If every new communications technology contains within it the seeds of its own demise, we might have just witnessed Facebook’s death sprouts breaking ground.
Mark Zuckerberg’s social media site, which made so many of us giddy with gladness not long ago for the way it plugged us in to our friends, our fake friends and our interests and kept us fully charged, has now fallen in public estimation to something approximating a curse. Once celebrated for its all-seeing, all-knowing, all-tracking ways, it’s now damned for those same attributes. Up and down the internet, people are calling on others to delete their Facebook accounts. The most prominent of the new Facebook refuseniks—WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who sold his company to Facebook in 2014 for $16 billion—tweeted on Tuesday that it’s time to delete Facebook. “Now is the time to care about privacy,” he added.
The latest Facebook backlash was triggered by press reports about the flow of Facebook data profiles to a personality app to political analytics company called Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica helped—nobody is certain how much—Steve Bannon to elect Donald Trump, and Trump’s inclusion in the equation probably explains the scale of the fury as much as anything because Facebook has always been slipshod about privacy. Need proof? Just gander at this list of Zuckerberg “apologies” over the years, compiled by Fast Company. Like any habitual sinner, he sins, seeks forgiveness in confession, and then with that naughty boy expression pasted on his face he goes forth and sins again. Zuckerberger’s filibustering apology and promise today to be a better boy is just more of the same.
At Techdirt’s Karl Bode points out, Facebook deserves our disapprobation. But it’s only one of the many privacy scoundrels operating in the technosphere. Your “bloat-laden smartphone” harvests and sells personal information, including real-time location, to third parties. Your internet service provider does the same with your online habits. Gizmodo readers know all about how home devices—toothbrushes, smart TVs, Amazon Echos, sleep monitors, coffee makers, thermostats, smart lights, bathroom scales, et al.—spy on them via the internet. Meanwhile, car companies have joined the queue to sell your driver data. We’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel!
Yes, Facebook is and always has been a rapacious and creepy thing, pestering you to tell it more and more about yourself so that it can hawk your profile to more and more places. But why is it catching the extraordinary heat? Most emerging technologies conform to a standard pattern: At first introduction, we wax dreamily about how the new technology makes everything better. It happened with the telephone, whose ring once signaled the happy news that somebody somewhere wanted to converse. But over time, we came to loathe that ringing sound, and as soon as technology could catch up, we attached answering machines and Caller ID to our phones to blunt the interlopers. The answering machines recorded messages that, as the wheel turned, we eventually stopped checking. Who among us doesn’t treat the phone call as an annoyance today?
The fax machine traveled a similar arc, transitioning from the wonder device to a hell-sent nuisance spewing out spam and howling in the corner of the office like a tortured beast. Some of us are old enough to remember how television was destined to become the world’s greatest teaching tool and promoter of universal peace or how the CB radio would unify the citizens of the road into a political force. We loved email for liberating us from the phone and our love affair ended with us ditched it for direct messages and Slack as soon as we could. Sometimes the cycle advances so fast we fail to record sufficiently our disappointment. Remember the brief enthusiasm we invested in fitness trackers, smart watches and Google Glass when they appeared?
Like previous rebellions, the one against Facebook is being waged by multiple caucuses. Privacy advocates despise it for its promiscuous treatment of data. Others had their fuses lit by the Bannon-Trump connection. Zuckerberg haters grow angrier every time he adds a new "I'm sorry" to his encyclopedia of apologies, so the Cambridge Analytica episode has only renewed their fury. I suspect that part of the Facebook rejection grows from its incredible success. In the beginning, it could efficiently connect you to people and things of interest. But the party eventually got too big, forcing users to weed out the bores and blowhards clogging their feed. And as mentioned above, Facebook started to creep people out by becoming so needy with its overuse of notifications that it became an impossible place for the casual user.
Following the established pattern, the Facebook boon was destined to become a bane. It’s only an accident of timing that the Cambridge Analytica incident fomented such a rebellion that so many are calling for its shunning. Our appetites for media or communications have steadily grown since the advent of the telephone, radio, television and the internet—they won’t ebb because we delete a single app. Facebook refuseniks are as likely as not to end up diddling their time away on other services that mint money by keeping tabs on users: Twitter, LinkedIn, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
Still, if it will make you feel better to nuke your Facebook account, go ahead strike that blow against the empire. Just don’t confuse your minor act of rebellion with throwing off the internet surveillance shroud that you’ve wrapped yourself up in tighter than a taquito.
I never use my Facebook account except to rebroadcast my tweets and to find people that can't otherwise be located. Don't send follow requests to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. Thanks to my media brain trust, Heidi Tworek, Mark Feldstein and W. Joseph Campbell for their pointers. My email alerts stuck with My Space. My Twitter feed remains devoted to Feedster. My RSS feed will be the last RSS users.