In this month's duel, Cathy Rentzenbrink and James Ball go head-to-headby / April 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Cathy Rentzenbrink: Yes
It was uncomplicated fun once, wasn’t it? A lovely, free way to share photos with our friends. Smartphones supercharged the experience. I could post photos on the move! I could narrate my life!
I wasn’t honest of course. I didn’t mean to lie exactly but didn’t want to bore anyone with my problems. I gave out the highlights; the cocktails but not the hangovers. It took me a long time to twig that I was not the consumer but the product. Facebook was selling me on. And I walked right into it. I whored myself out as traffic in return for some digital strokes.
I’m increasingly convinced social media is bad for us in ways we hardly begin to understand. Facebook makes me feel like an unstable teenager, which rather begs the question of what it makes an unstable teenager feel like.
I can’t cope with the noise, with the way that a picture of someone’s new pet or exciting day out will be interwoven with a video clip of a dead child on a beach. It makes me feel bad about my fellow humans and about myself but I don’t seem to be able to stop my hand twitching towards my phone for my next hit.
I used to blame myself for being weak and then I clocked that some of the smartest brains in the world are employed to manipulate and exploit me. They need me to stay on Facebook so they can sell my presence. They want me addicted and they like me restless and dissatisfied because it makes me long all the more for the reassurance of the little blue lights and ticks.
Despite their emotional language they don’t care about me and they don’t care about the mental state of my eyeballs; they just need my eyeballs so they can sell them. It’s time to go.
James Ball: No
Facebook was certainly a much simpler—and sparser—place when I first joined it as a first-year undergraduate, when the site was only open to a handful of universities in the UK.
Back then, when there were only a few hundred users on the network and no advertising of any sort, it was unimaginable that this little message board site we’d all started using would end up with billions of users—including our parents and families—with enormous power over the world’s media and conversations, and billions in revenues from its highly-targeted advertising.
If we had known when we first heard of Facebook back in our halls of residence that this would be where the site ended up, would we have signed up quite so readily? I’m not at all sure we would, and amid the privacy concerns, the rows, and the fear of what the filter bubble is doing to our politics, it’s certainly tempting to think about taking the big step, and hitting delete.
But then I think back to those first dozen or so connections I made on Facebook, people who at the time lived in rooms within yards of my own student room, whom I saw and spoke to daily, and who would become some of my closest friends. Today we’re scattered across different cities, even different countries, in very different professions.
Once, most of us would simply have lost touch altogether—but now, we can keep at least some eye on one another, stay a small force in each other’s lives.
A comment on a wedding photo here, a shared joke there, a short happy birthday post once a year. Staying connected in this way may have its downsides too, but keeping those relationships where once it would have been so much harder, or even impossible, feels like it has value.
There is something worth saving there—we need to change Facebook, not delete it.
I agree with lots you say and it’s exactly that feeling of keeping a little bit in touch with far away friends and relatives that I most enjoy about Facebook.
Of course there’s good stuff about it or it wouldn’t be so seductive and so hard to leave. What aggravates me is that all the good stuff is the stuff we bring; our words and photos, our emotions and friendships, our hearts and minds.
Human beings are wired for connectivity and they’ve exploited that need so that they can harvest our data and flog it
on. And their business model depends on being able to do that, so I don’t see how they can change. They don’t want to change, anyway—they are only peeved because they’ve been rumbled and we can now see the grubby purpose behind their endeavours.
I have a little theory that one of the reasons they’ve got away with it for so long is that the word “data” is so boring and makes us thinks of spreadsheets. Who wants to think about misuse of data when they could be posting a clip of a dancing hamster to celebrate that it is now wine o’clock?
But I’ve a new way to think about it: it’s like they’ve given us a free hotel room and we’re shocked that everyone knows we are there and can see the footage of us having sex in it.
“Who wants to think about misuse of data when they could be posting a clip of a dancing hamster?”
Too much? Maybe that old saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” will do. Perhaps naively given recent political upsets, I’m slightly less preoccupied with data than I am about the effects of social media on mental health.
