The latest letter from Leah Finnegan is speaking deeply to me right now. I can’t explain it half as well as she can, so just read the letter. She captures precisely how I feel about the unfortunate state of our public (but increasingly, private) discourse—especially on such unrelenting cesspools as Twitter and Facebook.
You know how I feel about Facebook, but I’ve also recently stopped looking at Twitter, and I’m immensely happier online. I also unfollowed about half of the people I was following, especially anyone who tweeted about politics or the news, and now it’s mostly crazy dog ladies (my goofy acquaintances from my dog-blogging days), no context Terrace House, Lulu, and Wei. I’ll still tweet every now and then, if I write something new, but I have deleted the app from my phone and the links from my browsers. I have not missed it at all.
I’ve also stopped reading almost all news, except for longform, investigative journalism. In 2018, I’m only interested in the slow news, in the stories that it took one intrepid reporter (and her invisible editors, no doubt) eight months to tell.
Consequences of the further narrowing of my internet life? An increased sense of daily happiness and calm. An increased desire to read books. An increased gratitude for the physical world. An increased desire to walk to work. An increased attention to my long-suffering houseplants.
. . .
“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”
I signed up for Facebook when I was a freshman in college, shortly after the platform had been opened to non-Ivy League schools. In the old days, as you’ll recall, Facebook was just for college students. It was mildly fun back then. I remember being excited to join a group for UNC freshmen and then, as I made friends in real life, add them as friends on Facebook. I signed up for events and posted photos of my friends and I lounging in the quad. But the sheen quickly wore off. Soon, high schoolers could join, which was something that annoyed a lot of us, as if we were the pure and rightful users, and then, finally, anyone with a pulse could sign up. By the time I graduated, just four years later, Facebook had already started morphing into the creepy, greedy, sadness monster that it is today.
Facebook’s monstrosity has always been there, lurking in its DNA. But the past few years have shown us the platform’s sinister nature in new and palpably horrifying ways.
If you’ve been paying attention, nothing below will surprise you. You already know Facebook is bad. But in case you needed a few more reasons to delete your account…
1. Facebook is using you; you’re not using Facebook.
Pro tip: If something is free, you are the product.
This is not something I stopped to consider when I first signed up for Facebook. What a great, friendly service, to connect me and all of my new friends at college! Um, no. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make Facebook out of the goodness of his heart, simply because he wanted to see everyone reach across the aisle and poke one another. (Remember “poking”? God. We should have known back then that Facebook was super-sketchy.)
Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook as a horny college student, creating an app to rate girls on their hotness levels. Facebook might have been for bros then, but now, Facebook is for advertisers. They are his customers. We are what they are using. Facebook tracks everything you do online, buys additional information about you from data brokers, and then sells that information to advertisers so they can get you to buy things. This is what Facebook is for—and yet we all pretend that it’s happy and useful and connecting us with friends near and far. It’s not. As we shall see in the following points.
So, not only is Facebook using you, but Facebook is also very secretive about how it’s using you.
Just to scratch the surface: Facebook knows how much you make, where you live, how many credit cards you have, how much your house cost, where you shop and what you buy, who’s in your address book, and what your face looks like. Facebook also knows where you go online even after you sign out of Facebook. (They’re tracking you with cookies; this is how the ads seem so frighteningly specific. It’s because they’re watching you, everywhere, online.) And we gave them permission, for all of this.
A summary of the scope of Facebook’s operations (emphasis added):
… even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does — ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ — and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
Facebook’s intrusion into our lives is only going to grow. It’s in a grasping and depserate state, even with its outrageous market share. 1.2 billion people use Facebook every day, but Zuckerberg won’t stop until he has everyone. This is the central business proposition: Get the entire world onto Facebook so we can watch every human and sell them everything. It all sounds so grandiose and hyperbolic, but it’s what the benighted CEO is after.
What’s needed, [Zuckerberg] argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity. This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society.
You know how America is more polarized than ever before?
How “echo chamber” politics seems to be the only way we do things now, with everyone just liking and re-posting things they already agree with, and no one is capable of listening to an opposing point of view without throwing a tantrum online? Remember how liberals were so gobsmacked that Trump supporters existed in such large numbers, because (and I heard dozens of people say this) they “didn’t know anyone who would vote for Trump”? Remember the 2016 election, the one that Russia hacked?
Facebook has a hand in all of this. Even if we can’t directly blame Facebook for the 2016 presidential election, Donald, the Dear Leader, and his conspiracy theory goons, played directly into the platform’s weaknesses.
