Modern Primate

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Over Christmas break in 2010, I was banned from using Facebook. More specifically, I was banned from using Facebook in the airspace between Eugene, Oregon and Spokane, Washington. Before my flight, I was able to log in and post whatever stupid shit just fine. But after I landed, while waiting for my parents to pick me up from the airport, I found that my mobile app was no longer accepting my password. That seemed odd, but I was drunk and anyway had baggage to claim. So I didn’t think too much of it. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized—the b&hammer had indeed spoken.

This was not entirely surprising, as I had been in gross violation of Facebook’s terms of service agreements. See I research trolls, and at the time was doing quite a bit of work on Facebook. I’d been juggling a handful of accounts, and was constantly adding and being added by a rotating cast of trolling alts. Still though, I was taken aback.

There was no question that I’d create a new research account. In fact I created two, out of spite. But I wasn’t sure what to do about my real life account. Did I even want to be on Facebook? I’d always been vocal in my opposition to Zuck & Co., but at that point it felt like a necessary evil. How else would I stay in touch with old friends from high school and college? How else would I stay in touch with the friends I’m actually friends with? Wasn’t going off Facebook akin to social suicide?

In the end, I decided to put my money where my mouth was. Eventually my account was reinstated, but by that point I’d decided I’d never go back. At least, never in a Facebook-approved capacity. Because as it turns out, going off Facebook is not akin to social suicide. In some ways, not having a Facebook has strengthened my relationships. At least the ones I actually care about maintaining, since in order to communicate I have to take active steps. I send emails. I read people’s Tumblrs, Twitters, and blogs. I text. Sometimes I even make phone calls. Yes I miss out on global invitations to parties, and that can be annoying, but otherwise I’ve experienced no ill-effects. I prefer to be off Facebook. Life is simpler, there’s less drama, and I’m able to focus my energies on the people who make me happiest.

It’s more than that, though. As a company, Facebook is not politically neutral. In fact, it’s quite problematic. But as long as it’s framed as a social necessity, as something we must be on, we’re much more likely to overlook or at the very least minimize the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. Because what choice do we have? Sure there are privacy issues. Sure there are issues with data mining. But dammit, we need our daily fix of Schadenfreude. We need to know what kinds of vacations our former co-workers are taking. We need to play fucking Farmville, ok?

My argument is that we don’t need Facebook at all. In fact, I would argue that Facebook ends up doing more harm than good. Consider Zuckerberg’s push for “authentic user identity,” aka the Facebook imperative. At best, the idea that you MUST let your friends know what you are doing RIGHT NOW is little more than a marketing strategy. The more people share about their lives, the more personal information there is to commoditize. This rhetorical slight of hand is brilliant—you want to be a good person, right? Well, good people live authentic, transparent lives. Good people share. So let them know what shows and movies you’re watching! Which blogs you’re reading! Thoughts you’re thinking about the things you buy! It will bring you closer, we promise.

This is gross and cynical, but that’s capitalism for you. The really disturbing thing is that Facebook’s obsession with authentic user identity presumes that all identities are created equal. That is, presumes, and therefore universalizes, the assumption that “authenticity” isn’t just possible, but is always a positive. Unfortunately, not all people have the privilege of being their true selves in public; many people’s true selves are a political or professional liability, if not an issue of personal safety (more on this issue here). Facebook either doesn’t understand that many people’s lives are fraught with risk, or they don’t care; their push for “authentic” expression, at the expense of more anonymous or pseudonymous forms of communication, doesn’t take those sorts of risks into account, nor does it take into account the possibility that certain users might not want to make everything about their lives public. But there is money to be made. And you can’t commoditize a pseudonym.

Again, though, it’s hard to take these sorts of issues too seriously if you’ve internalized the idea that Facebook is necessary to your survival. Step away for a few weeks and you realize that actually, Facebook is not necessary to anything. Zuckerberg wants users to think that it is, in fact that’s the backbone of his entire business model. To which I say thanks but no thanks, there are equally satisfying ways to communicate online, ones that don’t require me to drink company Kool-Aid.

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