Networks of Mass Distraction: Facebook

Yesterday I had gone into some detail about my experiences with MySpace and what drove me away from it to Facebook. Where MySpace suffered from some poor design choices and stagnated due to its corporate overlords, Facebook had proved that it was willing to give users features they wanted. During those early days, Facebook was relatively unpopulated by my family and friends from MySpace. Over time I began to reconnect with those MySpace contacts on Facebook where we had a much better platform to communicate over.

A Place for Friends

Facebook News Feed

I created my first Facebook account in September of 2007 but didn’t move into fully until Travis Merrick told me that it was going to be growing and that I should take a second look at it. His suggestion, coupled with my frustrations with MySpace, convinced me to start using Facebook full-time in October of 2008. Once I grew accustomed to the changes from MySpace, I grew to love the design of the new social network. Though the design of the site would change pretty drastically over the next few years, it was a vast improvement on those which came before.

One of the most enjoyable features of Facebook had been seeing photos and video of family and friends. When my little sister gave birth to my niece, I was able to see the photos right away. When my good friend and former boss won first place at a roping tournament, I was able to see the day it happened rather than hear about it weeks later. One could post photos or messages on another’s wall which is especially nice on your birthday when you see all the best wishes people would leave for you. I suppose this touches on another feature I loved about Facebook: it alerts me to friends birthdays because I, personally, am bad with dates.

Apart from being able to post messages on your friends Wall, Facebook had just introduced an instant message client built into the site. I may have neglected the Facebook Chat client in those days because use of MSN Messenger among my friends and I was still strong. Over time, however, I would come to rely on Facebook Chat as my primary means of communicating with friends and family online.

One of the most valuable things Facebook offers is networking. Naturally any user would connect to friends and family, but now you have the means of joining a conversation with other members of your community. Entire community-related groups began to emerge which only added to the value of Facebook. Not only could I connect with members of my local community to read up on current events and opinions, but I could join communities based on interest. One of these which comes to mind is the Phoenix Gaymers group which was valuable in connecting with other, like-minded people. I made connections with so many people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

A Powerful Marketing Tool

Facebook is also a powerful tool used for marketing which seems to have created a whole new branch to the industry. Being in frequent contact with Travis and following the projects he was working on, I began to apply some of the knowledge I gleaned from him to help my employers. I began using Facebook as a natural platform to market services and events on and which Travis continued to advise me when needed. I would push where I saw opportunity.

K-5 Enterprises

K-5 Enterprises

After I returned to Ajo from an attempted move to California in November of 2010, my friends at K-5 Enterprises rehired me as a sales associate. During my time there I managed to convince the owner, Carol Klinefelter, that the business would benefit from having a presence on Facebook. It cost us nothing and would allow us to better connect with our customers. One of the first things we advertised on the page was a SanDisk Sansa Clip MP3 player which was the last of its kind we had in stock and it was sold by the end of the day. From that point on we used this page to advertise sales, make announcements, and share some of our shenanigans from the store.

The Ajo Observer

The Ajo Observer

The summer of 2011 at K-5 Enterprises was brutal in that the temperatures were in the hundreds and, with the snow birds having migrated north, the business slowed to a crawl. It’s only saving grace was the company of my coworkers and the air conditioning in which we worked. It was during this summer, with an overabundance of free time, that I noticed there was a need for an alternative to the local printed newspaper. When I created The Ajo Observer as a means of allowing members of the community to share their stories, Facebook played a key role in advertising the new website’s existence. I even went so far as to integrate Facebook Comments into the site itself.

Oasis Café

The Oasis Cafe

During these days of marketing for K-5 Enterprises and creating The Ajo Observer, I remember spending some time relaxing in Ajo’s Plaza after work. I would spend some time with my friends at the Oasis Café which included the café’s owner Andrew Sisk. I was pleased when I had convinced him to let me start a page for the café and would eventually pass ownership to Andrew’s father Oscar. Oscar, who had worked at the café while visiting in the winter, had wasted no time in fully utilizing the page.

John Peck for JP

John Peck for JP

My final experience with marketing on Facebook came in 2014 when I was approached by my friend John Peck. At the time he was running for Justice of the Peace in Ajo and had asked for my assistance in creating a website for his campaign. While working with Mr. Peck, I highly encouraged him to create a Facebook page to help him reach out to the voters of Ajo. He agreed to have me build him a Facebook page and I added the role of social media strategist to my list of responsibilities and when November 4 came, John Peck won his bid for Justice of the Peace. As a side note, I have no delusions that it was my efforts that won John his position. I’m simply proud to have had a small role in the political campaign of someone I believe in.

The Dark Side of Facebook

The Dark Side

I remember first reading Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith ahead of the movie premiere and there is one line that sticks out to me: The brightest light casts the darkest shadow. Perhaps that is a little melodramatic but, while Facebook does have its positive uses, it also has some negatives.