We can blame Facebook for a lot of the ills that plague our piss-poor public discourse.
With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it.
On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.
Just this month, Facebook has finally owned a bit of its culpability in propagating misinformation, with the announcement that it will be demoting posts from news outlets in favor of those from your friends.
On this whole, this seems like a positive move, but it’s also too little too late. The damage has been done; the rift in decent public discourse has been made, and I’m not optimistic it can ever be repaired. (Unless everyone gets off Facebook. Which is what I’m trying to make happen. Clearly.)
The internet can be rich in splendor and mired in filth all at once.
Facebook is squarely on the filth side of this equation. It’s the least edifying way to use the internet.
Here’s a simplistic metaphor: We, the Facebook users, are the lab rats. Facebook, the erstwhile scientist, is force-feeding us junk food to examine how we behave.
This metaphor can only go so far (because then the scientist sells his rat findings to Mad Men??), but it gets at the gist of this point. Facebook fills our brains up with junk (ads, memes, hysterical news stories, “studies,” etc.) and then uses algorithms to control what we see, in an ultimate effort to manipulate our behavior.
… if we want to be melodramatic about it, we could say Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world — always tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats.
Foer goes on to cite just one instance of Facebook’s experimentation on us:
We know, for example, that Facebook sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. To conduct this trial, Facebook attempted to manipulate the mental state of its users. For one group, Facebook excised the positive words from the posts in the news feed; for another group, it removed the negative words. Each group, it concluded, wrote posts that echoed the mood of the posts it had reworded. This study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: “Anyone on that team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviour.”
For me, this attempt to control users is not surprising. Facebook has SO much data about people at its fingertips; of course it’s going to use this information to steer and control us. It’s the junk and nonsense part that also irks me, which brings me to my next point.
5. Facebook is valueless (to you, not to Zuckerberg).
Facebook does not deliver on any of its promises to users.
You’re not more connected to people. You have an illusion of knowing more about others’ lives, but do you, really? Do you really know what’s going on? Everything you see is a curated presentation. We all do it. I refuse to believe there’s even a “genuine” way to exist on social media. Even when you post photos of your toddler crying while vomiting or one of yourself with no makeup, you’re not being “authentic.” You’re also making a statement. Everything on social media is performance art.
Years ago, Zuckerberg bombastically stated, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” and then declared that Facebook would cure this ill. Everyone would share everything on Facebook, and no one could hide anymore! The dual arrogance and hypocrisy in his statement is mind-blowing. Facebook is the very method by which we all create two identities for ourselves: the public profile me can exist entirely separately from the private, real-life me.
You’re not “staying informed.” If anything, as we’ve seen, you’re staying misinformed. You’re not reading “the news:” You’re reading headlines of stories you already agree with, and usually hyperbolic reports at that. You’re also not really reading the news deeply because of Facebook: 60% of people who share links on social media don’t even click on the links themselves. This is depressing, and also nuts.
You’re not hearing about all the hot parties and social gatherings. This is the main excuse I hear from millennials like myself, when I start ranting and raving about Facebook: “Yeah, I would get off, but then I won’t know about all the things that are happening!” Guess what? I’ve been off Facebook for five years, and I still get invited to parties. I still find out about events. Real talk: If Facebook is your primary vehicle for learning about events, maybe you need to start going to different events.
Facebook, for all its lofty and pseudo-humanistic promises, is the lowest common denominator of human interaction.
If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want — if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations — then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.
(Source: “You Are the Product”)
Let’s be honest. What ultimate good has Facebook brought to our lives?
What are we using Facebook for, really? If you are like me, you were probably using Facebook for just two reasons: to (1) stalk weird homeschoolers that you grew up with, and (2) get hot and bothered by your relatives’ misspelled political opinions. That was it. Neither use made me feel particularly happy or encouraged in my development as a human being, which leads me to my sixth and final point.
6. Facebook makes you unhappy.
Facebook is a garbage platform that makes us all feel like garbage in turn.
The professor goes on to summarize these findings (and they apply to all people, not just teens):
Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.
But you don’t need “studies” to convince you of this fact. You know this, in your heart of hearts, just as I do: Facebook makes us all sadder.
We all know that too much screen time is bad for our brains and hearts and overall lives, but we’re not reducing usage that much. If you’re like me, and your entire job is dependent on a computer, cutting back on screen time isn’t an option during the work week. But the screen does not rule us. Not entirely. Not yet.
Significantly, we don’t have to let something as toxic as Facebook dominate our life online.
