization making money?”. If it’s not obvious, oftentimes you’re the product. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Companies like DuckDuckGo or Protonmail can monetize their service while also respecting their users.
If it’s not obvious at this point, my opinion is that Facebook is garbage and it’s the equivalent of feeding your brain junk food. I’m not telling everyone to go out and delete their Facebook accounts… actually maybe I am, but I know most likely won’t due to “reasons”. Additionally, I know that some people have their business heavily tied into Facebook and it’s simply not viable. I went back and forth with deactivating my account, unfollowed basically everyone, and then said fuck-it and ripped off the band-aid. Psychologically, I was worried and was experiencing fear of missing out, but after I deleted it, I felt so much better. To those wary of doing so, I’ll tell you the water here is just fine. As I said, I’m not sure anyone reading this will immediately go out and delete their account, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand exactly what Facebook is and how they make their money.
For me, deleting Facebook is the best thing I’ve done for my productivity, my privacy, and my mental health.
Some books regarding this topic that I highly recommend are:
– Digital Minimalism & Deep Work by Cal Newport
– Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
– Opt Out by Rory Price (who published his book free of charge)