Confessions of a chaos monkey

(Alternate post title: In which I continue my descent into anti-technology crankdom.)

You may have noticed, gentle readers, that I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately reading and writing about technology, social media, Silicon Valley, etc. I ran across the name Antonio García Martínez in an article about the same, which pointed me to an interview with him that I can no longer find in my bookmarks, but which at least served the purpose of leading me to his recent memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. García Martínez tells all in this chronicle of his own Silicon Valley days: from the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, through a few years at ad-related startups, to his two all-consuming years at Facebook in the early 2010s. And what is Silicon Valley really like, at least as far as Chaos Monkeys shows us? As it turns out, it seems less a centre for incredible innovation than the kind of dystopian subculture you might find if a) Machiavelli ran your high school, b) everyone in said high school had millions of dollars of other people’s money to play with, and c) the only ethical/moral question that needs an answer is “is this legal or not?”. It’s not pretty. Actually, I had to stop reading Chaos Monkeys before bed because it was giving me bad dreams. I wish I were joking.

First, a word on the title: what, exactly, is a chaos monkey (besides a little phrase that’s pretty fun to say)? As García Martínez explains it, Chaos Monkey is a software tool developed by Netflix that tests whether your system can stand up under the stress of random failures. As a metaphor, it extends to the Silicon Valley ethos as a whole, as technology entrepreneurs look for society’s weak points in order to either fix or exploit them, depending on your point of view:

In order to understand both the function and the name of the chaos monkey, imagine the following: a chimpanzee rampaging through a data center, one of the air-conditioned warehouses of blinking machines that power everything from Google to Facebook. He yanks cables here, smashes a box there, and generally tears up the place. The software chaos monkey does a virtual version of the same, sutting down random machines and processes at unexpected times. The challenge is to have your particular service — Facebook messaging, Google’s Gmail, your startup’s blog, whatever — survive the monkey’s depradations.

More symbolically, technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder). One industry after another is simply knocked out via venture-backed entrepreneurial daring and hastily shipped software. Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos moneys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time. With the explosion of venture capital, there is no shortage of bananas to feed them. The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what cost. (103)

Chaos Monkeys provides a fascinating inside view of this social-norm-breaking chaos monkeydom, many aspects of which Jaron Lanier warns about in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (my review here). One of Lanier’s strongest arguments has to do with the way the big, secretive algorithms at social media companies work to ever-refine the content that you see in order to maximize your engagement with the platform in question: feeding you mostly things you like (your best friend’s baby pictures) along with carefully calculated small doses of the rage-inducing (your crazy uncle’s political rants). All of the news and other content we encounter on Facebok only crosses our feeds because the algorithm has decided that it will keep us engaged; besides the very real problem of fake news, this also leads to a thoroughly myopic vision of whats going on in the world. We miss a lot, and because we only see what we’re shown, it gets harder and harder to even know what we’re missing. All of this is on purpose. García Martínez recounts the rousing speeches at his new employee orientation/on-boarding at Facebook, and the pictuer that high-ups in the organization painted of the brand new world Facebook was (and is) working hard to construct:

Facebook was the New York Times of You, Channel You, available for your reading and writing, and to everyone else in the world as well, from the Valley VC [Venture Capitalist] to the Wall Street banker to the Indian farmer plowing a field. Everyone would tune in to the channels of their friends, as people once clicked the knob on old cathode-ray television sets, and live in a mediated world of personalized social communication. That the news story in question was written by the Wall Street Journal was incidental: your friend Fred had posted it, your other friend Andy had commented on it, and your wife had shared it with her friends. Here was the first taste for the new Facebook employee of a world interpreted not through traditional institutions like newspapers, books, or even governments or religions, but through the graph of personal relations. You and your friends would redefine celebrity, social worth, and what should be churning through that restless primate brain all day.

Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, we wouldn’t all be famous for fifteen minutes, we’d be famous 24/7 to fifteen people. That was the new paradigm, even if the outside world didn’t realize it yet. Facebook employees — we few, we happy few — knew what world was coming, and we’d help create it. (261)

In his two years at Facebook, García Martínez worked for the Ads department, in the early days of Facebook’s ads monetization projects. Perhaps because he’s an ad man, García Martínez is not impresed with people who use ad blockers in an effort to cut down on some of the noise they see online. Nor is he impressed with those who  are concerned with online privacy: in a point late in the book, he essentially makes the argument that we should all be grateful that Facebook captures and holds all our data, because otherwise facebook wouldn’t exist. I remain entirely unconvinced that this would be the disaster he purports it to be. If Facebook had kicked the bucket back in 2011 or so, when most of the book is set — well, so what, exactly? Their software engineers etc. would have moved on to other companies and users would have moved on to other platforms. Are any of us still mourning the death of MySpace or Friendster? It’s an interesting position for him to take, especially given the way he now looks back at his time with the big blue social media giant:

I could barely remember what my life was like before Facebook, and there was a trail of destruction I had caused by spending my entire life there: two children neglected, two different women whose worthy love I’d spurned, two boats rotting in neglect, and anything like an intellect or a life outside campus nonexistent due to indifference and my dedication to the Facebook cause. Don’t be deceived by my whithering treatment of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a morant critic, it’s because at one point […] I, too, lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most. (458-9)

García Martínez’s time at Facebook didn’t end well; he was fired after a bitter internal battle over two different products/directions the Ads department was considering. That fact seems to fuel much of the book’s bitterness (and it is a deeply bitter book), as well as the occasional ambiguity of his positions. In truth, I didn’t find him a sympathetic narrator. García Martínez describes himself as “high-strung, fast-talking, and wired on a combination of caffeine, fear, and greed at all times” (161) and despite his avowed distate for the Silicon Valley lifestyle, he certainly appears to have lived it to the fullest measure, questionable ethical mores included. For example, he relates the following story from when his startup, AdGrok, was courting/being courted by two different companies: Facebook and Twitter, both of them still relatively nascent. Twitter was interested in buying the company and its three founders (in what’s called an acqui-hire), while Facebook wanted García Martínez but not rest of his team. How should he decide which company to work for? Here’s how:

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille game with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. […] Facebook it was. (228)

(I found a news article about the incident in question. It’s incredibly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading it, but I will leave the link here so you know that this isn’t something García Martínez is making up for the shock value. It happened.) But consider the attitude that looks at a story like that — social media-driven infanticide — and decides that the company that inadvertently facilitated this truly horrifying incident is the one to work for, not the one to avoid. “If Facebook can do this, then Facebook can’t fail, therefore I should work for Facebook.” I… can’t even imagine making that decision. But that was his choice and his plan, which he enacted with some serious machinations that resulted in Twitter buying out his AdGrok co-founders while he escaped to Zuckerberg-land. According to Chaos Monkeys, this is the sort of decision that many Valley types would make:

As every new arrival in California comes to learn, that superficially sunny “Hi!” they get from everybody is really, “F— you, I don’t care.” It cuts both ways, though. They won’t hold it against you if you’re a no-show at their wedding, and they’ll step right over a homeless person on their way to a mindfulness yoga class. It’s a society in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War. “Take it light, man” elevated to life philosophy. Unfortunately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbocharged by selfishness, respecting some nominal “feel-good” principals [sic] of progress or collective technologcal striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table, and a vesting schedule. (232)

There’s a lot more to say about the world of SiIicon Valley and the world it is trying to build, but I need to cut this off at some point — Chaos Monkeys clocks in at over 500 fascinating and depressing pages. In many ways it is not an easy read, and it certainly isn’t an uplifting one. But as we consider questions about how we develop and use technological tools, it’s also worth interrogating the culture behind those tools. “Move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) may work for shipping software, but it’s a poor way to construct a society, and we would do well to be wary of embracing the technological innovations that come our way without serious thought. Chaos Monkeys contributes to that discussion, filling in a lot of the background for us as we think about how to shape techonology, and how it in turns shapes us.