For me, personally, 2018 is going to be a year of cutting back, of declaring screen-free weekends and nights, as much as possible. I’m already happier for it. I’ve been happier about my online life for the past five years, primarily because I took one crucial action: I deleted my Facebook account.
Those who know me will cry foul, because they know I still use Facebook-owned products like Instagram and WhatsApp. I know that I’m being spied on there, too. But it’s a lower level of insidiousness, and the difference, for me, lies in the platform limitations. Instagram can’t distribute links or news stories or people’s hot takes. For me, Instagram is 80% babies, 10% people’s food, and 10% travel photos. I’m OK with that. It’s a nice visual distraction for about 5-10 minutes every day. I can watch friends’ kids grow up from afar and not read a single political opinion. WhatsApp is a wonderful way for my family to stay in touch, especially with a sister who lives abroad. I don’t have to interact with anyone but a small circle of family and friends there. Facebook controls the internet, this we know, but at least I can let it control me in slightly smaller ways.
I know people talk about this (getting off Facebook) in the hopes of garnering some sick sense of self-congratulation. I know that’s what this sounds like. But I just want to tell you about something that made my life better. I am a happier and more mentally balanced person because I don’t use Facebook anymore.
Facebook, unsurprisingly, makes it very difficult for you to delete your account. You can “deactivate” it, which just hides it from your friends’ feeds, but all the data is still there. If you really want off, you need to delete your account. Follow the instructions in the link above. After your deletion request, they’ll grudgingly delete your account within a 14-day period. (Even then, I’m not convinced they actually do it. But it’s worth the shot.)
Go with God, my friends, and go without a Facebook account.
We expect Armageddon; the Bible has trained us well. We assume either annihilation or salvation, perhaps both. Millennarian beliefs are as old as time; the apocalypse has always been at hand. People have lain quaking in their beds waiting for the year one thousand, have cowered at the passage of comets, have prayed their way through eclipses. Our particular anxieties would seem on the face of things more rational, but they have an inescapable ancestry. The notion that things go on forever is recent, and evidently too recent to attract much of a following. The world being what it is, it has always been tempting to assume that something would be done about it, sooner or later.
— Moon Tiger, Penelope Fitzgerald
Things to be happy about:
I am reading again, which makes me feel like myself. I am also reading with the drive to read everything that I own but haven’t read yet. This means I have a lot of formidable, giant tomes to get through (Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, Bleak House, Tristram Shandy, The Charterhouse of Parma, Tom Jones, The Ambassadors, The Gulag Archipelago). Sheesh. None of those sound even remotely fun.
Celebrating Lulu, the bride-to-be, this weekend!
Fumiko found a good home! Our dear friends Ethan and Hannah have adopted her into their flock. Here is a photo of her new siblings checking her out (Fumiko is the tiny one in the cage):
We are hopeful that she will survive, but regardless, we are grateful for kind, generous friends, taking in our lone hen. We are going to try again with the backyard chicken gambit next year.
(I don’t have a good photo to illustrate this thought, so here’s a photo of Kathryn in her perfect wedding dress. Isn’t it IDEAL for her? She looked so lovely.)
This past weekend, we traveled back to our homeland of sorts for my dear friend Kathryn’s wedding. The wedding reception was like a mini-college reunion, getting to see all of these people who composed my essential community for four years. I left the wedding feeling very content and fulfilled.
I was amazed at how much everyone had changed, how different we all are from the noxious freshmen who met at InterVarsity. Jonathan is so fit and handsome and his hair is long enough for a perfect top knot. Matt seemed taller, talked about his job with authority and expectation. Catherine and I had husbands with us. Anthony is in grad school in Georgia. Sheila is going to seminary in Colorado with her husband. Nick got a job at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan. And we were all there, watching our beloved Kathryn get married. Our meek freshman selves would barely recognize us now.
And yet. I was pleased to realize that, in everyone, there remained this essential, unchanged kernel of personality, the thing that attracted us all to each other in the first place. Matt still dances the same way. Jonathan is still the person you go to for a deep conversation–or to get your bowtie properly tied. Catherine is still quietly observant and yet full of a surprising, absurd humor.
We’ve all transformed drastically; we live in different states; some of us barely speak to one another anymore. But we were all there, for a few hours, happy and content, as if nothing had ever really changed.
