Why and how to quit Facebook

You're addicted to Facebook, most likely.

It's alright to admit that. A lot of us are addicted. I was addicted, too. After all, it's one of the most popular websites on the Internet. It's literally how we socialize when we're not physically with our friends.

In 2013, I wrote a brief blog post about why I thought Facebook was here to stay. Two years later, it's still here, but my opinions have changed. I'm no longer happy that it's still relevant. In fact, I haven't been on it for the last month, and I've found myself significantly happier as a result. In this essay, I argue that you should consider quitting cold turkey as well.

I will organize this essay by first explaining what drove me away from Facebook, then telling you some positive and negative consequences of my abstinence, and finally reflecting on the state of the website in 2015.

Before we begin, some demographic information about me: I am a 22-year-old recent college graduate and soon-to-be software engineer. I have been a Facebook user since the summer of 2007, which was the summer before I began high school. I've grown up with the website and seen my friends' usage habits change over time. I make no promises that you can relate to these arguments if you are substantially different from me demographically.

Why I don't enjoy Facebook anymore

Humblebrags and actual brags

As I alluded to in my previous blog post, by 2013, my friends had moved away from over-sharing themselves on Facebook for fear of looking desperate for attention. They are now pickier with what they post. Instead of making several updates a day, which would give a pretty accurate cross-section of their lives, they only post significant accomplishments—travel plans, job offers, awards from governing bodies, athletic accomplishments, good grades.

When we see nothing but "look at how sick my life is" posts, this honestly makes Facebook a pretty miserable place to be around. Why? Because when every single post you see is either an explicit brag or an implicit brag, it is easy to develop an inferiority complex. "Look at what everyone else is doing with their lives while I'm sitting here browsing Facebook aimlessly." (I'm not immune to this, either. I made three status updates in the last year, and they covered my travel plans, job offer, and college graduation.) Our Facebook friends (with a couple of exceptions) are not celebrities. They're standard people whose lives are generally comparable to ours. We expect positive press out of celebrities, and that's why we like following them. However, we expect our friends to be grounded, so when we get an inaccurate portrayal of their lives on social media, we feel negatively.

How do I know it's not just me who feels this way? The University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, had a campus discussion in 2014, in light of its suicide cluster, about the link between Facebook and depression. Many people share this sentiment. In response, some Penn students briefly changed their Facebook profile photos to be ugly or unflattering, symbolically making Facebook a more realistic representation of themselves. [1] Yet 18 months after that, we've made no actual progress toward fixing this. Facebook is still a depressing place to be.

Don't get me wrong and think that I am some kind of sadist who wishes that his peers all be unemployed and miserable. I absolutely love it when I meet up with an old friend for coffee and hear about all of the great things that they're doing with their life. It makes me warm and happy to hear that a high school friend who wasn't too motivated back then turned things around and made the dean's list at their university, and it makes me proud to share an alma mater with dedicated and ambitious peers who can land incredibly prestigious job offers.

Going to Facebook with this news does make sense. Since people don't talk to their entire social circle regularly, using Facebook to share that information is a more efficient way to spread the word. I get it, I really do.

However, the underlying issue is that emotional highs require emotional lows to be effective. That job offer feels so good because of the hard work you put in to network, study, and prepare. That post-graduation trip feels so good because it vindicates all of the all-nighters you pulled. And the Facebook posts about these great things would ring genuine and true if they weren't the only posts I saw anymore. There's no more pathos counterweight to balance things.

Polarized political opinions

Something else that will bring people out of the woodwork is politics. Man, people love broadcasting their political views on Facebook. I use the verb 'broadcast' here because there isn't really a discourse or a back-and-forth anymore. When some event happens that might have political consequences or can be interpreted to further legitimize someone's personal beliefs, you can expect to read a brief status update asserting as much, you can expect to see several comments of agreement, and you can expect to see corresponding status updates from people who hold an opposing view. You certainly shouldn't expect to see an attempt at having a discussion. We've become so obsessed with cultivating our Facebook image that we wouldn't want all 1,000 of our friends to see us concede pieces of our argument to somebody else. So instead, we throw around taglines, slogans, and truisms. These just encourage misunderstanding and mistreatment of others.

One of my friends literally unfriended someone because they held different views on the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore.

That is not reasoned debate; that is the group polarization effect.

Again, I feel the need to proactively defend myself. I am explicitly not complaining about diversity of political opinions. I love a civil discussion about politics, and I expose myself to differing viewpoints in print media. I am explicitly not making this a Democratic versus Republican issue, either. Neither party is ideologically consistent, and even worse than that, their platforms provide an excuse to blindly form an opinion. No, the heart of my complaint here is that I hate seeing people turn a national tragedy into a cheap political point.

