Eight years ago, I was among the hundreds of people gathered in a San Francisco auditorium for the Facebook developers conference. What I heard announced that day from CEO Mark Zuckerberg prompted me to write an effusive column with the following headline:
Sometimes one looks like back and cringes at past opinions and predictions. In this case, however, my gut reaction was right on the money. Okay, we can debate which of the two is really the most important today. But the overall thrust of what I wrote was correct:
There’s almost no way to overestimate the impact of what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled during his keynote address. The ambitious new set of features will make Facebook the central nervous system of the web.
This will grant Facebook an astonishing amount of power. While that has the potential to bring an array of benefits to users, it also means we must become more vigilant about our privacy, and that Facebook must recognize its new responsibilities.
The central nervous system of the web.
Amid all the unfolding data privacy controversies, that is still exactly how I think of Facebook. And much of that indeed flows from the features unveiled that day, particularly the Open Graph API. This was the start of the system that let any website add those “like” widgets to their site, and later commenting.
From that point on, you no longer needed to be on Facebook to be on Facebook. Facebook was simply everywhere. And while Google had to go out and get information, people and websites would be plugging into Facebook and feeding it data from everywhere all the time. Voluntarily.
Two years before that, Facebook had introduced Facebook Connect, which allowed services to let you use your Facebook ID to sign up to create an account. It accelerated the sign-up process, and you brought your social network along with you everywhere on the internet.
The combination of these two simple, powerful ideas did the trick. All these pulses from across the web are constantly feeding back into it, letting it know how we feel, what we’re thinking, where we’re shopping, etc.
And that’s why it has become nearly impossible to quit. Practically and emotionally, leaving Facebook feels like you’re leaving the internet. Worse, it feels like you’re leaving the world, unplugging from friends, news, and the daily stimulus that drives your day.
This is how I felt last summer when I suspended my account for three months. Overall, it is nearly impossible to describe the sense of relief. You don’t realize how much time you truly sink into Facebook until you’re not doing it any more. And it’s not just the time you spend on it, it’s the emotional weight you carry throughout the day, fuming over ridiculous debates and plotting how to respond. Or just thinking, as you take each photo, which might be the most shareable and with what caption? Or obsessing about each incremental development in a news story.
I shut down my account without any warning. After a few days, I started getting emails from friends and family wondering if I was okay and fearing the worst. “Nope, I’m fine. Just taking a break,” I’d reply. But in trying to connect to others, I came to realize how much Facebook and Messenger had become my default contact list. I found myself emailing friends to get the contact info for others.
There were also plenty of moments when people said, “Oh, didn’t you hear about such and such?” And I’d say nope, because I hadn’t seen it on Facebook. There was always that creeping feeling of missing out on important stuff or events.
And then there were practical issues. I had been an enthusiastic user of Facebook Connect from the start. I created my Spotify account with my Facebook ID, and when I had a problem, it took a lot of emails to customer service to get the correct login to work with my email. Likewise, Netflix is connected to my Facebook account. But the worst was probably Airbnb. In looking for a summer rental, I simply could not figure out how to disconnect my Facebook login to access my account. Eventually, I had to temporarily re-enable Facebook to get into Airbnb to do it.
By the fall, I was back on Facebook, initially for professional reasons, or so I told myself. But the gravitational pull remains strong. It is addictive and distracting, and I find myself easily seduced into nonsensical discussions. Even when I read something, my first impulse remains, “Oh, I should share this on Facebook!” It is a reflex.
And naturally, I did not listen to my own warnings about the Open Graph from eight years ago:
It also means Facebook will control a treasure trove of information about you.
This raises a host of important privacy and regulatory issues. Having put enormous power in the hands of one company, we would be foolish to sit back and hope it acts as a benevolent dictator. Users must adapt.
We are notoriously lazy when it comes to adjusting privacy settings. Given Facebook’s central role in the web, we should take a moment, burrow into those settings, read the fine print, and truly understand what we are sharing and what we don’t want to share.
Indeed, we should. But we didn’t. And don’t. As long as we continue down this path of least resistance, threats to quit Facebook will remain mostly idle. It is too daunting, and the mental and emotional void it creates is depressingly big.
It is easy to blame Facebook, but as a product, becoming the internet’s central nervous system was genius. Still: Shame on Facebook execs for mercilessly exploiting this human weakness.
And because we were warned about the consequences of this: Shame on us. And on me.