I think we’ll look back at this unregulated period as we now do on tobacco. We’ll be aghast that we didn’t realise how bad it was for us and our kids and we’ll start asking questions about what the big companies knew that they weren’t telling us.
I think both of the concerns you raise—both of which I share—are quite connected: we’ve built a new world where masses of information about our lives is shared, both with friends and acquaintances, and with international corporations using it to sell us things.
Given how radically it has changed not only our lives, but also the economic system, it’s no surprise that it’s going to take us time to catch up with it, learn which bits of it are healthy and enjoyable, and which bits are corrosive. We must then learn how to separate the two.
My fear about looking towards deleting our accounts as a solution is that it already feels too late for that. Facebook’s business model might be to package and sell our lives as advertising targeting techniques, but so is Google’s, Twitter’s, and so many other companies—even the online version of this article will have targeted advertisements next to it.
That’s true socially, too. For those of us who predate the social internet, our social lives can probably withstand withdrawal from social media: we’re used to building and maintaining friendship groups without the aid of the internet.
For those growing up in this world now, though, they are simply part and parcel of how friendships are made and sustained—how many under-30s have you seen who are happy, for example, to pick up a phone if they don’t know who is ringing?
For these reasons, I think deletion might even be seen as an abdication: it’s surely better to work individually and collectively to work out how to make Facebook, and the other sites like it, fairer and healthier.
No, it is not an abdication to refuse to provide yet more free labour to Facebook. We’ve been doing piecework for them for years without knowing it. We don’t owe them anything else.
I agree that it is not just about Facebook. We are not smarter than our smartphones and we probably have little idea of the extent to which we are being manipulated and having our brain chemistry hacked.
What I find most abhorrent about Facebook is the unfair and dishonest nature of the transaction. Let’s all work together, you say, to make it better—but the addiction isn’t an unfortunate side effect; it’s the intended result. They are addicting us on purpose and we are giving them free reign because we like waving at our friends in California. (“Hi Stu!”)
The deactivation process shows how grimly manipulative the whole thing is. Try it and you will feel the tug of FOMO (“the fear of missing out.”) They try to prevent us from stopping an addictive behaviour by using the same tricks that enslave us in the first place.
They get away with it because we are only beginning to grasp it. It seems mad that our shiny phones and the apps they carry could be doing us harm. We don’t want to believe it but we need to take back control of our brains and then be more questioning of what we are doing and why. Maybe by turning our attention away from social media we will encourage a more ethical approach.
We invited Facebook into our homes and our lives, the delivery rooms where we birthed our children and the places where they were baptised. We thought they were the fairy godmother, but really they were the wicked witch.
The collection plate might have been invisible but it was the only thing they cared about. I’ve had enough. I won’t be traffic anymore.
In the very recent past, Silicon Valley types have been keen to say in their pitches that “data is the new oil,” never stopping to think where exactly their billions of users—the people that they buy and sell each day—fit into that analogy. It’s clearly nowhere good.
I think it’s good that we’re waking up to the fact that our interests, our inner lives, our locations, and our friendships have all been bundled up and turned into a commodity. I feel no desire to tackle these issues or fix the problems for Facebook’s sake—I’d like to do it for ours.
For one, if we’re going to be bought and sold in this way, why shouldn’t we start taking a cut? If right now Facebook gets, say, two cents for putting a targeted advert in front of us, why don’t we force them to change that divide—they can still get a cent, but I get one too.
That’s just a fix of one small part of a complex series of connected problems, but Facebook is similarly just one of the most visible part of a huge ecosystem of websites big and small that trade our data, aggregate it, and even connect it with our offline lives.
Deleting ourselves from Facebook might be the right move for some of us, especially those of us finding that it’s damaging to our mental health. But for the rest of us, especially if it’s done as a protest against our loss of control over the information which makes up our own lives, it’s nothing but a token gesture.
I don’t think deleting Facebook is too drastic a step: I think it doesn’t go nearly far enough.