To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit. So maybe, one day, people will stop using it.
John Lanchester’s long essay about Facebook in the London Review of Books has been getting shared a lot in my circles; Wired editor in chief Nicholas Thompson called it “the most intense, critical essay on Facebook that I’ve ever read.”
While it covers a lot of familiar ground (tl;dr: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”) Lanchester makes a couple of points that have been troubling me. One is the statement above, about Facebook use correlating negatively with happiness.
Lanchester cites a number of studies to support his point:
- American Journal of Epidemiology: ‘Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study’
- Computers in Human Behaviour: ‘Facebook Use, Envy and Depression among College Students: Is Facebooking Depressing?’
- Current Opinion in Psychiatry: ‘The Interplay between Facebook Use, Social Comparison, Envy and Depression’
- Plos One: ‘Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults’
- Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking: ‘The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being’
But here’s the question: If Facebook makes people unhappy, and the more they use it the unhappier they are, why does usage continue to grow? Not only are more people using it, a higher proportion are checking Facebook at least once a day.
My experience correlates with this: The more I use Facebook, the unhappier I am. And yet I keep returning to it: That’s where my friends are. It’s where organizations I belong to post useful information (about my children’s school, for instance).
Using social media makes me feel more connected, albeit unhappier. In a fragmentary suburban environment, with few opportunities to form and maintain long-term friendships; as a parent, with no time for a social life; as a full-time salaried worker and commuter whose job demands constant attention — with all of these conditions social media is often the only social interaction I get outside my family and work life.
This is why, despite occasionally signing off Facebook and Twitter, despite removing their apps and trying different ways to limit my access, despite trying to be mindful about my use of social media and its effects on my mood, I always come back.
Facebook offers a terrible bargain: It gives you the connectedness you crave, but it’s unfulfilling and leaves you wanting more. It’s like drinking Coke, or eating McDonald’s, except you don’t even have to pay for it. No wonder we guzzle it down, when all the evidence, and even our own eyes and hearts, show us how bad it is for us.
Which brings me to the second point I can’t get away from: Lanchester’s comments about how Facebook is effectively “the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in human history.”
What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.
I am looking for a way to use social media like Facebook that doesn’t make me feel like shit.
Amanda Scurti’s comic-essay on Twitter is a relevant read. She takes a hiatus but finds her way back to Twitter based on the creative communities she’s part of there, and the values they provide to her: Empathy, understanding, communication. She concludes that the secret is knowing when to disconnect, and using Twitter responsibly, particularly if you have a large following.
Scurti’s essay is thoughtful and hopeful but has an unsatisfying conclusion. For me, Twitter is somewhat less troubling than Facebook because Twitter is far less effective at surveillance, thanks largely to the ease with which people can create pseudonymous accounts. But I’ve found Twitter is just as mood-affecting as Facebook is, and I can’t say I’ve found the communities there to be particularly conducive to empathy and communication.
In short, I’m still looking for a way to share ideas, and stay connected with people I like, without feeling like shit.
In the meantime, I guess you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter.
Also published on Medium.