Every relationship has its rough edges, places where actions scrape, and through constant repetition, rub raw. Those tender spots can heal if left alone and if the parties are wiling to listen. But where the irritation continues, this raw spot becomes a wound that never closes, forcing a choice between continuing pain and a painful separation.
It all began so promisingly with Facebook. Back in 2007 it presented itself as the social calendar of America’s elite universities. That Ivy League allure made it irresistible to the students at America’s second-and-third-tier colleges, so as Facebook lowered its velvet rope, millions, then tens of millions crowded in.
It seemed innocuous, almost trivial: What are you doing? Who are you seeing? What are your favourite things? Sharing the trivia of life and was fun.
But only because we were yet to understand that everything we entered was recorded by Facebook, all of it analysed, all of it compared against everyone else sharing all of their personal trivialities. Too late we realised that everything we shared was more useful to Facebook than it was to our friends. So while we revelled in the joy of finding new friends, Facebook got the deeper satisfaction of building a complete portrait of an individual, inside and out.
We were told Facebook needed these portraits to monetise our activities and that seemed fair enough because someone had to pay for all of the hard work of the enormous machinery that helps everyone everywhere share everything important to them, right?
Facebook could say this with a straight face because, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we had turned our back on the great promise of the Web. The very first Web commercial browsers, such as Netscape Navigator, made it easy for users to create their own Web pages. That should have been enough to create a galaxy of personal and unique sharing websites.
Yet Netscape (and Microsoft, which eventually triumphed against the upstart) never provided the server infrastructure to host those pages - a skill far beyond the average Web surfer. So the promise of a Web built by everyone for everyone got lost in the rush to a commercial Web favouring browsing and buying over creating and sharing.
When Facebook came along, offering a free and easy-to-use outlet for a decade’s pent-up demand to share, of course we leapt at it, signing on the dotted line without bothering to read the fine print. The devil’s in those details.
Earlier this month, news emerged that executives from Facebook's Australian tentacle claimed the social has the ability to create emotional profiles of its users, even to detect and target vulnerable teenagers. Which suggests we’ve paid a lot more than we anticipated for this ‘free’ sharing service. We’ve handed over a bit of our autonomy, sold a corner of our souls.
Facebook is emphatically not a free and open platform for sharing. It’s more like the online equivalent of a Venus Fly Trap, luring us in with sweet nectar, only to suddenly snap shut, then slowly digesting and monetising everything nutritional we've fed it.
Everyone who uses Facebook is being emotionally monitored. That’s what Facebook does. Anyone who uses Facebook can be emotionally manipulated. That’s the nature of this beast, and while Facebook denies they use their extraordinary power malevolently, they have before, and it will remain a constant temptation for them. We are protected only by their good graces, a condition that should make us all quite uncomfortable.
What, then, is to be done? Too many people have invested too much of themselves and their communities to contemplate departing Facebook. This is Facebook’s great trick - it’s become a sort of digital narcotic that its most habituated users simply need to survive.
Yet if we don’t break the habit, if we keep feeding this beast our most intimate feelings and inner thoughts, knowing that these can be weaponised and turned against us at any moment, aren’t we willingly signing over all the rest of our souls?
We need an alternative, a migration path that makes the exit from Facebook seamless and joyful. Many have tried to do this, but no one has made that experience easy and painless enough to satisfy.
People have to be convinced of the need to change before they’ll move on. But if what we know now is insufficient to inspire a transition away from Facebook, what will it take?
Someone I know recently packed all of his earthly belongings into his sedan, then shared the photo. Sixteen years of marriage had ended, and he had to begin again. Although he felt sad and lonely, things could not go on as they had, and he took this for a new beginning, a time to heal old wounds. We can change, he seemed to be saying. We just have to be willing to try. ®