During the summer before my freshman year of college I registered for a Facebook account. Since I wasn’t yet a student at any of the schools whose “network” Facebook required all users to join, I had to pick a regional network, in my case Louisville, Kentucky. I immediately added friends from high school, church, summer camp, etc. Almost overnight the friendships that were ordinarily built around structured, shared times—like college classes—grew into 24/7 connectedness. I learned about my friends through posts and photos, and most exciting of all, relationship status updates. When I think back to the first couple years of Facebook I invariably think of the same ten or so people who made it rewarding for me. Facebook brought me further up and further into a community I desired. At times it felt unreal, but most other times it felt like it made the real times more real.
This past spring, roughly 12 years after registering for Facebook, I decided there wasn’t any point to it anymore. I deleted my profile and haven’t looked back. Though it took me until now to do it, deactivating was surprisingly easy, even routine. There just wasn’t a sense of loss. The thrill was gone.
In the early days Facebook was charming and rewarding. I logged in with a naively hopeful expectation of seeing something happy. Something close to the opposite is true now. Facebook has become a slog, a digital membership I kept for years not out of delight or even usefulness but out of serfdom to Mark Zuckerberg’s reign over the writer’s economy. For me, it’s not even ultimately about the obnoxious polarization or “fake news.” Sure, those are ills, as is Facebook’s appalling use of data. But I confess I could probably live with all those things. Facebook’s sins don’t alienate me nearly as much as its nature. There was something about the experience of social media ten years ago that was almost beautiful in its own way. Now it feels hollow beyond redemption.
Many younger Facebook users have no possible way of understanding how different the site was around 2008-2010. It’s common nowadays to refer to Facebook as part of someone’s “platform,” and that word helpfully reveals the transformation I’m talking about. Once upon a time the experience of Facebook was very much the experience of a “network,” ie, a place where people were put into contact with one another and the point of the site was to facilitate some kind of mutuality. This was evidenced by Facebook’s requirement in the beginning that new users join a preexisting college group as part of their registration. This process mapped Facebook users into a specific location and helped the website facilitate something genuinely local. Flawed? Misleading? Certainly. But still, it was a kind of community, something that at least vaguely resembled or at least supported offline friendship.
Now, Facebook is a platform, not a network. As Michael Brendan Doughtery points out, what Facebook most resembles is a multimedia publishing company, except one not bound by the same laws as actual publishing companies. It’s a tool for individuals to bolster themselves in a digital economy. This can be literal, as in the cases of people who use Facebook professionally and flood the newsfeeds of those who “Like” their page; or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of normal Facebook users who nonetheless use the page almost exclusively to initiate some sort of self-serving interaction with others (I confess that for at least the past 2 or 3 years, this is basically how I was using the site). In the not too distant past you could scroll endlessly through your Facebook “feed without any clicking—or even seeing—any external links. Multi-level marketing, bloggers, and sensational “fake news” headlines have obliterated this experience beyond recall.
The question is why. Is it because people have changed in the past ten years and this is what they are genuinely after nowadays? Or is it that Facebook has steadily configured its website to reward people who use it a platform and punish people who want to use it as a network?
Facebook’s recent ad campaign in response to controversy over its use of data and political content is a clever acknowledgement that the site isn’t what it used to be. But fake news and political overload are symptoms, not causes. They’re symptoms of Facebook’s overall structural evolution, from a site designed to put you in close proximity with people in your life to a site that replaces you with itself.
The best example of this is Facebook’s notification system. In a previous life, a notification from Facebook was almost always to let you know that something meaningful had happened on your page: Someone asked to be your friend, someone wrote on your “wall” (an appealingly spatial term that has been replaced with ephemeral Big Data jargon, “timeline”), someone tagged you in a photo, or invited you to an event (that wasn’t a sales pitch). Again, depending on when you started using Facebook, you may have zero idea the kind of site I’m describing.
Somewhere along the road Facebook decided it would use its notification system to drive us insane—or, more accurately, to drive our attention and our money into the waiting arms of third party developers. We started getting notifications when someone we didn’t know commented on a photograph 3 days after we did, or when a “friend” we barely spoke to needed to send invites in order to get fake tokens for the game they were playing, or (my personal un-favorite) whenever someone was merely “interested” in attending some event within 100 miles of you. In 2008 a notification on Facebook meant something happened that merited a response from you. In 2019, a notification means that Facebook thinks you should spend more time on the site.
Lifting its signature “network” requirement was a crucial first step that signaled the trade-offs that would happen as a social network became a ridiculously lucrative media platform. The reason Facebook thrived even in the years when it required a preexisting network membership was that such a requirement made Facebook a valuable social commodity. People want to belong, and they wanted to belong to Facebook only because the real people with whom they already wanted to belong also belonged to it. In this way Facebook was actually a remarkably intuitive technology: An online gateway to offline membership.
Almost every major technological or aesthetic decision Facebook has made since has severed the connection between online and offline. Consider the site’s decision to combine its messaging feature and its inline chat feature. When Facebook introduced Chat around 2009, it was an obvious idea that made sense given the value of instant messaging. For several years there was a difference between receiving a chat and receiving a message. A chat was like a text message. An inbox message was more like an email—more personalized, thought-out, and less spontaneous.
