I quit Facebook this year for many reasons. At the heart of it was that I just no longer trusted the social network to manage my time, relationships, and especially, my emotions. Log into Facebook and it’s a perpetual blast from the past as the site tries to get its hooks into you using your friendships and family relationships to keep you clicking and exposing yourself to ads that have been carefully set to manipulate you where you’re most vulnerable. This doesn’t always work out as well as Facebook intends, as Eric Meyer explained what confronted him with the “Year in Review” app:
A picture of my daughter, who is dead. Who died this year.
Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.
And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.
But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.
To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.
Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.
Read the whole thing. I have dear friends and colleagues who have lost children — some recently — and my heart goes out to them. I don’t know how to comprehend the depths of their pain — the closest I can come is the inevitable worries that come during my wife’s art travels as I imagine how gray, quiet, and meaningless life is without her and recall the Bahamas’ high crime rates.
There was something else about Facebook that really got under my skin last year. Another reason why I decided to leave it and now will continue to urge others to do the same…
Just as some Facebook users might not want to be reminded of the daughter they’ve lost, others may not want to be perpetually reminded of the daughter they don’t have and may never have.
Another decision that I came to this year — the first of “5 Realizations Upon Turning 30 Today” — back in January was that I needed to be a parent someday. How or when that’s going to happen remains a big mystery. Whether it’s even a physical possibility for health reasons remains an undetermined question. We’re not all that concerned with raising a child who shares our DNA, though — adopting someday, perhaps a decade down the line, is the current tentative plan.
Are these questions — will we have children? When? How many? Your own biologically or adopting? — the kinds of subjects that a website should be emotionally exploiting to get you to click more ads?
Last year I started to feel like that’s what was happening with Facebook. In particular: I started to get really annoyed with the number of sperm bank ads Facebook felt like spaying at me. I mean seriously, how “thoughtless” — to use Meyer’s word — and kind of cruel is that? Here I am, sitting here, wondering and in some anxiety about what the future will end up holding, and then Facebook slides in, like the goofy college dorm friend who never matured, and offers the suggestion that I just start making money by helping other people have children instead.
This is the world Mark Zuckerberg has programmed into existence so he could become a billionaire and it’s going to get worse as we continue to make the trade of the details of our private lives in exchange for some neat, “free” program that supposedly helps us keep in touch with our friends.