I’ve been taking a break from Facebook for several days. But it seems Facebook doesn’t like being “on a break.”
I think we need to stop seeing other people
Why have I been off Facebook? Well, it’s partly this whole government shut down thing. Man, did that ever bring the crazies out of the woodwork. In a matter of hours after the government called it quits Facebook started to look like Reddit. Our political culture is rife with stereotypes. One of those is that Democrats (which many people falsely equate with liberalism) are all touchy-feely do-gooders ready to form a drum circle at the first opportunity. Given this Democratic administration’s love affair with drone strikes and spying on journalists and ordinary citizens (not to mention the party’s nomination of an utter dickhead for Virginia governor) I’m not really feeling inspired to join in any communal shakra balancing with that lot.
Sadly, Republicans (now basically indistinguishable from Libertarians, as far as I can see) have been more than living up to their stereotype of being heartless uncaring bastards happy to let people suffer in the name of “choice.” Suddenly I was seeing my “friends” (or, even worse, hitherto unknown “friends” of “friends” slithering out from under logs) who began tossing out cruelties, both calculated and random. With so many real-world friends out of work, and they but a small sample of the hundreds of thousands of people tossed out the door as a result of a few hundred ego-maniacs engaged in a pecker-waving contest. . .with real people being affected by this bullshit, it was genuinely shocking to see the profound lack of sympathy those of the TeaBagger persuasion were demonstrating for people going through something really unsettling and it tells you pretty much all you need to know about Republicans and those who support their cause. Hearing someone say that federal workers should be grateful for their “vacation” or that if they didn’t want to be furloughed maybe they should find some other job (seriously? what the hell reality do these people inhabit?) was a kind of cruel disregard for other people that you usually only see in dystopic sci-fi movies.
But here’s the thing. There are only so many ways you can call a Conservative a clueless arsehole on Facebook and have them prove it every time they put digit to keyboard before you start to feel your own self growing gradually smaller, meaner. . . more like them, in point of fact. So I decided on a Facebook hiatus at least until the government shut down is over. Of course, that now looks like it could be a long time.
Was it something I said?
Why am I talking about social media? Because social media are not only becoming increasingly integrated with perfectly innocent games, but in their methods of interaction are increasingly providing the paradigm for many games’ own community building efforts. And in this regard my absence from the Facebook scene has been pretty educational. Because it turns out that Facebook doesn’t like being abandoned. And neither does Twitter. As far as Twitter goes, however, clearly the little bird thinks that we have more of a thing going on than we actually do. I have a Twitter account to which I feed this blog; it is purely for distribution purposes. But I don’t follow anyone. God, why would I? If I wanted that kind of pain and suffering I’d start waxing my chest hair. Yet Twitter is behaving like that person you once made eye contact with in the supermarket checkout line and who stole your driver’s license while you weren’t looking and starting sending you e-mails wanting to be your BFF. . . .I’m sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Twitter. Twitter starts sending you relentless e-mails telling you that you haven’t been following anyone, or you haven’t tweeted anything for a while, and here is a collection of pathetic D-listers that you really should follow and how come you never called?
Meh, whatever. But then Facebook started doing the same thing. I hadn’t posted anything for only a couple of days and suddenly I was getting e-mails. Not just the usual notification stuff, but plaintive reminders that I have X number of messages, or this many people who have tagged photos of me, and it is has been X number of days/hours/minutes since my last status update and how come you never call? And Facebook doesn’t just want any old interaction. I still have a few things that are linked to FB (like this blog) that pop up posts there from time to time. But those don’t count. True to my word, I haven’t logged into Facebook since the first day of the shut down, and it is that which Facebook clearly craves. Facebook wants quality time from you. it wants cuddles.
That’s right. When you stop playing the social media game for a while, social media starts to stalk you. A while back, when it was clear the direction that Facebook was starting to head (with its scrolling status feed and relentless cavalcade of “suggestions” and its increasingly abstract and clunky mechanisms for turning all this stuff off) I wrote a piece that talked about Facebook’s shift to a model of compulsory socializing, where we would increasingly have no choice to but to interact with social media. But it struck me that there’s something else going on here.
