Facebook, you’re like a bad boyfriend and it’s about time we break up
I hate to have to tell you this, Facebook, but you’re turning into quite the creepy boyfriend.
At first, I thought you just wanted me to be happy, showing me joyful pictures of friends’ new books and babies. You let me reach out to people who were grieving far away. I thought you liked me because I once posted a picture of a pea that looked like George Burns. I thought we had shared goals. I was wrong.
The first hint of something suspicious came when I tried to post a photo from my new phone, and you told me that I would have to give you access to all the photos on my phone. Um, no. I’m not letting you read my diary, either. Then you wanted me to “wave” to strangers, and to buy ads to attract visitors to the ghost town that is my author’s page. Next thing I know, you’re going to be asking my colleagues where I went after work.
I began to suspect that, like Morris Townsend in the novel Washington Square, you did not love me for me, but for my father’s fortune. Since my father didn’t have a fortune, what you wanted, obviously, were my eyes, which fuel my desires, which control my wallet.
When the ads appearing on my page reflected my search history with terrifying accuracy – Erase those dark circles! Buy these Chelsea boots! – I realized I may have let a stalker into the house. And when you would never introduce me to the mysterious algorithms you liked so much, I started to worry. I started to worry about all the other people you were dating, and what you were telling them.
This week, for instance, I understood from the website ProPublica that those algorithms actually allowed advertisers to target anti-Semites with their ads. Until ProPublica brought it to light, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews” or “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’ ” Yeah, that’s profoundly troubling. It’s not something you mentioned when we started dating.
You also didn’t mention the Russian troll farms buying advertising during the U.S. presidential election. Don’t play innocent – you know which troll farms! You told congressional investigators about the $100,000 that Kremlin-affiliated Russians spent buying ads targeted at specific demographics, in violation of your own policies.
I didn’t listen to the people who criticized you. They didn’t understand our love. I didn’t follow the lead of my Facebookshunning siblings, or the people who worried about privacy or the dissemination of counterfeit news. I believed you when you said you were in the business of connecting people. I gave away the milk away for free. Until, that is, the warnings became too loud and pervasive to ignore.
When everyone was sharing John Lanchester’s essay about you in the London Review of Books, I clicked on the link. He wrote, “Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. …
“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.”
And then I read Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants, in which he compares Facebook users to “renters willingly making extensive improvements to their landlord’s property, even as they were made to look at advertisements.” He says you’re in the business of “attention arbitrage.” I’m slowly beginning to understand what this means, and it was not in your dating profile.
Can it all be true? It can’t be true. I thought you just wanted to see pictures of our kids on their first day of school. I thought the “like” button was a friendly diversion, not a heatseeking missile aimed at my money and my vote.
At least that’s what I would have said a couple of years ago, before the Brexit referendum and the U.S. election. Now, everyone’s talking about how you and your micro-targeted ads and selective news feeds are actually driving people further apart, socially and politically. The Information Commissioner in Britain is investigating whether politicians and advocacy groups might have broken British laws in their mining of voters’ data from you and other social-media platforms.
It’s not easy for me to tell you these things. And no, it’s not over forever. Maybe you’ll become slightly less creepy, and our relationship won’t resemble one of those movies released around Halloween. Besides, you’ve got a dating pool of two billion people, so you and your algorithms won’t be lonely.
I’m sure I’ll be back one day, when my kids do something funny or I’ve got a book to flog. That’s just human nature. In the meantime, though, I think I should see other platforms.