Facebook eliminated this distinction from their system several years ago. A chat is now automatically archived as an inbox message, and an inbox message appears (if the recipient hasn’t turned off the chat feature) as a chat. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s actually a very revealing feature. Facebook’s developers decided that it wasn’t in the site’s best interest to assume that people might use an instant messaging feature differently than they use an inbox. Why not? Because such a distinction assumes that Facebook can be used differently for different purposes. That’s not what Facebook’s developers want to happen. They want a Facebook that is creating and dictating the user experience, not serving it. Collapsing the distinction between an IM and an email is a good way to encourage people to always be reachable on the platform.
Facebook is thus mostly about itself, not about the people on the other side of the screen. There’s a reason Facebook is now overrun with people trying to sell stuff: that’s what this kind of technology is actually good for. Facebook’s design is now a naked attempt to cultivate addiction, and addiction and marketing have always gone hand-in-hand (“A man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance,” wrote C.S. Lewis). In the absence of being truly connected with friends and family, tech users look for emotional fulfillment in buying and selling, in political diatribes and personal brand building. Meanwhile, the clicks just keep coming.
Nostalgia for Facebook’s more sanguine days reminds me of the conversation many Christians are having about classical liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, Rod Dreher’s bestseller The Benedict Option, Jake Meador’s new In Search of the Common Good, and other books and articles all describe a cultural transformation similar in spirit to the transformation of Facebook. These writers describe the deterioration of solid institutions and meaningful civil life in favor of a “liquid modernity,” an absolute autonomous freedom that is self-evidently ultimate. Affluence, libertine individualism, and social mobility quickly eroded and replaced it with the atomized, therapeutic self-determination that dominates our contemporary society.
I’m wondering if Facebook’s slow burn from a social network into a multi billion-dollar media platform might be some kind of symbol or symptom for this much larger (and of course, more important) cultural shift. Why did my experience of Facebook downgrade like it did? The first answer is that Facebook changed. Chasing profits and clicks, it fell into an all-too-familiar, all-too-American pattern of trying to create customers who served the product rather than a product that served its customers. This is, in a crude way, the failure of liberalism (or, if you prefer Deneen’s explanation, its success). Liberalism begins on the premise that it is meeting inalienable human needs of liberty, and it ends by creating people who are permanently indentured to morally empty social order. Facebook’s algorithms favor people who choose to manipulate them through outrage and compulsion. Liberalism’s anticulture, its own kind of algorithm, likewise favors those who can most efficiently exploit the freedoms of others.
Perhaps Facebook, in its own way, typifies the critique of classical liberalism. It’s become an engorged technology that feasts on the shortened attention spans and withered credulity of its users. Yet the site itself is succeeding marvelously, because its algorithms do with astonishing efficiency precisely what they’re designed to do: Minimize the personal and the beautiful while maximizing the perceived value of the site. Meanwhile, the only thing that can puncture Facebook’s PR is high profile scandal, like the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, much like the only serious reconsideration of American cultural mores usually comes through economic disaster or something like the #MeToo epidemic. Facebook’s response to scandal is to produce sympathetic ads while trying to get banks to fork over their clients’ personal info. Our sociopolitical response to scandal is not much better: More diversity seminars, more HR training, more outsourcing of our moral and intellectual work to corporations and pop culture—while we remain as indifferent to our inherent dysfunctions as Facebook is toward their algorithms. Our mobile society is lonely and fragmented, and ironically, all you have to do is spend a couple hours “connecting” on Facebook to experience it.
Will Facebook will ever become a substantially better experience than it is right now? That’s hard to say. Stacking the odds against it are Facebook’s gargantuan profitability and domineering of the news economy. It’s rare to see a corporation that monetizes its worst tendencies this effectively backtrack. The reason it’s difficult to imagine a better Facebook is the same reason many critics of contemporary liberalism cannot imagine a genuine renewal of our public life; repentance is always hard, but its doubly so when you have to repent from something you’re really good at.
And yet, unlike Facebook, the public square is still salted by the gospel and its army of churches, filled with the refugees of a disenchanted age. On Facebook there is only the power to curate. In the world outside we must confront un-curated reality, and come to terms with a bloody world that demands a bloody salvation. The best Facebook can offer is to help us meet up with our fellow man. The best Christ can offer is to come to us himself. Any critique of classical liberalism that doesn’t explicitly locate the remedy in the person, work, and community of Jesus, fails.
Years ago, my friends and I would laugh as we thought about what it would be like to still be on Facebook as adults with children. We were so busy laughing at the idea that we hardly noticed when it actually happened. I want more for my two-year-old son than the empty promises of going viral, accumulating “Likes” and being sucked in an endless algorithm. Yet I have to confess that the thought of his going off to college and not having a Facebook for me to keep up with is a sad thought. I can’t say definitively what his experience of the digital world will be like. But I’m pretty sure it will be a mixed bag that requires him to constantly reassess his heart, weigh his time, and choose the true, good, and beautiful above all. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really what we should be doing all the time—especially when logged in.