Faustian Facebook: Debating Deleting One's Profile in the Wake of Cambridge Analytica
"Really? You're not on The Facebook? I figured someone like you would totally be on that!"
It was the fall of 2004 and my friend J.W. and I were on our way to an off-campus lunch during our sophomore year of college. It was a time when technology was altering the very landscape of not only our own education but also that of our institution of higher learning. This was the first year that our campus had this new, innovative "wireless" technology that allowed us to use our school-issued IBM ThinkPad computers in places without having to hook up an Ethernet cable. Despite being able to now lay out in the quad and surf the 'net, our online lives remained insular. Outside of having access to an internal campus directory of names and faces, we didn't have any real way to connect with those outside of our small, liberal arts community.
With The Facebook, that all changed.
Our college was one of the first two-dozen college campuses to gain access to this new website. For those who have seen The Social Network, you'll recall that the early strategy was to provide The Facebook to colleges and universities surrounding those that they identified as a top priority. My college fit this bill as we were located in a state with two prominent state colleges and an elite private university within 100 miles. Therefore, we were ripe for the picking. My first "friend" on The Facebook was one of my best friends who just happened to be a student at Harvard College, ground zero for The Facebook. It took several months, but eventually, I was able to find my high school friends from all the state colleges and universities that they were attending.
My own early experiences with The Facebook were rudimentary. You were extremely limited as to what you could do. You could "friend" people. You could "poke" them, which had no real purpose other than simply being an online game of tag between two people. You could update your "status" by filling in a sentence as to how you were feeling on any particular day. You also could join groups based on your particular interest or hobby. These groups ranged from anything to fans of musicians, celebrities, or sports teams to finding those who shared your same political affiliation to those who simply wanted to express admiration for a well-liked professor. By the end of that first year, the phrase "add me on The Facebook" became an invitation to get to know someone beyond that person we saw in the classroom or at the evening social events on campus.
The next year, Facebook (which dropped The from its title) added the ability to upload photos. This added a new dynamic in that not only could we hear about what our friends were doing but we could see it. Social events, spring breaks, summer jobs, and yes, even our restaurant food became fair game to share online. Whereas our parents would make photo albums to eventually share at family reunions, millennials now had a way to instantly share our adventures with the world. For those of us who spent time abroad, it was a way to share our travels with friends and family back home. By spreading Facebook beyond college campuses, our parents and extended family were now able to join the site and see what their hard-earned money was going towards. For those of us who used college to experiment in some questionable ways, there became a question as to what kind of photos we really wanted to share with all our friends and family online. This was a time before employers would seek out Facebook to judge their potential new employees.
After graduation, Facebook essentially became a giant Yellow Pages for millennials. As we began our professional lives, we used Facebook to connect with those in our new city through a number of groups in the area. We asked for recommendations on auto mechanics, barbershops, parks, and public transportation. If we traveled somewhere for business or pleasure we had a built-in way to see if we knew anybody in that area. For our jobs, we had a way to reach out to those in our profession to share resources. For those of us pursuing graduate degrees, we had a way to connect with our cohort outside of an academic setting. And for those in the military, they now had a way to connect with their loved ones despite being half a world away.
Lastly, as millennials became settled in their homes and professional lives, they were able to share with the world the birth and early lives of their children. We often joke that our Facebook timelines are now littered with pets and baby pictures, but this is not far from the truth. Looking on anyone's timeline, one can see an equal number of family and friends commenting on someone's latest family Christmas, Halloween, or Easter pictures and videos. Family photo albums have now become instantaneous and there actually exists a sense of needing to apologize if someone posts their family vacation pictures a week or more after the vacation has occurred. From hospitals to holidays, new millennial parents have shared their most precious family moments with the world through Facebook and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
And yet, maybe it should.
As news has come out over the past two weeks regarding Facebook's role in helping Cambridge Analytica manipulate the 2016 presidential election, there has been much discussion as to whether or not to delete one's Facebook account. Actor Will Ferrell deleted his. Cher deleted hers. Elon Musk deleted the Tesla and Space X Facebook pages. Even Playboy has joined the fray and has deleted their Facebook page. There have been growing calls for others to do so as well. It feels as if this might be the breaking point where Facebook finally loses out on its stranglehold on social media.
