It takes a lot of guts to stick up for Facebook these days. Barely a week goes by when some new travesty the company committed bursts into the news cycle: Storing hundreds of millions of unencrypted passwords, providing unauthorized access to user data, or enabling discriminatory housing policies for example.
For this reason, I have much respect for my friend Kevin O’Keefe’s defense of the social media platform regarding my own railings against it. It takes a brave man to beat back the mob, and I’m just one of the many with a pitchfork in hand.
A year ago I left Facebook, which I chronicled in my blog post “Why I Left Facebook and Never Looked Back.” I described what once used to be my happy little place becoming an unenjoyable time-suck full of tribal political rhetoric and advertisements. However, as I laid out in my post, the biggest reason for my leaving Facebook was a lack of trust. I had poured my family photos, thoughts, relationships, and messages into that platform for six years only to find out that they went and sold my data to Cambridge Analytica.
In his rebuttal, Kevin sidestepped my ultimate reason for leaving—this betrayal of trust—and focused on my lack of enjoyment of my News Feed instead. Essentially, he argued that I reap what I sow, and if my friends, interests, and interactions on Facebook were better cultivated, I might be able to derive more value from the network. He added that I might be able to manipulate what The Wall Street Journal calls “some of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence known to humanity,” which at first glance, seems like a tall order.
Still, the News Feed algorithm does require input, so maybe Kevin is on to something. His idea intrigues me: Imagine if I started with a blank slate and could build a modified version of Facebook. I could friend only people who might provide personal or professional value, register interest in only those items I wish to feed the algorithm, and limit the type and amount of photo and video content I share.
So does it make sense to rejoin the platform with a stripped-down profile? Would I receive the same level of utility and enjoyment Kevin does?
It’s a tough call, as the platform still has much going against it. The time-suck issue is a real one. As Sean Parker, one of the original creators of Facebook, admits, the platform was designed to have addictive properties. The thinking behind the application was “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
Parker continues, “That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
More devastating are the results from studies of Facebook’s effect on mental health. Documented studies, some even cited by Facebook itself, paint a picture that the social network is not a happy place. It fosters FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” It enables “social comparison,” in which people, especially those under 30, compare their lives unfavorably to others. Lurking and scrolling, the activity favored by non-posters, is shown to make people unhappy.
With the prevalence of depression in the legal profession, you have a bad mix. As Rocket Matter wrote in our investigative series on mental health in the legal profession, “Lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs. More than a quarter of all lawyers suffer from depression. Many deal with addiction.”
If you have a profession where, statistically speaking, people are prone to depression, in my opinion it may not be advisable to use a tool which is known to exacerbate the condition. Perhaps advising lawyers to invest time on Facebook should be paired with a caveat: They deserve to know the mental health link.
The issue of trust is not going away either. Since I decided to leave Facebook, it was revealed that the company was storing hundreds of millions of passwords in clear text. For years. For those of us in the software industry, the scale of this lack of security responsibility defies belief. To put this in the context of a law firm, imagine leaving your trust account checkbook in a mall’s food court every day for years on end. It’s a mind-bogglingly foolish thing to do with potentially horrible repercussions.
On the other hand, Facebook is trying to clean up its act. It recently announced a campaign to battle vaccine misinformation. It banned white nationalist content from its platform. In a fundamental shift to the platform, Zuckerberg last month announced that communication would be more private, angling for revenue from a payments platform instead of from advertisements. All communication is to be encrypted and unreadable, even to the employees at the company. Facebook is reacting and radically changing.
Back to my dilemma: Does it make sense to try Facebook again, with a Larry-lite profile? All of my hang-ups aside, I’m willing to try it on a limited basis. I’m curious to see if Kevin is correct in that I can manipulate the algorithms. Plus, lately I’ve had a lot of success driving business through LinkedIn, and in the name of experimentation, I’m game to start from scratch and see what I’m able to drum up on Facebook. Also, I achingly miss my interactions with certain friends (you know who you are).
There are definitely advantages to using social media, and I’ll guardedly dip my toes back in the Facebook waters. But Facebook is not all sunshine and roses and comes with some serious warts. Will I trust the platform? No. Will I recognize it’s addictive and soul-crushing properties and attempt to sidestep them? Yes.