How Facebook Missed the Stars, Landed On a Cloud

We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!

–Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), The Social Network

On Tuesday, Facebook turned ten years old. I have had an active account with the social network for just over half that time, which is interesting because when I signed up, it felt like I was the last one to the party. Things happen quickly on the internet. In the five years I’ve been observing it, there have been many changes to the design, the features, and the community of Facebook. Most of those changes were negligible, however much at the time it felt like we were all on a train together being asked to jump in unison when we reached a tunnel. But taken as a whole, the arc that the site has taken has swerved downward. To me at least, it is not what it once was. In recent months, I have seriously entertained thoughts of a post-Facebook existence.

facebookWhat Doesn’t Kill Facebook Makes It Stronger

Joining Facebook was important because it represented my first permanent settlement on the internet. Prior to October 2008, I had used the web to look at many different things, play games, etc., but with Facebook, suddenly I felt like I myself was part of it. MySpace might have caused this breakthrough; I had set up an account there some time previously. But I soon abandoned it and haven’t looked back.

The crucial distinction, and the main reason I’m still using Facebook today, was its popularity among people I know. Then, as now, I was able to connect with most of my friends and acquaintances through Facebook, whereas very few of those same people also use Twitter, for example. It is, indeed, a “network,” a virtual circle that allows me to keep in touch with old school friends and follow along with what people are doing with their lives. This is the passive aspect of the site, the reading/watching/stalking. It was the less interesting dimension of the service from the start and has only deteriorated since (more on that later).

The active aspect involves self-expression. The Facebook Profile is a digital mural, a place to display some of my personal passions. But other users have to seek that out if they so desire. Even more important is joining the conversation by posting things that will show up on each of my friends’ feeds. My command of this feature gradually improved over the years. At first, my output was rudimentary, confined to “statuses” and the occasional “note.” Then I discovered how to share links, and I have yet to reach the bottom of that well.

Despite threats from users whenever Facebook makes some change to its layout or adds and removes services, I have never witnessed a mass exodus among my own friends, and the site continues to grow, with at least 1.2 billion users now. Google+, once touted as the social network that would fix what Facebook had done wrong and steal some of its users away, has made hardly any impact at all. Many have joked that Facebook somehow manages to be widely hated and extremely popular at the same time: nobody likes using it, but nobody can stop. Frequent grumblings about the invasion of privacy, increased presence of annoying advertising, the occasional whispers that the site may not remain free — Facebook just smiles and watches its numbers continue to swell.

No One Website Should Have All That Power

But here’s what happened: I (re)joined Twitter in 2011, and it quickly became my favorite social network to visit. Facebook became the old man, the place that launched me onto other, more interesting places: Flixster (and now Letterboxd), Tumblr, LinkedIn (okay, Facebook will always be more interesting than LinkedIn), and this very blog. Probably more than any other single competitor, my blog renders Facebook redundant. When it comes to active use, hey, self-expression is what it’s all about right here. I still put a link on Facebook for each blog post, but the response to those links has been pretty underwhelming for the most part.

Which leads me again to the passive elements.

memesSome friends have left Facebook over the years, and others never seem to do much with it. But there’s something more fundamental about the culture of Facebook that has made it more and more intellectually decadent over time. There are too many people on the site, and they share too much. The result is that the biggest response goes to that which is easiest to digest. Hence memes, inspirational quotes, funny pictures, and short videos. Memes are the language of Facebook. I’m not saying each and every one of them is worthless, but when they become the bulk of what you notice, the overall experience loses its personality and staying power. Even more recently, the trend has been to share material from Upworthy and its ilk — a little more substantial, but still stultifying.

Nowhere is this decadence more grating than the realm of politics. Politics and memes — a match made in heaven, making empty rhetoric look attractive and punchy. I never have to look at Facebook for very long to find something political. This was forgivable during the last presidential election, but it hasn’t stopped. It’s been said many times that we live in a very divided country. People on each end of the spectrum pretty much despise everyone on the other end. I live in a conservative community, but as I’ve found myself inching leftward over the last couple years, the right-wing material has lost its charm. I sympathize with Christian writer D.L. Mayfield, who tweeted the following last year:

That’s amazingly close to my own experience. My political views remain very much in flux, and at any rate, I’d always rather talk about movies. The point is, Facebook seldom connects with my interests anymore. And even when it does, it tends toward the shallow. (For some reason, Star Wars casting rumors attract more attention than a well-written and illuminating review of something like The Tree of LifeMoonrise Kingdom, or Before Midnight — my favorite movies from each of the past three years. See top of post for my favorite movie from four years ago, by the way.)

Well, that’s plenty of whining for today. My conclusion for the time being is that I will stay on Facebook but devote less and less mental energy to it. Having friends and acquaintances hit that famous “Like” button still does wonders for my self-esteem (and thank you to everyone who has ever done that), no matter how unhealthy that may be. The site is still a convenient way of keeping in touch with people. But the time may soon come when I decide that keeping in constant contact (however guarded, distant, or fictionalized) with most of those people simply isn’t worth the burden. There will always be other channels through which to pursue those relationships that truly matter. I’ve built many settlements on the internet, and my plan is to make even more of an impact in the future.


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