This is not at all a new phenomenon; in 1999, people abused the Columbine school shooting to argue both for and against gun control. We saw the same thing last year with the Ferguson controversy on police brutality, and several weeks ago with the Charleston shooting on both the gun control issue and the Confederate flag issue. I believe that this kind of polarization quickly devolves into an us-versus-them form of politics, which I purposefully choose to avoid. Combatant politics are the lowest kind of politics. It encourages its participants to cling to their party platform of choice like loyal fans of a baseball team, which prevents them from ever considering an alternate view. That's why I don't watch mainstream news channels on TV, and that's why I no longer like to use Facebook as a political forum.

Armchair activism

I absolutely abhor armchair activism. I have been an outspoken critic of Kony 2012, the ice bucket challenge, and the like. Now, these aren't bad things by themselves. An individual donating to the ALS Association is a good thing. I admire that someone can be sufficiently moved by Obergefell v. Hodges that they change their Facebook profile photo. [2]

It simply worries me that we as a society do not help our causes based on our own volition anymore, instead needing immense social pressure to do so. It's easy to argue, "Who cares why they donated money? At the end of the day, they donated money." However, I'm not sure that the ends always justify the means. How many people donated to the fraudulent Kony 2012 cause? Wouldn't that have been avoided if people simply had one or two philanthropies that they donated to annually, philanthropies that were actually more meaningful to them than "I read a Facebook post about it"? Isn't it slightly disturbing that a single organization's marketing department is responsible for fully dictating your philanthropic efforts?

Moreover, this sort of armchair activism lacks permanence and feels cheap. Participants often feel like they have doled their one helping of aid—whether they changed their profile picture, shared a post, or actually donated money. This is inauthentic. The whole point of philanthropy is that it is not a box you check off. It is a social obligation that you fulfill authentically based on your own beliefs, not for external validation.

Again, the issue is in the aggregate. I will never criticize any one person for deciding that they haven't done enough social impact and using one of these movements to fix that. I'm simply remorseful that we need the movements in the first place. And since Facebook is a breeding ground for these movements, they don't make my experience on the website any better.

Having seen these three grievances play out over and over again, I decided that enough was enough last month. I logged out of Facebook and deleted the app off my phone.

What I thought I'd miss, but don't

Photos

In 2013, I asserted that Instagram and Snapchat were for more casual photos, and Facebook for more serious photos. One strong consequence of this is that Snapchat has fundamentally changed the way that we think about photos. Armed with an infinity of disposable snapshots, we no longer value photos like we used to. I postulate that social media trends have driven us to value the credibility, or social capital, associated with a photo, not the photo itself. Teenagers want their friends to know that they attended a concert, and they prefer to do this on Instagram and Snapchat, services that give them such ethos. Every now and then, a friend will take a nice headshot with a good-quality DLSR, and they'll throw that one up on Facebook. But the average photo today? It candidly captures an experience in life that we want others to know about.


You just know that these audience members updated their Snapchat stories to prove that they saw A-Rod's 3000th hit live. USA Today Sports

In some ways, this is a good thing. As George Clooney's character said in Up in the Air, "Photos are for people who can't remember." I agree with this. And since I'm not an Instagram or Snapchat user anymore, I don't really worry about taking photos of big events; instead, I try to live in the moment. Running with that line of logic, maybe I don't care so much about those old photos on Facebook after all. Do I really want to re-live my blunder years? Do I really care about the Dreyfoos School of the Arts 2009 French Day? This is decidedly a bad thing for Facebook.

Event discovery

Facebook's event pages are quite strong. They are a great way to subscribe to any last-minute changes to a social gathering, like a new time or location. Having seen these benefits first-hand in college, I thought leaving Facebook might handicap me in this way.

It turns out that this was an unfounded worry. There's this great thing called "talking to your friends" (some people try to make start-ups to prevent this non-problem from happening). It's how I usually make plans. For larger-scale events, I'm not missing much. If most of my social network stays on Facebook, then my friends will tell me about a relevant event. If most of my social network leaves Facebook, then nobody will make events on Facebook anymore! The latter already happens in some contexts; most professionally-oriented networking events already use a third party service like Eventbrite, for example.

Plus, this way I don't have to get event invitations that are irrelevant to me anymore. I'm sure that the Wharton Southeastern U.S. Late-Stage Venture Capital Finance Club's weekly General Body Meeting is fascinating, and I really do wish that Huntsman Hall's classrooms could hold the 3,000 Penn students that got mass-invited to it, but those event invitations are spam that one can't easily block. When I was a Facebook user, it was a minor annoyance to log on and have to click the "Not Going" button for ten of these, so I'm glad to be done with that.

