‘It’s complicated’: Facebook users’ fraught relationship with social giant

Why We Wrote This

Social media was supposed to bring people together. But amid a steady stream of allegations against Facebook and calls to quit the platform, many users are finding themselves more trapped than connected.

Dado Ruvic/Photo Illustration/Reuters
Facebook has become such an ubiquitous presence that many users find it difficult to withdraw from the platform.

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Ryan Schurtz first tried to quit Facebook in 2015. The Stevenson University social psychologist found that the social network was making him sad. He was lured back a year later during the 2016 election. “That was a mistake,” he says. That Professor Schurtz found it so difficult to quit probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many users. Facebook makes itself hard to walk away from for two big reasons. First, it has almost become a part of the plumbing of the internet. Many basic social functions, from organizing a political protest to polling friends on a podcast recommendation, are often most easily achieved via the social network. Second, guided by an ad-driven business model, the company has a history of doing everything it can to make its product habit-forming. Addiction specialist Ingrid Tulloch likens social media to a chocolate cupcake: both promise to fulfill some basic biological need – nourishment in one case and meaningful social contact in the other – without ultimately delivering. “It’s always there,” she says. “Everyone else is eating that cupcake. All the cool people are eating the cupcake.”

If you are interested in cutting back time spent on Facebook or leaving the platform altogether, check out Rebecca Asoulin’s guide to breaking up with Facebook.

Ask Facebook users about their relationship with the social network, and many will pick “it’s complicated.”

That’s because, even though Facebook helps people maintain vital social bonds, often providing the sole link to former classmates, colleagues, and distant friends, maintaining these connections on the social network comes at a steep price. A growing number of studies suggest that, on an individual level, Facebook is making people unreasonably sad, envious, and angry, and that excessive use can damage in-person relationships. On a societal level, the social network has been implicated in everything from spreading political propaganda in the United States to fueling a genocide in Myanmar.

In 2018, this relationship grew even more complicated. The year began amid unfolding revelations that the social network had facilitated the spread of Russian political propaganda; the year closes with news that Facebook bartered users’ personal data with some of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms, including a scheme that gave companies like Netflix and Spotify the ability to read users’ private messages. Along the way, users learned that the company handed the personal data of up to 87 million users over to a right-wing British political consulting firm, fell victim to a massive data breach that exposed the information of nearly 50 million users, and paid another consulting firm to push anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the media.

Accompanying these scandals are increased calls to boycott Facebook. The NAACP, for example, launched its #LogOutFacebook campaign, “in response to the tech company’s history of data hacks which unfairly target its users of color.” Big names in tech, from Elon Musk to veteran technology columnist Walter Mossberg, have announced that they are leaving the platform.

For many users, it’s clear that the time has come to quit, but Facebook has proven to be hard to break up with. A study published in the Public Library of Science on Tuesday found that you would have to pay the average user more than $1,000 to get them to deactivate their account for one year.

“Imagine you have a chocolate cupcake in front of you,” Ingrid Tulloch, a neuroscientist at Morgan State University in Baltimore who specializes in addiction. “It's always there. Everyone else is eating that cupcake. All the cool people are eating the cupcake.”

Professor Tulloch says that Facebook, and social media in general, is a little bit like that cupcake, in the sense that both promise to fulfill some basic biological need – nourishment in one case and meaningful social contact in the other – without ultimately delivering.

“Facebook  is fulfilling all of these roles that are evolutionarily advantageous – the social connections, the social interactions, the social comparisons,” says Tulloch, “but there is something missing. We are social animals who are used to physical interaction.”

Tulloch, who has a Facebook account but says that she hasn’t logged in in three months, says that over time, some Facebook users can become accustomed to online-only social interaction, and, when that is removed, they can feel lonely. “What they really need to do is just go out and get a coffee and talk to people,” she says.

Fear of missing out

Ryan Schurtz says that he quit Facebook twice, the second time for good. A regular user for about 10 years before finally giving it up, the Stevenson University social psychologist found that the social network was making him sad. 

“It creates sort of a posting arms race where we’re in this competition with our friends to get the most likes or have the largest group,” says Professor Schurtz, who studies how people compare themselves to others.

He initially wanted to delete his account permanently in 2015, he says, but he noticed that doing so would have also disabled Pandora, so instead he simply stopped using Facebook while keeping his account open.

Schurtz returned about nine months later, only to finally realize that he had been right to quit. “I came back to Facebook during the 2016 election,” he says. “That was a mistake.”

