The Harpy

Notes on Leaving Facebook

“Leaving Facebook is a bit like leaving New York — while not yet a classic essay genre, it’s really about leaving a version of who you were”

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The first thing I know I won’t miss about Facebook are the “Memories.” It’s entirely typical of Facebook to assimilate a universal human capacity into its brand by means of a simple capital letter. The feature is simple enough: It ports algorithmically determined “memorable” moments onto your feed — grinning photos, particularly well-received bon mots — and implores you to share them, thus regurgitating what you’ve already fed into its sleek blue maw. In my case, as a recent divorcée after nearly a decade of partnership, the cheap rush Memories are meant to offer has lately been a torment instead. Remember (photo of the two of us at New Year’s, fireworks sizzling into life in the black air) when you were married? Remember (photo of the two of us cleaning a park in north Manhattan, with shovels and big grins in the long grass) when your life was full of love? Things are different now, and for so many reasons I no longer want to offer my life, free of charge, to the site. Leaving Facebook is a bit like leaving New York — while not yet a classic essay genre, it’s really about leaving a version of who you were.

I’m not the only one to make this decision over the past week; for longtime observers of cybersecurity, it must be bemusing to watch masses of people seemingly awaken all at once to the scale of the mining and sale of their data. No doubt for many, the tipping point was the revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s shady machinations — helmed by the comically evil-sounding “Dr. Aleksandr Spectre,” a second-rate Bond villain by both name and profession. But for me, at least, the decision to leave Facebook came after years of attrition, the slow accumulation of frustration. For ages I had willingly handed my joy and my sorrow, my debit card information and my family tree, my work and endless photos of my face, to a company that was selling it piece by piece all along.

Facebook makes it remarkably difficult to remove your page, a fact that might confound the thousands that took to Twitter to voice their desire to #deleteFacebook. A plethora of guides to what ought to be a simple maneuver have cropped up in recent days. The easiest option is to “deactivate” one’s account — leaving it suspended in digital amber until the next login, all its data retained by the company. When you choose to deactivate, the site displays photos of what it’s calculated are your closest friends: “Are you sure? Your friends will miss you.” To fully delete one’s account is far harder. It is almost impossible to do so through simple clicks (in fact, it is not even possible to achieve through your account settings). Just above the deactivation option, however, is the “Legacy” button, wherein you can ask Facebook to delete your page after you die. When Facebook adopted the Timeline in 2011, it allowed users to retroactively plug in events that occurred in their lives before Mark Zuckerberg arrived on the scene: The first option is birth, accompanied by a large, faceless silhouette of an infant. First you’re born, then you post, and then you die. Only then can you leave.

My first status update was on September 9, 2006. I had just turned sixteen. Back then, each status was prefaced by “[Your name here] is” — before the status update evolved into a chaotic blank space for electoral musings and propaganda. On September 9, 2006, I was “electrified: deified: undenied.” I don’t know why, although my whole body was one electric charge that year: it was the first time I ever saw a penis, the first time I ever really, truly wanted to kill myself. My first kiss was still new. I adopted Facebook fairly early in the lifetime of the site for the same reason one starts frequenting a local café or takes up a hobby: My friends were there. Defenders of Facebook like to say that joining it is a choice, that the Terms of Service are readily available and transparent about the ways the company can help itself to your data. But this doesn’t consider the age of many adopters of the site. At the time, I might have been able to understand the terms of service, but I was not inclined to caution. The whole earth was ripe for me to bite; I wanted to fling myself into love and let it burn me alive. Sharing myself with a site was, if I saw it as a risk, one so mild I didn’t even think about it.

It’s ironic now to think that I entrusted Mark Zuckerberg with that degree of passion, and the language I used to convey it. The man has an almost stunning, rigid anti-charisma, like a wax doll cursed into life. In many ways, his public persona mirrors the way Facebook handles human sentiments: His smile seems like a simulacrum of a smile, just as Facebook traffics in slick but slightly unsettling approximations of, say, friendship, or celebration. In an age in which crisis communications have a lightning-fast turnaround, in no small part thanks to Facebook’s speedy delivery of information, it took him five days after the news broke to address the unwashed, profiled masses. In his post regarding the Cambridge Analytica crisis — which was, incidentally, nearly impossible to access unless you are an active user of Facebook — he neglected to use the words regret or apology or sorry. Instead, he blithely revealed the massive scale of the breach, both of data and of trust.

Per Zuckerberg’s own words, Facebook enabled apps to access vast quantities of social data about its users in 2007; the Spectre data theft, which would later be exploited by Cambridge Analytica, occurred in 2013; and in 2014, Facebook initiated restrictions on what data third-party apps could access. The post further announced an audit of precisely what information these apps had retained since — eleven years after the company had created the problem; four years after it attempted to solve it. (My archive informs me that I used to play a match-three game called “Farm Heroes Saga” — “Switch and match the collectable Cropsies in this farmtastic adventure!” — and I wonder how much data it harvested from me, as I was busy harvesting tiny digital onions with humanoid faces.) “I want to thank all of you who continue to believe in our mission,” Zuckerberg concluded. According to Facebook’s investor FAQ page, that mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook’s mission, in other words, is to get people to use Facebook, to remain in its close quarters, to give, and give, and give to these careless stewards of our tender hearts. It’s good at this mission; that’s why its market cap is still $463 billion, despite a brief dip last week.

Before you leave Facebook, the company gives you the option to download your archive — the sum total of all that you have posted, your messages and photos. In just over a decade, I accumulated 586.6 megabytes of curated life: enough for an hour of high-definition video, or an education, various youthful travels, a marriage, its shattering, and the slow, grim process of repair. I clicked through the photos: me during my first month at Harvard; in Yalta while it was still in Ukrainian hands; in Amsterdam, stoned and woozy on a canal boat; being proposed to, grinning wide as a cracked geode; nervous and bridal in the big white dress like a cruise ship; adopting a tortoise named Percy Shelly, et al.… What you give to Facebook is an accumulation of any number of tiny decisions, handing over the bright, irreplicable shards of your life in exchange for fleeting hits of dopamine. 

Let me not exaggerate my sacrifice: I post on Twitter to an astonishing and frankly irresponsible degree. But I deleted Facebook (and Instagram) with a twinge: I can no longer casually browse photos of my old friend Gahl’s two adorable daughters in Tel Aviv, or correspond with fellow writers for a women’s comedy outlet; I have excised passive consumption of the lives of people I know but don’t speak to daily, and I know myself too well to assume I will seek active knowledge of their whereabouts. In essence what is lost is not true connection but a sense of connectedness — the idea that we are all proximal in that sterile antechamber to life, that we could touch lives briefly if we so desired, even if we never, ever do. What won’t change, even if hordes flee, even if more depredations are revealed, is Facebook’s impact on the way we use language: so many words, flipped over like stones, have attained new meanings — timeline, status, like, memories, friendship, share, feed, heart. While I’m not one to quibble with the lexical laws of common usage, I would rather a heart be a muscle filled with the stuff of life; I would rather feed my companions steaming garlic bread and borscht on winter nights than watch from a distance as their lives scroll by.

 

The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.

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