What I do miss

Groups

I was a member of several high-quality discussion groups, including one for the Penn computer science community. It was a great place to ask questions, seek advice, and generally engage in a larger conversation. Since I like mentoring others, I'll have to seek alternate methods to do this, like being a Penn alumni interviewer or telling my younger friends to pass along my email address to anyone who needs it. [3]

Social network exploration

Because most of my social network has a Facebook account, it is obviously a great way to explore my social graph. This use case happens more frequently than you might initially assume. Just the other day, for example, I wanted to send a friend a surprise birthday present, but I didn't have his address. I went to the friend's Facebook profile to find out who his roommate was, who I then messaged with my request.

Luckily, I can always just log back onto the website to take care of this, so it's not presently an actual issue.

Birthdays

It really is a nice touch that we can wish every single one of our acqutainances a happy birthday simply by logging onto Facebook once per day. This is a sacrifice I've had to make by logging off of Facebook, but I can only hope that people don't mind. I know that I don't go around moping about the people who didn't post "happy birthday" to my Facebook wall. (This also begs the question about how much I value Joe Schmoe's generic "Happy birthday!" post. Not too much.)

At any rate, I know the birthdays of my close friends and family.

Ultimately, the benefits of quitting Facebook outweigh these few pain points, so the decision was easy to make.

How to quit

Facebook shot themselves in the foot when they moved chat into its own mobile application, and they shot themselves in the heart when they created messenger.com. Facebook chat, while a clearly inferior protocol, is still the easiest way to talk to my friends online. It replaced AIM for me back in 2008, and last year it all but replaced SMS. This year, it cannibalized Facebook itself. Now that I can use Facebook chat independently of Facebook, I stay logged out of the main site at all times, and I deleted the main application from my phone. I can't deactivate my account because I depend on Facebook chat, but I have no reason to log onto the website habitually anymore.

If you still want to go on Facebook for groups or events or photos, but you don't want to see your news feed, you can hide it with the Kill News Feed Chrome extension.

For now, I've turned off the ability for anyone to write on my wall or tag me in a post. I thought about updating my profile to let me people know that I don't check Facebook anymore, but I remembered that nobody really uses wall posts for anything important these days.

Conclusion

It's hard to say what this means for the future of Facebook. I am but one data point. I do know that my close friends have similar sentiments, so I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way.

I think the question you need to ask yourself is, "Do I like being addicted to Facebook?" And make no mistake, most of us are addicted. It makes sense, really. It really does feel good to see the globe icon light up with a red indicator, signifying that we have a new notification. It's validation. We feel validated when someone tags us in a photo, replies to something we wrote, or invites us to an event. But that serotonin rush we feel is artificial and empty. How much better does it feel to explore a new country through our eyes than through our screens? How much more satisfying is it to have a two-hour phone conversation with a friend than to read about their life on the Internet? How much more can you challenge your mind by reading a well-thought editorial than by reading an armchair pundit's two-sentence summary of it? [4]

If you connected with this piece and these points, if you don't like this neurological dependence on a website, then perhaps you should quit Facebook, too. I wager that you already have started to de-verticalize your use. You might use Twitter to curate your news from the sources you like, Snapchat to share your actual everyday happenings, Instagram for the images from your life, Groupme to stay in touch with your various social circles, and Messenger as an independent chat protocol. At a certain point, I realized that everything that Facebook once offered was either done better by another product or was simply something that I no longer cared to associate with. So I logged out one last time.

And that's that.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.thedp.com/article/2014/02/eve-bowers-q-and-a-facebook

[2] I'm actually not being sarcastic here; while I wouldn't personally change my profile photo as a form of activism, I acknowledge that the profile photo is symbolically how one represents themselves to the world. It's pretty cool that people will modify this representation when they are devoted to a cause.

[3] I'm actually of the persuasion that Reddit can generally do online communities better than Facebook, but once a group exists and is active, the network effects preclude it from switching hosts.

[4] I concede that a lot of these points can apply to other social networks. What's to stop someone from humble-bragging on Instagram? (For one, that's why I don't use Instagram anymore.) I think the difference is that there is social pressure to befriend every single person you know on Facebook, since (again) its goal is to move your entire social graph online. There are people I am close with who I don't follow on Twitter, however. This is obvious in Facebook's original goal of moving your social graph online, whereas if I use Twitter to curate my own news, not everyone I know necessarily fits into that landscape.

Hat tips

Thanks to Lewis Ellis, Nikhil Nag, Adam Rawot, and Fifi Yeung for reading drafts of this.