On Privacy and Cyberstalking

One of the first things I can think of as a mark against Facebook is its record on privacy. We’ve all done our fair share of cyberstalking at one point and any human resource employee worth their salt would be very good at it too. Despite all the feeble attempts Facebook has made at guarding its user’s privacy, it has also introduced features that have nullified these attempts. There are two of these which spring to mind: add a mobile number and Facebook Graph Search.

Tackling the simpler of the two first, I remember the first time I was asked to add my mobile number to Facebook. It was pitched as an easier way of logging into the social network with my 10-digit number rather than my 26-characer email address. I wasn’t too concerned the first time I realized you can look up other people via their phone numbers and realized it would be very useful. I then imagined a scenario where you’re out at a bar and you hand someone your phone number. Now instead of just knowing your name and number, they potentially have access to a lot more information about you if you’re privacy settings aren’t locked down tight.

Bobbie Duncan

About three years ago I discovered Mike Monteiro and gained an instant respect for the man. During 2013’s Webstock he gave a presentation titled How Designers Destroyed the World. In this presentation, Monteiro talks about the horrible design decisions made by Facebook which negatively affected the life of a twenty-two-year-old Texas University student named Bobbie Duncan. Bobbie, who enjoyed singing, wanted to join a chorus group at school and, because she was a lesbian, opted to join the Queer Chorus at UT Austin. This chorus group’s leader used Facebook to keep in contact with all of the members and added Bobbie to the group. An added layer of complication to this was that Bobbie wasn’t out to her parents at the time, and she did all the work of navigating the complicated, ever-changing privacy settings to ensure that her two worlds would never collide.

It was at this time that Facebook made, as Monteiro called it, three “careless design decisions”:
1. Anyone, besides yourself, can add you to a group. They don’t have to know you or have your permission.
2. When you are added to a group a post is made on your Wall for your friends to see.
3. Facebook Group settings override personal profile settings.

Mike Monteiro

When the chorus’ leader added Bobbie to the group, he inadvertently notified all of Bobbie’s friends that she was part of the Queer Chorus at UT Austin. Her father saw this and began posting vitriolic messages encouraging Bobbie to give up her sinful ways else risk being cut off from her family. In the words of Mike Monteiro;

Bobbie was understandably devastated. She had made a very careful decision about how to handle her life. She had threaded through and did the work to set it up and it was all undermined by a careless design decision. Of course, this was all a few months ago and Facebook has since learned their lesson by announcing the immanent release of Facebook Graph Search. Where, as pointed out by Tom Scott on his website, you can search for ‘Islamic Men interested in Men who live in Tehran’. Also where they go to school and where they work. I mean what the fuck can go wrong with that!? This is irresponsible design!

According to Wikipedia, “Facebook has alluded to these concerns and emphasized that the search operates within the pre-existing privacy settings: users can access only the information already available to them.” The only problem I have with this is that, at the time, Facebook seemed to be changing its privacy settings every couple of weeks anyway. Privacy isn’t complained about as much today as in the past but, given the track record, I think it would be foolish for anyone to trust Facebook with their privacy.

What’s in a Label?

To me, there is nothing that has devalued the word “friend” more than Facebook. So much so that our lexicons now have “friends” and “friends on Facebook”. I previously highlighted my enjoyment of having friends and family connected via social network because you can keep up-to-date on what’s happening in their lives, but I find it has also cheapened interactions with some of my friends. I feel the more you share on Facebook the less you have to say in person.

An example of this was made painfully clear to me when a friend came into town to visit and we didn’t have much to catch up on since we interacted so frequently on social media. By contrast, an uncle who isn’t on Facebook came into town recently and we spent four hours talking about how our lives were going and he regaled me with stories of him growing up. Even calling someone on the phone is much more intimate than writing on someone’s Facebook wall. Don’t just write on their walls but call your parents while you still have them here to talk to.

The Things People Do

There were some minor annoyances that drove me from MySpace all those years ago. These included the obnoxious profile pages and surveys were mostly created by its users but whose existence was enabled by the site itself. You can imagine how I felt when I saw user-created surveys, my harbingers of MySpace’s end, suddenly appear on Facebook. Months later, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is still going strong but there are some minor annoyances I felt should be documented for posterity.

Game Notifications

Facebook Game Notifications

John Smith has invited you to play Candy Crush.
John Smith has invited you to play Farmville.
John Smith has invited you to play Baking Life.
John Smith has invited you to play Mafia Wars.

John Smith has been blocked. This was more of a problem when Facebook games were first introduced but still remains a slight irritation to this day. The problem of constantly receiving game notifications was initially solved by unfriending the person sending them though, admittedly, this tended to hurt feelings. In the event that I valued the friend more than I hated the game notifications, I simply had to endure. Then one day Facebook introduced the option to block entire games from notifying you! This was great because anytime someone send me an invite, I simply blocked the game and suddenly things became a whole lot quieter. In the end, Facebook added a feature by which you could disable all notifications from apps, websites, and plugins.