Weekend Reading: the gift of stories, Facebook and the free press, and keeping a library

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here

1. Farmer Boy and the Gift of Handing Down Stories (crisismagazine.com)

When I read aloud (again) this book recently with our children, I wondered: When was the last time I told them stories of my childhood? How much do they know about what it was like for me growing up? Have I given them the gift that Almanzo gave his wife and child—the same gift my grandfather also gave to me?

A lovely little piece on the value of personal storytelling, especially within the family.

2. Can We Be Saved from Facebook? (Rolling Stone)

Internet platforms like Zuck’s broke the back of the working press first by gutting our distribution networks, and then by using advanced data-mining techniques to create hypertargeted advertising with which no honest media outlet could compete. This wipeout of the press left Facebook in possession of power it neither wanted nor understood.

Yes, I’m still harping on about social media. This is an excellent piece about the impact Facebook’s algorithms have on our lives and especially on our relationship to traditional news media.

3. How to Keep a Library of Physical Books (thoughtcatalog.com)

This post is a bit heavy-handed, perhaps — but I think the author hits some things home as well. I love being surrounded by physical books and here are some of the many reasons why.

Jaron Lanier’s ten reasons

Yes, I’m still thinking about this — although (believe it or not) reading this book came after I had made the decisions detailed here and here about the role of social media in my life. It has absolutely reinforced my convictions that I need to get off social media, though, and I’m glad that I have read it because Jaron Lanier is both better informed and much more eloquent than I am.

But first, who is Jaron Lanier, and why should we listen to what he has to say? Lanier is not a Luddite by any means, nor is he just some anti-technology crank. On the contrary; Lanier has been a programmer and computer scientist since the 1980s, and is intimately acquainted with Silicon Valley’s companies, workers, and products. He founded the first company that sold virtual reality products. He currently works for Microsoft. In short, he knows what he’s talking about — and what he’s talking about is alarming. (This profile of Lanier at The Guardian is nearly twenty years out of date now, but still a fascinating read. Alternatively, here is the bio page on his personal website.)

So, social media. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a book designed to ring all of our alarm bells. Lanier dives into how social media works (what is that mysterious thing called “the algorithm” and what is it doing?) and how it affects our lives. Here are his ten reasons for deleting:

  1. You are losing your free will.
  2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
  3. Social media is making you into an a**hole. [I censored that one for you, Grandma]
  4. Social media is undermining truth.
  5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.
  6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
  7. Social media is making you unhappy.
  8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.
  9. Social media is making politics impossible.
  10. Social media hates your soul.

I won’t get into each of these arguments — you should just read the book, as it’s on the short side and very digestible — but here are some things I found particularly intriguing.

Argument one: you are losing your free will. Why is that? Because social media is deliberately designed to be addictive, and because addiction is the opposite of free will. I know that I’ve struggled with the impulse to constantly check my social media accounts, or to log on just to check one thing and only resurface an hour later. What I didn’t know is that a surprising number of Silicon Valley bigwigs have backgrounds in behaviourism, and that those backgrounds come into play in the way that social media is constructed. Underneath the surface, it’s not about connecting people or sharing our lives — fundamentally, the purpose of most of what we see on social media is to keep us engaged, to keep us returning to the site in question.

How does this work? Through both positive and negative feedback (and the way our brains react to both of those by trying to find the underlying pattern), through social pressure, and through the amplification of emotions to keep us engaged. But the easiest emotions to amplify are the negative ones: sadness, fear, anger. As we use social media, the adaptive algorithms that power it notice what keeps us engaged and feed us more of those things — and nearly always, those are the things that make us upset. We keep coming back because our buttons keep getting pushed. We lose our inability to stay off of social media for meaningful amounts of time. Our free will is being eroded.

