Strip away the baby pictures, the cat GIFs and the high school reunion invitations, and what is lurking underneath your Facebook news feed is one of history's most effective targeted advertising platforms.
Facebook watches to learn what pleases you and what angers you, and it uses that information to auction ads to companies that want to reach consumers with your specific profile. It also watches what everyone else likes, then shows you more of whatever is most engaging that day—the better to keep you scrolling, so that you'll encounter more ads. If the “whatever” happens to be an Islamophobic graphic posted by state-sponsored trolls in Russia saying, “Type Amen if you want Texas to stay Christian,” that's what the algorithms will show. Think of it as an emotion pump. You finish reading a post. Before you can close the app or click to another browser tab, you scroll some more, almost by reflex. In that moment, Facebook injects another post optimized to make you laugh or get you angry, and the cycle continues. Polarizing content keeps the pump constantly primed by riling users up.
The side effects of this strategy have become plain in nations such as Myanmar, the Philippines and the U.S., where misinformation shared on Facebook has fueled division and social unrest. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded in her 2018 book Cyberwar that Russian-sponsored Facebook ads and posts swayed the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Nobody at Facebook anticipated these effects. But they can't be swept under the rug—and they can't be solved through minor algorithmic adjustments, because this is Facebook. The emotion pump is at the core of its business model.
Are there other ways to design social media networks? Yes and no. For years I enjoyed a smartphone-based social network called Path, which was conceived in 2010 by Facebook alumnus Dave Morin as a kind of un-Facebook and a home for smaller groups (it initially limited users' networks to just 50 people). Path had an enchanting interface, but it never found a solid source of revenue, and it shut down in 2018. The Diaspora project raised $200,000 on Kickstarter in 2010; its vision was to build a decentralized network where users would run their own servers, or “pods,” and control their own data. It still exists as an open-source project, but the difficulty of setting up a Diaspora pod has kept its user base small. The failure of these small-scale networks doesn't bode well for Mark Zuckerberg's plan, announced in March, to remake Facebook around messaging within small, private groups.
Without revenue from emotion-pumped advertising, Facebook would wither, and there could never be another social-networking company that reaches its planetary scale. But I believe those would be good things. Facebook does only one thing well: it keeps you from falling out of touch with people you don't see very often. There are smaller-scale services that serve the same end, however, without the risk of blowing up our democracies.
For instance, after I decided to leave Facebook, my family began using GroupMe, a free group-texting app owned by Microsoft. It's simple, but for the photos and updates that we formerly shared on Facebook, it's fine. To share news with people who've asked to follow my writing or podcast projects, I've used platforms such as Google Groups and Mailchimp. I even send out an occasional personal e-mail or (gasp!) handwritten note.
I was interested to hear about the finding by University of Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar that Facebook hasn't actually enhanced our capacities as networkers. In a 2016 study of 2,000 users, respondents told Dunbar that only 28 percent of their Facebook friends could be considered “genuine” or close friends. That fits with my experience. The other 72 percent—let's be honest here—aren't worth a big cognitive investment, and they wouldn't be in our circles at all unless the technology made it so easy.
In the past year I've lost two dear friends from former workplaces. They both died after brief, sudden, shocking illnesses. I did not learn about their deaths from my Facebook news feed. Friends, colleagues and family members reached out to me directly, and we shared our memories and grief through e-mail, calls and visits.
That's how society functioned before Facebook. And these skills can resurface—but not until we reclaim some of the energy captured by the emotion pump.