When I think about leaving Facebook, I'm reminded of the breakup of my last serious relationship before I met my wife.
It was back in the late 80's, and I was living with a girl named Elizabeth. We shared a grungy apartment in suburban Connecticut, where I worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant. One warm summer evening, as we reflected on our inevitable marriage and children, Elizabeth casually mentioned that she'd been having an affair with her girlfriend in New York, whom she visited from time to time. She apologized and she cried. She swore that it was not serious. She assured me that it wasn't about me, it was about her. She wanted to make it work.
I was tempted, oh so tempted, to try. I had so much invested in her. I'd moved across the country, from my home in Alaska, to try to win her. I told people, including her and myself, that we were in love. We lived together. We played house. I wanted to make my brain forget what my eyes had seen in the darkness that night as she revealed her true and deeper self . But I couldn't do it. Four weeks later, I drove my pickup truck westward out of Connecticut, leaving behind my coveted Courant job, the dumpy apartment, and Elizabeth. I never saw her again.
Of course, Facebook means nothing to me today compared to what Elizabeth meant to my younger self. Yet I find an emotional resonance in my decision to sign off once and for all. In both cases, the dividing line - the moment of revelation - was clear. With Elizabeth, it was as though she'd pulled a pin and dropped a grenade between us. With Facebook, though, it's more a matter of choosing to whether or not to see what's right in front of me, what is in front of us all really, and then making a moral call.
I've long been in denial about the way that Facebook poisons my life. It is a streaming carnival of self-absorption, gossip, banality, and tribalism. It is the endless bag of greasy French fries, with each bite of ego-gratification, outrage, lust, envy, and tragedy inviting you to try just one more. In other words, it's damn near irresistible. I've hated myself for the too-many hours I have lost in taking the bait. I've hated how it's left me feeling empty and, ironically, starkly alone after too many swipes of the endless feed.
It might have gone on like this forever. But recently a line was crossed that I cannot ignore. The line has a name on it: Cambridge Analytica.
For those who aren't fully aware of what Cambridge Analytica is, how Facebook is involved, and what it means for the fucked up mess we're all in as a nation, I can relate. It is an intensely complex mess. Understanding it requires a fair grounding in the technical and legal workings of the social media platform, as well as the politics and economics that surround it. For anyone who wants to understand it, I recommend you go here, here, here, and here. For those who don't want to do all that work, here's my take:
Cambridge Analytica is a legal but slimy company that helps ugly political outfits and candidates win elections by creating shady modern-day propaganda campaigns. Yes, of course, the Trump campaign was involved. Bigly. Steve Bannon was on their board.
Facebook makes its money by helping its customers deliver targeted ads, which are created by sifting through endless reams of sensitive information the company collects about people such as you and me. (In case you missed the nuance: You and I are NOT the customers of Facebook. We're the suckers, the marks, the targets. The customers are advertisers - such as, you know, the Trump campaign).
Cambridge Analytica hooked up with Facebook in the run up to the 2016 election. They managed to get detailed personal information from more than 50,000,000 (that's *fifty million*) Facebook users. You and me, bucko. And they got it without any of our permission or knowledge. And then they used all that personal stuff as part of the grand, cynical, depressingly effective and likely treasonous GOP campaign that ultimately threw the election to a racist, moronic, Cheeto-colored narcissist by a mere 70,000 votes.
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are shocked. Shocked! Each says their company did nothing really wrong, that it was the other guy's fault. And gosh, what a shame! Sad face! Predictably, it is becoming clear that, despite much gnashing of teeth, no one is going to pay any real price for all of this outlandish behavior. Except us, of course.
It is profoundly sad to write these words. It's like the script to a nightmare movie, a dystopian vision of evil triumphing over goodness that I somehow thought would never be possible (even notwithstanding the corruption that enabled George W. Bush's installation in 2000). Yet, this is no longer about simple partisan warfare: Republican's beating Democrats. It’s about justice prevailing over criminality. It's about light vs. darkness. It's about the Americans vs. the Nazis, or at least what we used to think being "American" meant.
Deep breaths. It's happening. Can't change that. The issue now is: What to do?
For my part, there's not much I can do in any small moment. I can vote against Republicans, of course. Problem is: for whom? I can only describe the current crop of Democrats as an impotent gaggle of chuckleheads, every ounce as corrupt and worthless as their GOP counterparts. Just look at them: even today, they *still* refuse to fight - to actually stand up and fight, with courage and vision and bet-my-career barnstorming against a president who is widely hated and cartoonishly inept. Profiles in capitulation.
