How Facebook has become too hard to leave, and why that should worry us all

My high school had a program called Big Brothers. The central goal of Big Brothers is that an upperclassman in good standing with the school guides a group of four or five freshmen through the year. The first piece of advice my Big Brother gave me in the fall of 2008 was to get on Facebook. I didn’t. I didn’t join the network for almost a year — I waited until the fall of 2009.

Seduced by the allure of connecting with those from whom I desperately sought approval, I joined Facebook and uploaded as many pictures as I could of myself at the San Diego Zoo. Those pictures have since been deleted. Actually, a lot has been deleted from my Facebook over the years. For better or for worse, I, like many of my peers, have put significant energy into curating my Facebook presence.

Facebook has become more than just a tool to convey personality, though. In the 10 years it has existed, Facebook has become something more than integral to us. Facebook has become culture. Facebook has become a petri dish of society, a microcosm, a mirror of our human interactions. Facebook is the subject of movies, books, essays and art.

Facebook, more so than any other social media platform, has permeated our day-to-day existence. Spotify, Instagram and Tinder are among the many applications whose performance and accessibility are contingent on one’s Facebook presence. Any blog or website worth a damn has seamlessly coded in the ability to natively allow the reader to like and/or share an article.

All of this is nothing new, though. Most people are aware of the power Facebook has been able to garner. Most people are aware of the privacy violations, the questionable stance on intellectual property, the monetization of data, the abuses of information and, most importantly, the experiments in which users are the guinea pigs.

More disturbing is that fact that, like a Google search, a user’s Facebook news feed is not ranked in chronological order. Rather, the posts that are displayed are determined by an algorithm that interprets (read: decides) what a given user is most likely to interact with and appreciate.

Enter Nick Briz, a renowned new media artist based in Chicago. A man who recently boiled his discontent with Facebook into four succinct points and published them alongside a manual on how to remove yourself from Facebook in a way that does not inhibit one’s functionality. The end result, How To/Why Leave Facebook, is nothing short of revolutionary.

The video essay format in which he delivers his thesis, complete with screen grabs and relevant images, raises the bar for online academia. The entire presentation is impressive — the aesthetic pertains to and enhances the message, the images serve as a visual aid and do a large part to reinforce the validity of his arguments. The performance is obviously rehearsed, but overall casual. In the video essay, Briz has found a format that presents information in a way that is more urgent and personal than text on a screen, without ever coming off as twee or kitsch.

Briz presents his argument in a manner that is uncharacteristically coherent for those who dissent from the tyranny of social media. Instead of the social media luddites who preach to the choir on message boards and pseudo-anarchist forums, Briz presents an answer to the problem — which is itself impressive.

The hacks he devised for this purpose remove all traces of activity from Facebook, and as an added bonus, they save a carbon copy of the user’s wall and photos for the sake of sentimentality.

The best part of Briz’s solution, though, is not the digital keepsakes it provides or the complete purge it offers, but rather the performance nature of it all. In order to follow through with the process, a person has to manually input the codes into their browser. Movement, action, force and effort all have to be put into the process. As a result, the shiny clean slate is on display for everyone. The account still exists and people can (and will) see what has happened. When all is said and done, the remaining profile has become a ghost town, visible to all — similar to the ghost towns that litter the western U.S., reminding us all of the Manifest Destiny of our ancestors.

“How To/Why Leave Facebook” should serve as a wake-up call to the population of the Internet. Not enough people are talking about data and who collects it, where it goes, what it is used for, who can see it and why they are collecting it in the first place. Most are kept in the dark, a darkness penetrated only by the light coming from their LED screens. The sole white light is enough to keep them complacent, and to keep them from asking questions.

One year, while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, my family went to a trout farm, caught some fish and then ate them. I sat by the edge of the water, naming the fish and watching them swim around the man-made pond with the type of awe that only a child can muster. My father pulled me back from the water, and told me that it is harder to kill something once you have a personal relationship with it.

I don’t think I can quit Facebook despite really wanting to. Nick Briz has given me the tools and the keys in my hands. Since the first time I watched “How To/Why Leave Facebook,” the idea of a Facebook-free existence has been festering in my mind. I yearn for the day when my I could flip any device to the “off” position until I chose to re-engage it.

The television, off.

The sound system, off.

The light switch, off.

Technology and all of its devices are no longer inanimate. There is no “off” for Facebook. As Nick Briz reminds us, there is no deleting Facebook altogether. Our devices know us, they respond to us and they adapt to us. They have a name.

 

Reach the columnist at jpbohann@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @JordanBohannon

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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