Oversharing

At one point I had over 500 friends on Facebook and a majority of which were from Ajo itself. Being a small, close-knit community, everyone knows everyone therefore everyone wants to connect with everyone else on Facebook. That said, I can’t say how uncomfortable I’ve been seeing family drama play itself out for the whole world to see. This is especially true when you know the involved parties very well. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this in the past especially when my fury with one particular unfortunate relation could not be restrained.

Red vs Blue: The War of Politics

Red vs Blue

I have had two profiles in the eight years I had used Facebook. The first I created in 2007 and used it to share not only every mundane thing I was doing but also using it as a megaphone to shout out my worldviews to no one in particular. I remember my posts during California’s Prop 8 campaign were so scathing, that life-long friends reached out to me to apologize for offending me but did so in such a condescending way that our relationship had soured slightly. After reflecting on the excellent relationship I had lost, I felt that sharing my worldviews so aggressively wasn’t worth the price and looking back on it now I feel it shows an obvious lack of maturity.

I continued to share my worldviews, though in a far more restrained manner, all through events like the fight for LGBT rights, SB-1070, two elections, and a plethora of local controversies. Though not as vicious as I once was, posting my views invited debate from my friends and the many acquaintances I connected with in the community. Sometimes these confrontations would strain relationships with people but I had, at the time, felt this was more their problem than it was mine.

When Travis Merrick passed away in 2013, I remember making contact with some of his friends and wanting to make an effort to stay connected with them. Knowing that many of their worldviews were in stark contrast to mine, I had decided to make an effort to cease using Facebook as my soapbox and simply use it to share my enthusiasm for “geek stuff”. I deactivated the Facebook account I created in 2007 and created a new account which would give me a fresh start and mentally functioned as a barrier between how I wanted to use Facebook and how I had been using it. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t created a second account so that I could have one, continuous timeline but my reasons for wanting that are invalidated by my leaving Facebook altogether.

I had successfully restrained myself from sharing politics since I created this new account in 2013, but recent events caused me to be more disgusted with some of those who I had friended over the years. Apart from this being an election year, and apart from the shooting in Orlando, what began frustrating me was seeing people share information without doing any fact-checking whatsoever. I think at some point we became content sharing memes we felt were true rather than making an effort to uncover truth itself. It was at that point I realized that I would love nothing more than to get away from this noise but I held on thinking it would all be over in November. Then Orlando happened.

The Hypodermic Social Network

Hypodermic Facebook

Taking personal responsibility for myself, I have to confess that I have dedicated more time to Facebook than I care to admit. Reflecting on the previous years, I feel like a lot of my time was spent either browsing Facebook or thinking about what I would share next. I think I became one of those people who, unintentionally, replaced Facebook with actual social interaction. Or perhaps my move back to Ajo at the onset of the Great Recession left me missing the social life I had in Tucson so I used it to live vicariously? I started using this as a tool years ago and one day woke up content with an imitation of contact with my friends and family.

I feel I used to do more interesting things before I became obsessed with sharing my every mundane accomplishment or thought. I understand as people get older, we tend to yearn for what we perceived as “the better days” but this isn’t that. I look at my old project folders and see the different things I accomplished or at least tried but failed. There have been times I’ve started to work on something but would soon get lost in my Facebook newsfeed because some post got my attention. In my case, Facebook was definitely a distraction which, ultimately, preventing me from moving forward. Social media addiction may not be meth but its accessibility has made it very real to me.

The End of the Line

Closing Shop

Some have suggested that I’m writing all this as a campaign to convince others to leave and, ultimately, destroy Facebook. That it most certainly is not. This is merely an affirmation of my decision to leave the social network that I can look back on years later when the exact reasons of why I left are obscured by the mists of time. While the superficial politics of others did play a role as a minor irritation, the truth is that I have desired to leave Facebook for a long time now. I have found my use of the social network to be unhealthy and, where I am concerned, something close to an addiction. In that regard, one of the more discouraging things I’ve heard from some friends is how I’m being ridiculous, overly sensitive, and should return to Facebook.

I had previously made an attempt to leave Facebook but that was when Google had introduced Google+ which is a topic I will discuss tomorrow. One friend reminded me of this attempt and how I ended up returning from Google+ to Facebook. The reason for having done so was that there wasn’t the mass migration I expected from Facebook to Google+ as there was from MySpace to Facebook. Obviously this is different from today in that I’m not leaving one social network for another but simply leaving social media behind altogether.

I will not be able to speak to a mass of digital friends at once but will have to use email, make phone calls, and even meet more in person and as a result there would be more deliberate interaction and discourse. I will now have one less major distraction hindering me from starting new projects and learning new things. Try as I might, I can find nothing discouraging about that.