Arguments three and six: social media is making you into an a**hole and destroying your capacity for empathy. These ones go hand in hand, really. And we don’t need Jaron Lanier to tell us that people can be horrible in the relatively anonymous space the internet provides — just open up the comments section of any online newspaper article and observe the vitriol flying. Flaming, trolling, malicious doxxing — we’ve seen it all. But the question is: why? Are we really so collectively uncivil? Or is there something about the platforms we’re using that brings out the worst in human nature?

Lanier posits that instead of the world being divided into trolls and victims, we each have an inner troll — but what causes that troll to come out? His theory, which I think is interesting, is that people have two switches inside them, as it were: solitary mode and pack mode. Something happens to us when we get switched to “pack”:

The pattern is found whenever people form into groups. […] The Pack setting of the switch makes you pay so much attention to your peers and enemies in the world of packs that you can become blind to what’s happening right in front of your face.

When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between “ally” and “enemy” so quickly that we cease to perceive them as individuals. They become archetypes from a comic book. The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs. (46)

[…]

When people act as solitary wolves, then each person is in a unique position in society and thinks in a unique way. Another example: Democratic elections are a genuine commingling of ideas, and have historically helped societies find paths forward despite controversy, but only so long as people are switched to Solitary. Democracy fails when the switch is set to Pack. Tribal voting, personality cults, and authoritarianism are the politics of the Pack setting.

It might sound like a contradiction at first, but it isn’t; collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals. (48)

The tribalism encouraged by the internet platforms we engage with is one piece of the puzzle — when we’re obsessed (and kept obsessed by the algorithms that control what we see online) with who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out, we are left with a tremendous need to prove ourselves to be in the “right” camps, no matter how much ugly talk is needed to keep us there.

But why are we so easily divided into camps and switched on to Pack mode? Again, part of the answer is in the way that social media algorithms function. One of the big features of most social media is that everyone has a customized feed, one that is trying to constantly give us the particular things that will keep us engaged on the platform. But that means that nobody is seeing what anyone else is seeing, and we don’t what the differences are between what we are all (not) seeing:

A thought experiment can help expose how weird out situation has become. Can you imagine if Wikipedia showed different versions of entries to each person on the basis of a secret data profile of that person? Pro-Trump visitors would see an article completely different from the one shown to anti-Trump people, but there would be no accounting of all that was different or why.

This might sound dystopian or bizarre, but it’s similar to what you see in your … feed. Content is chosen and ads are customized to you, and you don’t know how much has been changed for you, or why. (75)

The result of this: our own worldviews are distorted (as we are fed more and more of the things that reinforce it, and less and less of what will challenge it), and we are less aware of other people’s worldviews. It becomes harder to understand those in opposite “camps” from us (whatever those camps may be) because what they are seeing and what we are seeing are getting farther and farther removed from each other. We are losing out on common experience; our capacity to imagine the world from others’ points of view is crippled. We are constantly switched into Pack mode because we seem crazy to each other; we seem crazy to each other because our feeds are robbing us of our ability to see the world from a perspective other than our own. It’s a vicious cycle, and what makes it worse is that “The degree of difference between what is shown to someone else and what I can guess is being shown is itself unknowable. The opacity of our times is even worse than it might be because the degree of opacity is itself opaque” (80).

So what do we do, now? Is social media an inveterate evil from which we should forever abstain? Lanier proposes that we should abstain — not forever, but for now:

Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. Smart people simply waited to buy paint until there was a safe version on sale. Similarly, smart people should delete their accounts until nontoxic varieties are available. (27)

I don’t know when nontoxic varieties will be available. I do know that Lanier has convinced me that opting out of most or all of my social media is a healthy choice in the mean time.

Babes in the Digital Woods

I’m a millennial — and older one, not quite a “digital native”, but close. We got the internet at home when I was eleven or twelve, and I got my first email address (hotmail, of course) shortly thereafter. My friend Fiona made the address for me since I didn’t know how to do it yet, and our class set off exploring the wonderful world of email, learning lessons as we went, like “anything you put in an email can be forwarded to anyone else” and “you really should change your password if your friends know it.” We discovered chat rooms (a/s/l?). We discovered Napster, and then Limewire, and debated the ethics of downloading music in our high school philosophy class. We discovered how easy it was to sign up our peers for spam email lists (sorry, Geoff). This was before Google Search had really taken off, so we Asked Jeeves — or just typed in URLs at random and hoped we landed somewhere interesting and not pornographic. We played Neopets. We forwarded chain emails that promised us an unexpected windfall or to reveal the name of our crush. In short, we were early adopters of the internet and all its wonders.