People have been trying to find models that explain the underlying mechanisms of social media, and the way in which those mechanisms work: why do they motivate the behaviors that they do? Why do they seem to promise such extraordinary “connections” but leave us feeling vaguely (or deeply) unsatisfied? And the barrage of desperate pleas that are filling my e-mail box suddenly gave me the answer.
Social media function exactly like Tamagotchis. You remember the Tamagotchi, those little “digital pets” that were all the rage a few years ago. For those that were temporarily resident on another planet for much of the oughts, these were nothing more than a little medallion with a screen that offered a pixelated representation of a creature. This creature needed looking after; regular feedings, play sessions, arse wiping, and the like. If you didn’t look after them, they became very unhappy. If you continued to neglect them, they sickened and died. They were both incredibly inane and incredibly useful. If you gave one to your kid and the kid delighted in neglecting the creature, watching it suffer a lingering, painful death from a lack of care, it was a pretty useful indication that your kid was a budding sociopath. Or a future Tea Party member. But the basic interactivity of the gadget made them insanely compelling to people (and not just kids, sadly). People knew what they were doing in worrying incessantly about their pet dying in a pool of its own virtual urine was pathetic, but they couldn’t help themselves.
Well, this is exactly how our social media function. They now expect regular care and attention, feeding with feeds and petting with tweets and regular exercise in the form of vigorous status updates and shares and tagged images. If you don’t provide this, social media start to bleat plaintively at you just like the Tamagotchis. These mewlings function according to the same FOMO logic that has governed Facebook and its ilk from the start. But something new has now been added, I think. Now, those “concerned” e-mails carry with them the underlying implication, delicately phrased but insistent, that you are not fulfilling your patriotic. . .I mean, commercial (sorry, I always get those two confused) duty to be social. You are letting the collective down. What, you think you know better than half a billion (or whatever we are up to now) other people? You presumptuous fool! Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy like. . .what I mean to say is, I miss you.
I miss you.
I miss you.
I really miss you.
I am still missing you.
You are still missing.
Remember, I know where you live.
Spot on. I once – and I mean once – logged onto Twitter’s site to settle an argument as to whether people you didn’t want to hear from could force you to receive their tweets. I did not create an account – merely checked the FAQ. Since then I have been bombarded with similar messages to yours. I consider this to be an invasion of my privacy. OK, no big deal, they all go in the spam folder automatically, but it makes me all the more determined not to have anything to do with social media if I can avoid it.
Just read this again and realised how truly scary the situation is. 1984 at last, anyone?
Yes, I think the obvious comment that a lot of people would make is “well you can play adjust those notifications, etc.” which is true, in a cosmic sense. But I’m interested first of all in what the default responses of these programs are. And as far as FB goes, I had thought I’d turned off just about every notification I could. But these “reminder” e-mails seem to be part of the “essential communication” that FB would use to notify you of things that actually do matter (new upgrades, security breaches, who they are selling your info to now, etc.). And as everyone knows, despite repeated attempts to make its options more transparent, FB can never really do this, because it would mean a lot of people opting out of things that it needs to make its business model work.
I’m also intrigued by the fact that there does appear to be something qualitatively different in the way in which the “absence reminders” from FB and Twitter are structured. Unlike the endless stream of “we want you back” e-mails that we all get from services we once cared about but no longer subscribe to, these definitely carry the overtone that it isn’t so much that they want you back, but that you need to come back or else you are being socially irresponsible, because you aren’t keeping with all this just fantastic stuff that is out there in the universe to do! Kittens! Jackass stunts! Helpless nuns suffering because of Obamacare!
Yes, it’s the combination of ‘You will soon become a social pariah and non-person if you don’t join in’ and ‘It’s your social DUTY to take part in this stuff’, plus ‘Don’t miss out on stuff everyone else is getting’, that crosses the boundary between marketing and itimidation of (mostly) young and impressionable people. IMHO, of course.