This time, it stuck. “For me,” writes Schurtz in a Nov. 19 op-ed for The Baltimore Sun, “quitting Facebook was a little thing that I found made me a lot happier.”

But giving up the social network didn’t come without its costs. “It helps us stay connected,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I lost a lot of friends, but I’d say I lost touch with a lot of friends.”

Overall, Schurtz now says that he’s happier, but somewhat lonelier, an experience consistent with at least one study that suggests Facebook nonusers tend to be lonelier than users.

Standing ground

Another reason Facebook is so hard to walk away from is that it has almost become a part of the plumbing of the internet. An array of apps, including Spotify or Tinder, have at some point in the past required a Facebook login to be able to use them. That means that deleting your Facebook account could result in wiping out your playlists and Tinder matches.  

Even if you don’t use these apps, all kinds of basic social functions, from organizing a political protest to polling friends on a podcast recommendation, are often most easily achieved via the social network.

“When I see [myself] leaving Facebook, I see dead dogs and cats,” says David Coursey, a writer who runs an animal-rescue Facebook page of just under 5,000 in Tracy, Calif. Mr. Coursey uses the social network to connect rescue animals to prospective adopters in his community. He says that, thanks to Facebook, he’s been able to find a lost pet’s home in seven minutes.

“There's no question in my mind that Facebook lies, cheats, and probably steals,” says Coursey, talking over the phone while driving a three-pound Chihuahua to its new home, but, he says he “can’t walk away from Facebook.”

Faith Cheltenham says she still loves Facebook. “I really think that Facebook is a good product,” says the self-described black liberation worker and vice president of BiNet USA, a nonprofit advocacy for bisexuals. “But I think that Facebook, like a lot of people, has an anti-blackness issue.”

Despite her affection for the platform, Ms. Cheltenham, who began using Facebook in 2004 as a beta-tester for the network, says that she supports the NAACP’s call for a boycott, which arose in response to revelations that the company facilitated Russian propaganda campaigns that targeted people of color.

Not everyone is in a position to join the boycott, she says, but “when I go back to that logged out screen and I think about getting back on Facebook honestly ... I think about Rosa Parks.”

‘A very difficult decision’

Those seeking to distance themselves from Facebook have many options. Like professors Tulloch and Schurtz, you can keep your account active and log into it rarely, or not at all. Alternatively, you can “deactivate” your account, which hides it but keeps it on Facebook’s servers in case you ever want to re-activate it.

And then there’s the nuclear option, which Larry Carvalho opted for in March.

“It was a very difficult decision,” says Mr. Carvalho, a research director at International Data Corporation in Mason, Ohio, on permanently deleting his account. “The thing I missed most were the local community groups. Somebody to fix your house or a handyman, references from a broader group who you could choose to trust.”

But he says that his interactions with people have become more pleasant as a result. Online, he says, “some people got argumentative with me. I’d rather sit down face to face with a person than argue on a digital forum.... I prefer to go and say, ‘Mike let’s go have a coffee.’ ”

Carvalho hasn’t completely ruled out returning to Facebook some day, but only if the company is willing to make some changes. “They have to significantly change their attitude from just being a profit machine to more of doing a social benefit for society,” he says. “They have to tighten their privacy laws and ... make money responsibly.”

Jasmine McNealy agrees that Facebook, like many tech companies, ought to shift its ad-driven business model.

“If your business model is ‘We make money off of personal data and selling it or licensing it,’ ” says the assistant professor of telecommunications at the University of Florida, “then that needs to change.”

The company is actually seeing a decline of users in Europe, and user growth in North America remains flat, as younger users move to other platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram (which Facebook owns). But the company is continuing to see its revenue rise, as it squeezes more money from each user profile and as it makes inroads into the developing world.

“Facebook has moved itself internationally,” says Professor McNealy. “While user younger users in the US feel like ‘It’s not for me, it's more for Auntie or, you know, Grandma and Uncle whatever,’ Facebook has moved to fertile harvests other places.”

Those other places may soon start experiencing the privacy breaches and invasive targeting that users in the West have become so accustomed to. “The data practices that they’re using that are really terrible here, they’re exporting those same if not worse data practices to the continent of Africa, attempting places in Asia,” she says.

Still, these practices are not enough to prompt McNealy to walk away from the site. The social bonds that the platform facilitates are just too strong.

“I’m still on Facebook,” she says. “It’s community, my mom, my family.”

If you are interested in cutting back time spent on Facebook or leaving the platform altogether, check out Rebecca Asoulin’s guide to breaking up with Facebook. 

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