The pattern continued, of course. My generation used MySpace, Xanga, Livejournal, and other relics of the early digital age. I’ve been blogging off and on since 2003 — that’s a long time in internet terms. We sent gmail invitations to our friends, back when you needed one to sign up for an email address. And in the early 2000s, we got to college and university, received an official school email, and promptly signed up for Facebook. I started using Facebook in late 2005, about a year and a half after it launched. That was back when you needed an official school or work email address, or a personal invitation if you were still in high school. Our parents weren’t using it yet, and neither were our younger siblings. This was back before timeline, when users had “walls” where we could post. It was back before you could comment on posts, so if you wanted to follow a conversation you would have to flip back and forth between the walls of the people in question. Back then, every status you wrote had to begin with “[Name] is” and so we would write convoluted sentences to get around it: “Christine is saying ‘Good morning! to all of you!”

Gradually, all of these things changed. Facebook eventually opened itself up to any user over the age of 13 (or willing to input a fake birthday saying that’s what they were). Facebook finally got rid of the static “is” in our posts, and made it easier to comment on what other people had written. They launched timeline, which meant that you could find someone’s profile and very easily see all of their activity in one place, going back years, just by using your scroll-wheel (back then we were using wired mice, of course). The site went through the usual redesigns of its user interface, all of which were met with grumbling… but we still kept using it.

It was so easy, so friendly, so benign. We could tell our friends what we were thinking and doing, “check in” with Facebook so that they knew where on the earth we were, list our favourite media, “like” our favourite artists, look through each other’s vacation pictures, and on it went. We got older; we shared engagement and wedding pictures, pregnancy announcements, birth stories, baby pictures. We discovered memes. The rule of thumb for using the internet gradually morphed from “always stay anonymous” to “always use your real name”. We told Facebook when we started dating, and when we broke up. Our list of friends expanded wildly, starting with our university classmates and moving backwards in time to pick up our elementary school classmates, childhood friends we had lost track of, people with whom we used to share some aspect of a common life. We added our relatives and told Facebook exactly how we were related. We added our current and former coworkers, our coreligionists, members of our academic and social clubs. We shared posts, liked pages, sent messages.

We thought we were participating in a vast social network, but we were wrong. This wasn’t a social network. This was a social experiment, and we have been its unwitting subjects.

While we were using Facebook we were creating a free, immense dossier on ourselves, ripe for harvesting: our real names, our relationships and connections, our likes and dislikes, our real birth dates, our geographic locations, our political and religious affiliations, our purchases, the causes we supported, our hashtagged thoughts on a thousand different things, our social activities, our hobbies, our jobs, our milestone celebrations, our children. We became complicit in our own surveillance. And all of this data was being collected, collated, analysed, sold to advertisers, used to program powerful algorithms that increasingly controlled what we saw and not only how we used it, but how we felt about it all. It was designed to be addictive, to seduce us with those precious dopamine hits of likes and shares, to get us to give up all of this information without a second thought. We started receiving attention-eroding notifications whenever something happened — our phones dinging and urgent red icons popping up with every comment and tag — to get us to check, and check, and check the website throughout the course of our days. It’s not a coincidence that so many Silicon Valley insiders have backgrounds in behaviourism.

About a week ago I wrote a post about my growing discomfort with social media in general, and Facebook in particular. Since then I’ve been reading more, and I’ve decided to take the plunge. I’m deleting my Facebook account. Maybe you should think about deleting yours.

