Facebook's Pros Still Outweigh Its Cons

Bloomberg View , September 23, 2017

My reasons for wanting to quit Facebook were pretty standard: It’s a time sink. It exacerbates my depression and, perversely, my sense of isolation. It knows (or thinks it knows) way too much about me1  I do the work and Facebook gets the money.

None of this was new, so it’s not clear what set me off. Was it the former magazine editor marveling at the huge sums he’s now making on the speaking circuit? One too many posts from people throwing around words like “libtards,” “warmongers,” and “deep state”? This London Review of Books essay highlighting the company’s dark, Rousseavian view of human nature? (“The idea was that people wanted to look at what other people like them were doing, to see their social networks, to compare, to boast and show off, to give full rein to every moment of longing and envy, to keep their noses pressed against the sweet-shop window of others’ lives.”) All of the above in rapid succession? Whatever the trigger, I was suddenly fed up.

“I'm thinking about leaving Facebook,” I posted earlier this month. “Your thoughts?”

After reading more than 250 responses, however, I had second thoughts. The reasons help explain why, despite widespread dissatisfaction and increasing controversy, Facebook continues to prosper.

For starters, the site offers a unique audience. By using my personal page rather than my public fan page, as a de facto blog, I connect not only with readers who follow my writing but with friends of friends, kids I grew up with, college classmates, and far-flung relatives. This audience of about 5,000 (Facebook’s maximum), isn’t a random sample, of course. But it’s a more socially, politically, and geographically heterogeneous group than the stereotypical social-media echo chamber, and it keeps me from living in the proverbial bubble.

When these people comment, they use their real names and personas connected to their real (if selectively attractive) lives: their kids and pets, their favorite movies and sports teams, their hobbies and volunteer work, and -- all too often for my taste -- their eating habits. They have multiple dimensions. And sometimes the in-person and in-print connections cross in unexpected ways. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve become friends with one of my younger brother’s high-school classmates, who first followed me as a writer.

Facebook also offers a good way to tap the knowledge and opinions of a large group of people, whether to quickly solve computer problems, get contractor recommendations, or find sources for articles. That’s a plus for any user, but it offers particular advantages to a writer. The overwhelming response to a one-line post griping about the smell of marijuana smoke even led to a column. Short of building up a huge blog audience, this advantage is hard to duplicate elsewhere.

The response to my question made me realize that Facebook had allowed me to create a distinctive forum, that people appreciate it more than I can usually tell, and that I’d miss (most of) these interactions if I left. It reminded me of the reasons to like Facebook: the connections it provides and the chance to easily share interests. So I’ve decided to stay, with modifications.

To avoid distraction, I’d already started using the Anti-Social app to block Facebook and Twitter for several hours at a time. I’ll extend the blocked periods and make them a daily habit. Taking a cue from psychology research that suggests that reading Facebook passively is what puts people in a bad mood, I’ve also installed the Stop Scrolling Newsfeed for Facebookbrowser extension, which lets you block the feed after a minute or even 15 seconds. (If that doesn’t work, there’s the nuclear option: Feed Eradicator for Facebook extension, whose name is self-explanatory.) Instead of endlessly scrolling through whatever some algorithm serves up, I’ll visit specific people’s pages directly and focus on interaction.

The exercise was a useful reminder of what often gets lost in the public commentary on social media. For all their myriad faults, services like Facebook provide genuine value by connecting people who wouldn’t otherwise be in touch. Tools exist to help users minimize the downside -- you just have to look for them. Like any other form of abundance, making the most of social media requires conscious consideration. So I reserve the right to revisit the question next year. 

  1. This particular fear was somewhat assuaged by downloading my Facebook archive and discovering just how clueless the ad targeting was. Rolex? The band America? Soccer? The ad preferences page also pegs “fire” as a hobby, presumably based on my interest in FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.