It’s an addiction.
Back in the 1980s, early 1990s, I posited the idea of “online addiction” and got nothing but funny looks. Now, the inclusion of “Internet Addiction Disorder” is studied and its inclusion in the DSM is seriously considered (though as of this writing, it is not a defined psychiatric disorder – you can safely keep reading and surfing).
In December, I deactivated my Facebook account. Shortly thereafter, Houston experienced a rare and beautiful dusting of snow – enough to make a real snowman! I called my next door neighbor at 6AM, not wanting her to miss it as dawn broke and melted the fluffy flakes. “Oh, yes, I saw it,” she said. “I tried to message you on Facebook, around 1AM, and thought you’d unfriended me!” I sighed. I reactivated my account and posted a message there for Friends, with a link to where they could share with me the contact info Facebook wouldn’t let me keep, and another that was Public: “Gone Fishin’!”
I’d meant to deactivate Facebook for good at the end of January. Instead, I slowly got sucked back in. I refused to post, but I commented and turned my “Gone Fishin’!” post into a discussion thread on everything from birthday greetings to why I was leaving Facebook. I listened to friends say things like, “I admire your convictions, but I can’t leave Facebook because…” until the litany of reasons became a laundry list of excuses – the sort of excuses addicts make for why they drink, smoke, gamble, or take drugs they don’t need. And I heard my own mental gyrations in their words. We’re all addicts.
What are we actually getting from Facebook? We’ve long known and accepted that “we are the product.” We’re one big mass of targetable demographic information for businesses to advertise to. Okay. sure. Somebody’s got to keep the lights on, and most of us would rather see ads that are relevant to us than to be bombarded by ads that are not. God forbid we should actually have to pay to use Facebook – even though when someone suggests leaving it, we balk. But we didn’t think closely about the “privileges” we were granting to apps, games, and sites we used Facebook to log into. So why do we give a rat’s whiskers if Cambridge Analytica hoovered our – and our friends’ – data and mined it in order to manipulate our political opinions?
I think a lot of us – not all of us – are in denial about just how much impact propaganda has on us. Being easily manipulated is for stupid people. Not for us. And if we think that one side of this divisive political arena is composed mostly of the stupid and corrupt, then we, surely, did not succumb to the barrage of ads and posts and bot-attacks on social media. That’s for the sheep. Or the “sheeple.” We think we know better – that we will never forget the lessons of the Holocaust or Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda, that Orwell’s 1984 was merely fiction, not prescient social commentary. Think back to the things you’ve “Liked” or “re-tweeted” or shared with friends. Were these things you truly liked, believed in, and hoped would persuade your friends? Do they reveal who you really are? Naaaaah… well, maybe. Maybe not. If a statistician performs regression analysis on people sharing certain traits and finds a strong correlation to people who vote in the Republican primary or sign online petitions for MoveOn with “Liking” certain things, then yes. I don’t personally put a lot of stock in these signals; I was on Facebook back when you had to “Like” a page to engage in its conversations, so I “Liked” a lot of politicians I loathed. Your words, though, may reveal more than you know about your personality and the likelihood that you will be swayed by a particular argument or emotional appeal. Your words reveal a lot about who you are and what you believe and what you care about.
Don’t take my word for it. Gather up about 3000 or 4000 words from your own Facebook posts, stick the whole mess in Notepad, then post it here. What do you think? Given enough data points about our online habits, the things we buy, the sites we frequent (and how often, for how long), data scientists can make a lot of solid, educated guesses about how we’ll behave in various situations. That, like most technological advances, can be a tool for good, or a weapon of mass exploitation.
We could leave social media – go “off the grid” – stop writing or speaking.
But for some of us, that’s not an option.
We can choose, though, whether to continue enabling and facilitating a platform whose owners have shown so little regard for users’ privacy and security over the years. I finally concluded that, where Facebook is concerned, we made a bad bargain. For me, Cambridge Analytica wasn’t even the tipping point. It really was the rationalization of friends, joining with the arguments forming in my own brain for not shutting it down for good. In the end, it was about the addiction. I looked into the mirror and saw a hypocrite smiling back at me, whispering, “You can’t do it, can you? You’ve been trying to leave for three years now. You’re an addict. You can never leave.”
Oh, yes. I can.
Yes, I can. And now I have.