Is It Time To Leave Facebook?

First, a disclaimer: My former employer did some work for Facebook and I’ve been a (paid) speaker at an internal company event. Besides knowing a few people who work there, I don’t currently have any affiliations with Facebook other than as a user.

A few days ago, my friend Lou Rosenfeld announced he was leaving Facebook. He explained why:

My particular reason has to do with Facebook’s designers, researchers, and writers. They’re simply too good at what they do. Their walled garden is really a Whole Foods of lovely produce, cheeses, and meats. I can’t pop in for a quick visit. I can’t leave without a whopping bill. And I often end up with a bad case of heartburn from yelling stupid things at strangers who are yelling stupid things at other strangers.

Recently I’ve heard more people express similar sentiments. Many have had a love-hate relationship with Facebook for a while. For some, that balance has tipped towards hate. Perhaps it was a growing realization of the environment’s addictiveness, as in Lou’s case. Or maybe it’s because of the negative attention Facebook has been getting in the media recently. (For good reason.) Whatever the case, many people seem to be leaving the platform or contemplating doing so. I’m one of those people.

My primary social information environment is Twitter. I check it and post there daily. I used to have a nifty setup wherein my tweets would be instantly re-posted to Facebook. Earlier this year, Facebook removed this ability. As a result, my engagement there has dropped off. I’m opening Facebook.com much less often than I used to. (For a business based on selling my attention, that can’t be a good thing for them.)

That said, I still get value from Facebook. For one thing, Facebook serves as the venue for a couple of communities that are important to me, such as the School of the Possible. For another, the quality of what I see in my newsfeed seems to have gotten better over time. (Either the algorithms have gotten considerably better, or I’ve become more adept at unfollowing the people who post religious chain letters and political rants.)

Also, as an independent consultant and author, Facebook ostensibly gives me the ability to reach a broader audience. I say “ostensibly” because that hasn’t yielded any measurable results for me thus far. But the potential is indeed there. I’m sure at least some folks learned about Living in Information through my posts on Facebook.

But for me, the most important reason to continue as an active user of Facebook is that I design information environments for a living, and Facebook offers many interesting and useful lessons for people in my line of work. The most valuable of these is how to enable effective interpersonal interactions online.

Information environments can be lonely places. Consider your bank’s website. Whenever you use it, you’re doing so alongside many hundreds (or maybe even many thousands) of other people. But you wouldn’t know it from the website itself. For all you know, you’re there alone. Perhaps the bank offers a chat feature, but you probably can’t even know if you’re interacting with a human when you use it.

When you visit a physical bank branch, you interact with other people. Some work there and some are just visiting. (Mostly customers like yourself.) Your interactions with these people don’t need to be overly long or involved to bring a human dimension to what would otherwise be dry transactions. You learn from these people and teach them too. A small kindness—a smile, allowing someone to go ahead of you in line—can go a long way towards making us all more civil. Most bank websites don’t afford this level of interaction.

Contrast this with Facebook. Not only are there people there; for the most part, these people are your friends and family. They’re there to share with you things that are important to them; you have the opportunity to find out what’s going on with their lives. For example, I recently saw a colleague at a party. We hadn’t seen each other in many months, but I knew she’d recently been on a trip to Machu Picchu because she’d posted it on Facebook. We had a delightful conversation.

Here’s another example: A few weeks ago I learned about the Squirrel Hill Synagogue shooting because a few friends who lived in Pittsburgh marked themselves safe on Facebook. The ability to let your friends and loved ones know you’re ok when a tragedy happens in your area is a valuable service Facebook provides. (I can’t think of a more effective mechanism for doing this at scale.)

These experiences are entirely different from the one afforded by the bank’s website. They affect us on an interpersonal—rather than transactional—level. I can’t help but wonder how a bank’s website would be different if it afforded this level of human interaction. That’s the primary value Facebook has for me: as a tangible illustration of what a more human web could look like.

That said, there’s no proof that these interpersonal interactions are actually making us more civil. (In fact, with an advertising-based business model the opposite may be the case.) I know that my situation is very particular; not everybody is interested in how the environment works given the types of interactions it affords. I also think I understand the ways in which Facebook’s business incentives are misaligned with my goals as a user of their information environment; most users probably don’t.

So I have mixed feelings. For now, I continue using Facebook. But I consciously avoid posting anything too personal, stay off certain subjects altogether, and proactively manage the list of people whose updates I want to see. In other words, I put in effort to make the environment work better for me. Thus far, it’s been worthwhile. But I wonder if it will remain so for long, especially as more news about the company’s corporate practices come to light.