Not that Facebook makes it easy. I started clearing my profile out even before I made the decision to leave entirely: downloading any pictures I want, un-tagging myself from posts and photos, deleting albums, deleting my own status updates and shared articles, hiding things from my timeline. It’s taken many hours to do these things, even with the help of a chrome plug-in that will do it automatically. Deleting a post or untagging a photo takes several clicks. There is no way to do batch deletions — every post must be dealt with, one at a time, by hand. Facebook doesn’t show you everything in your timeline and so I’ve had to scroll through over and over again to make sure I’ve gotten everything. Frankly, it’s a pain in the butt. And I have zero doubts that it is a pain in the butt on purpose.  But I’m still going, and I suppose you can consider this post my #deletefacebook manifesto.

I’m not going today. I will need some time to comb through my contacts, to make sure that I have people’s email addresses and that they have mine. I don’t want to lose the genuine connections that have been maintained through this site — which is exactly the fear Facebook counts on, that we won’t be able to leave because of what we think we’ll miss out on. Well, last time I checked phone numbers and email still exist. We were all able to keep in touch with each other fifteen years ago through other means. We can do it again. I’ve downloaded a few news apps to my phone so that I won’t be relying on finding articles through my newsfeed. I’m not aiming to replace Facebook with an alternative social media app or account. I’m aiming to replace it with nothing. With email, with texting and phone calls, with personal conversations. Maybe some friendships will fall by the wayside. Maybe that’s ok.

So here’s the question: what difference is this going to make? To Facebook, not much of one. The site has over two billion users, it’s not going to feel me going. But I’m not doing this to try and affect Facebook. I’m doing this because of its effect on me, on my life, on the life of my family. I’m doing this because I believe this is the right thing for me to do, whether it ripples out into something larger or not. I’ve given over a decade of my life to Facebook, and it’s time for us to break up.

For further reading:

‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (The Guardian)

Be a pioneer — delete facebook (The Guardian)

#deletefacebook (techcrunch.com)

Commentary: #DeleteFacebook Is Just the Beginning. Here’s the Movement We Could See Next (Fortune.com)

#deletefacebook (trending on Twitter)

How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist (tristanharris.com)

Tech Companies Design Your Life, Here’s Why You Should Care (tristanharris.com)

Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’ (The Guardian)

In the Depths of the Digital Age (New York Review of Books)

Slowly leaving social media

Sometimes I feel like Facebook is the terrible boyfriend I just can’t bring myself to leave. We’ve split up now and again, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, but somehow we always end up back together. I don’t even like him that much anymore, but somehow his arguments seem convincing and we give it another go despite my misgivings. It’s a problem.

This is something I’ve been broadly thinking about for a while — way back in August 2017 I posted about smartphone use and what it seems to be doing to us. The technology itself is part of that picture, but what I’m coming to see is that social media is a huge piece of the puzzle. And we know this, right? The CEO of Facebook got hauled up in front of the US Senate to be grilled on things like privacy concerns. Facebook’s algorithms are geared to showing us whatever it thinks will keep us on the site the longest, whether that’s puppy memes or outrage-inducing fake news stories. The algorithm increases the opacity of the bubbles we live in, forming everyone a nice little echo chamber. Facebook is a hotbed for scams and urban legends. It gives us unrealistic pictures of how good everyone’s lives are compared to our own (seeing their highlight reel but living our B footage, as it were). There’s so much pressure to share more and more details of our personal lives — as if we haven’t already given out enough. And of course, we must remember that Facebook’s revenue is ad-driven; if we’re not paying for it, that’s because we are in some sense the product being sold.

My concerns are piling up:

… need I go on? (Facebook: “Baby, come on. Most of that stuff was years ago. Don’t hold a grudge. I’ll do better, I swear. You need me.”)

And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? We do need social media — or at least, we feel as if we do. It’s where I learn my friends’ big news: births and deaths, moves and graduations, marriages and divorces. It’s where I can share pictures of our kids with our extended families. It’s a place where we can connect to our donors when we’re fundraising. It’s an easy way to stay at least loosely in touch with people in the three cities I’ve left behind. It’s an easy way to connect and coordinate with people who live where I live now. I enjoy seeing what’s going on in the lives of people I know. And since I’m blogging, a post shared on facebook can go a long way in terms of boosting my traffic. These are all good and useful things.