So then why haven't I deleted my own Facebook profile?
Like many millennials, I am torn about whether or not to delete my profile. It has been a consistent part of my life for the past 13 years for better and for worse. I have been able to stay connected with J.W. and my college friends for over a decade. I have watched my unofficial nephews and nieces grow up and start to attend their first public schools. I have reached out to friends and have been received as a guest on my cross-country travels. I have received recommendations and resources from those in both my personal and professional networks. And I have been able to stay connected with my extended family, with members both on the opposite coast as well as those living and working outside the country.
But I also have seen the ugly side of Facebook that they brought on themselves by partnering with Cambridge Analytica and their unsolicited sharing of our private information. After being part of a manipulative Project Veritas video, two former high school classmates were able to find and message me on Facebook. One chose to ridicule me while another one sent me an expletive-filled message that apparently was written without the approval of his nine-year-old stepdaughter. I've also had someone use my phone number to access my Facebook profile, despite personally having made my number private to only myself. Both of these events, occurring within a year of each other, gave me severe pause about whether or not to continue with Facebook.
The need to stay connected arises due to the generational pendulum swing that inevitably occurs. As millennials, we are the first generation to grow up online. Communicating with our friends online has been something we have been doing since elementary school. Facebook was a natural evolution between direct messaging services like AOL Instant Messenger and internal online school directories. This desire to stay connected to our friends contrasts greatly with our parents' generation that frequently goes months, if not years, without speaking with some of their best friends. As a millennial, I was always perplexed with my parents' personal phone book when they hardly, if ever, seemed to call their friends. Growing up, I could never imagine not speaking with my best friends for years at a time.
But as much as there is that desire to stay connected, there's also a troubling sense of oversharing, specifically when it comes to the lives of our children. As someone who does not have children yet, I am extremely leery of one day having to decide with my partner if it is appropriate to share some of our children's most intimate moments online without their permission. I imagine a difficult conversation ten years later when we have to explain to our children why all of our friends have seen their embarrassing photos or videos that we thought were "cute" but that they felt should have never been shared without their consent. Whereas we once only shared baby pictures for a senior high school yearbook, we now are sharing them on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Since it has not been studied, there's no telling what kind of psychological damage we are doing to our children by essentially raising them in a Truman Show-style setting with unfiltered and unedited access to their daily lives.
I was a victim of a heinous Russian cyber attack. We all were. And Facebook let it happen. They willingly subverted our democracy and sold it to the highest bidder. Whereas Mark Zuckerberg once intended his social network to bring people closer together, it now has driven us apart by instilling a puppet, wannabe Fascist dictator whose tiny hands on the nuclear button threaten to kill us all. His social network was swarmed with foreign adversaries who purposefully manipulated the system to create chaos and discord among Democratic voters and who established unverified social groups and events while simultaneously sharing intentionally false and malicious information. After nearly 14 years, this was what the Facebook I grew up with has ultimately become.
But to quit Facebook cold turkey will require a concerted effort to not only disconnect from the site but also to find a way to stay engaged with my friends and family. I had some close friends in high school and college that I have simply lost touch with because they are not on social media. It has become millennials' go-to method of connecting. It allows us to reconnect with friends in person after several years and feeling like we haven't missed a beat. It allows us to see family and comment on their most recent vacation. It allows us to not only see our friends' children but to also learn their names, their mannerisms, and their interests before we ever meet them in person. Taking away all this information would be quite an adjustment and one that I am not sure I am able to make right away.
Communication always advances. For 13 years, Facebook brought the world closer together. It brought my world and the world of my peers closer together. In some cases, we may be thousands of miles away but Facebook has shrunken that time and distance in unprecedented ways. It has been a near-daily part of my life whether it has been a simple check-in to see birthdays or to share a humorous link or to reach out to a community group or member for my job. This is not simply a site I use for fun, but rather one that has become an indispensable part of my life. However, knowing that the site served as a vehicle to attack and subvert our democracy makes it extremely painful to now use. One deleted profile won't undo the unprecedented damage that Facebook has caused our country and our planet. The question now becomes whether I, in good conscience, can continue to use a site that has simultaneously given me so much and has taken so much away.
And it is a question that I still, to this day, cannot answer.
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