This means we're on our own. At least until something compelling comes along that we can rally around. And so we have to take the small, symbolic actions available to us as we can. And this is why I'm leaving Facebook. I know, it's not much more than moving a grain of sand across a beach. But I don't think it's nothing. Here's why.
Leaving Facebook means no longer participating in an economic model that generates profit through exploitation. When you're a Facebook member, you're not the customer. You're the product. It's tantamount to allowing yourself to be prostituted. When you share your life on Facebook, you consent to having many of your most meaningful and significant moments and values to be bought and sold like chattel, in a marketplace you never see, benefiting people you may well loathe and rightly oppose. As we are discovering, in the emergence of Trump and the corrosive cultural tribalism that invites people to regard one another as subhuman, Facebook's cynical and gleefully unbridled business model creates a climate of moral vacuity that can only lead to disaster. It need not be this way. Our birth announcements, our reflections on death and loss, our pronouncements of love and pride and joy -- the things that have true value in our lives -- these deserve a more worthy forum than Facebook. Why do we pimp them out? Because it's "free"?
Leaving Facebook means no longer generating wealth for the people who created and run Facebook. Let's not forget, the Cambridge Analytica mess might not even be the most egregious sin committed by Facebook in giving us the Trump administration. Mark Zuckerberg doesn't even deny that his company accepted millions of ad dollars in rubles -- rubles!-- from shadowy Russian organizations scheming to elect Cadet Bonespurs. After every disaster, Mr. Z shows up like a spoiled rich kid who swears he never meant to make a mess and for sure he'll clean it up. For me, a longtime Microsoft vet who remembers watching my employer suffer (rightly) through an antitrust trial that nearly sunk the company, this is incredible. Microsoft was found guilty and was then extorted -- I'm sorry, was required to pay legal penalties -- of more than $20 billion to governments around the world, for the heinous crime of forcing people to take Internet Explorer with Microsoft Windows (the horror!), Facebook, as much as Fox News or any other corporate player, is responsible for our current shitscape of propaganda and manipulation, one which threatens our democracy and the very notion of what I like to think of as American. It's not that Facebook is ideological. They're just greedy, arrogant, and lazy. it is a sad irony that they continue to skate by with nary a slap on the wrist. I cannot participate in anything that rewards them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, leaving Facebook means I will be required to enjoy more of my actual life. I will be freed from the tyranny of selfies, political rants, vacation pics, fake news, photographs of food, images of demagogues, people showing off their body parts, dog videos, cat videos, baby videos, fail videos, click bait, and go-fund-me campaigns. I will be forced to find more legitimate ways to connect with the people I care about. I will need to patronize news organizations to remain updated on what's really happening in the world. I will be required to read books, take walks, pet cats, and be productive. Or, just sit and do nothing. I will more readily acquaint myself with the necessity to put down my phone, make eye contact, and talk to the actual human being sitting across from me. It's not Facebook's fault that I've so often fallen under the spell of their sugary offerings. It's been my choice to indulge, and now it's my choice to depart.
I doubt that anyone will miss me. I have never been an active poster or participant. Something in the nature of the experience has always triggered a kind of subterranean siren, a sense that the risk of exposing anything even remotely edgy will court unwanted consequences. So, mostly, I've been a voyeur. Leaving now does not mean severing any actual connections. Anyone who knows, likes, and/or loves me already has access to me. People who care about what I'm up to can find me here on this blog or go to my company website. Or they can write me mail, call me or, God forbid, come see me in person. Radical stuff, I know.
All that said, though, I admit there are things I will miss. I'll miss the little ego blush I get when someone Likes or comments on the few things I ever do post. I'll miss the occasional photo or update from someone out of my past, whom I no longer have any real contact with. I'll miss counting how many people wish me a happy birthday every year, and wondering that so many people even take the time. And I'll miss the .1 percent of posts that actually astound, enlighten, or inspire me, that actually improve my life a little bit. Yes, I'll miss it. But I may yet survive.
Every now and then, I wonder what became of my old flame Elizabeth. I tried one time to look her up on Facebook, years ago. But her name did not immediately pop up, and I took that as a sign to leave it alone. Now, when I think of her, it's mostly in gratitude. I'm glad she blew it all up. It was probably one of her all-time best moves. But I'm equally glad that I was strong enough to walk away. Sometimes, when a line gets crossed, that's the only choice to make, despite the loss.