I’m starting to ask myself, though — at what cost?

I’m concerned about the massive mine Facebook is for social engineering. If you had the patience to dig through my profile and timeline, you’d have my birthday; my mother’s maiden name; the name of my high school; the city and neighbourhood I grew up in; where I went to elementary school; when I graduated with my degrees and what they were in; my children’s full names and birthdates; my maiden name; the names of my extended family members and how we’re related; my political, religious, social, and academic interests; and probably two or three dozen other things I haven’t thought of yet. I mean, I’ve been using the site since 2005. It’s been a long time. There’s a lot on there.

I’m concerned about how very vested Facebook is in keeping me around as a product consumer. It’s notoriously difficult to permanently delete your account, especially since the words “permanent” and “delete” seem to mean different things in Facebook-land than they do to the rest of us.  Users who try to delete their profiles can accidentally re-activate/un-delete them by doing something like using their Facebook login to access another website. It can take up to three months to actually get all of your data off of Facebook’s servers.

I’m concerned about the way we — and I include myself in this, absolutely — share so freely and frequently about our children. My kids are too young to sign up for their own social media accounts, but what happens when they turn thirteen and find out that their entire lives have already been curated and displayed to their parents’ entire friends list? I try to be sensitive to what I’m putting up and not post anything that would be potentially embarrassing — and on the blog I don’t show their faces or even use their real names — but I know people who put up pictures of their kids crying, pictures of their kids doing foolish things, pictures of their kids naked. None of these children are consenting to any of this. Will they thank us for what we post? Somehow I doubt it.

Above all, I’m concerned about how reluctant I am to ditch Facebook, even considering all of the above. It’s hard. The social dimension of using or not using social media is very real, as this article from Vox points out:

This final issue with deleting Facebook is the hardest to quantify, but one that’s fundamentally true for most of us: If you delete Facebook, you lose touch in ways that have subtle but tangible emotional repercussions. Your aging Great-Aunt Sally will fret because she has one less way to keep track of you, your high school English teacher will be mad because you never write on his Facebook wall anymore, and your friend will be annoyed because you can no longer see the drama happening with his girlfriend’s ex. You’ll be annoyed because your other friend issued a general Facebook invite to her birthday party and you missed it.

And while the infuriating barrage of polarizing opinions that make Facebook so difficult for many of us to deal with will disappear, so will connections to people you didn’t realize you wanted to keep in touch with until you moved on.

For many, this complicated web of emotional stakes only exists on Facebook, because Facebook is the only social platform on the web where who we are now, in adulthood, converges with the past life we had as a teen or a college student. On Facebook, the many friend networks we’ve made along our paths through life converge and create a unique kind of emotional infrastructure that’s impossible for some people to fully separate from, because it means cutting off the only remaining ties to parts of their pasts, or to previous places they have lived, and even to some family members and friends. To many of the Facebook users you leave behind, walking away from Facebook will send a message that you don’t want to cultivate ties with them — because for many people, Facebook is the only place those ties can be cultivated.

Like it or not, this platform is how I connect with a lot of people. I want to leave… but also, I don’t. I resent its hold on me but I’m not ready to quit (even though anecdotal evidence suggests it would be a positive step and I wouldn’t really miss it). So I’m working on slowly decoupling myself. I installed a browser extension that blocks my newsfeed, so that I’ll have to check peoples’ individual profiles if I want to know what’s going on with them. I’ve been going back and deleting my posts, untagging myself in things, and hiding items on my timeline — all the way back to 2005. Facebook doesn’t make it any easier to delete individual content than it does your account: it all has to be done one at a time and if I sort my timeline by year it still takes up to four or five passes before I’ve seen all of the content that should be there. It’s taken hours so far and it will take more before I’m done. But… baby steps. Baby steps. We’ll see what happens.