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
The more I read as a child, the more my dream of being a novelist died. This seems contradictory for a born bas bleu, but the more I read about great writers’ lives, the more I came to believe that I could never be one. Or even wanted to be one, judging from the dark, harrowing lives they typically led. To be a great writer, I started recognizing, you were extremely likely to be terribly marginalized, depressed, suicidal, suffering from childhood abuse, mentally ill, hooked on drugs or women, and so on. And then you went on to write these vast, gloomy masterpieces. That’s how it was done and I resigned myself to preferring a happy, unremarkable life over a melancholy, genius one.
All this to say: I never thought I would meet a genuinely great novelist who wrote hopeful books and was also a happy, stable person. Until I met Wallace Stegner.
Crossing to Safety is the first Stegner I’ve read and it is the last novel he wrote. It was published in 1987, when he was 78 years old, which is a serious accomplishment itself, not to mention that the novel is actually wonderful. Stegner tells us a semi-autobiographical tale of the lifelong friendship between two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Larry Morgan is our narrator, and he begins the story by telling us of his move, with his new wife, to Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1930s for his English graduate work at the university there. The Morgans are quickly introduced to the quite different and notably wealthy Langs and a friendship blossoms between them.
Perhaps surprisingly, that is all I need to say about the plot. It is a story about friendship, devotion, communal living, and communal dying. Crossing to Safety is a simple love story, or, more accurately, a simple life story. There are no explosions, no affairs, no drug overdoses. Who wants to read a novel like this? I was pleasantly surprised that I did and marveled at Stegner’s perfect prose, his gentle observations, and his commanding grasp on this gem of a novel. Nothing escapes his attention; he leaves nothing out.
Larry Morgan himself is trying to be a novelist, and as he struggles with writing, we get this especially self-referential passage:
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are the speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?
Morgan’s questions are the questions we imagined Stegner was asking himself as he wrote this novel. I’m so glad he was. We “recognize ourselves” in this book, despite its lack of “speed, noise, ugliness,” for it flawlessly captures and celebrates the rare joy of the realistic novel, the strong connection we feel toward characters we understand and strive to be.
Scarcely is there, in our most living delights, a moment where the heart can truly say to us: I wish that this moment should last forever. And how can one call that happiness which is a fugitive state which leaves our heart unquiet and empty, which makes us regret something beforehand or desire something after?
This weekend has been a whirlwind, as we are house/dog-sitting for friends, and because we bought this:
So. Yes. It is a lot of fun. Driving to work this morning was actually very exciting. Lots happening! Guion also got the part-time job he wanted at the Wine Guild, so we are thrilled about that. I’m still feeling a bit blurry and hazy from the weekend, so here are some Snax with a lot of caffeine:
A Night with Nettles. Grace took some photos of Nettles‘ recent concert at the Tea Bazaar. A very good show. (Grace’s other photos from the family trip to town can be seen here. For all the Baby Charlie fans out there, there are some amazing shots of him.) If you’re in town, come see Nettles on Friday night at JohnSarahJohn. They’ll be performing for an art opening by Matt Kleberg. (Como Say What?)
Mariachi Band Serenades a Beluga Whale. This is all over the Cool Lady blogosphere, but I will join them in adding my delight over this clip. It will make you happy. I promise. (Door Sixteen)
Felix’s Felicis. Natalie got a bunny, named him Felix, and broke my heart. I want a bunny! Not as much as I want a dog, but almost! I think Felix and Frances should meet and fall desperately in love. (Peregrinations of NJM)
The Last Thylacine. This is one of the strangest-looking animals I’ve ever seen. It’s a marsupial, but it looks so much like a proto-canid. Those stripes! Sad that it’s extinct. (How to Be a Retronaut)
In Which Vladimir Nabokov Navigates Hell for Lolita. Yes, the protagonist is very icky, but I think it’s one of the greatest novels of all time. Even Nabokov had a hard time convincing people of this, though, as you can see from his letters about the book, compiled here. (This Recording)
To Go-To Snacks of Literary Greats. A series of cute illustrations of what the big writers liked to eat while writing. I don’t think Michael Pollan can be called “a literary great,” but it is interesting that he likes to drink his tea in a glass. I remember seeing that on Food, Inc. and wondering about it. (Mod Cloth blog)
In my experience, the world’s happiest man is a young professor building bookcases, and the world’s most contented couple is composed of that young professor and his wife, in love, employed, at the bottom of a depression from which it is impossible to fall further, and entering on their first year as adults, not preparing any longer but finally into their lives.
We had a lovely weekend with Guion’s parents and his grandfather, aka Granddad; they came up to celebrate my confirmation at Christ Church and Granddad’s birthday! We had such a great time squiring them around town, eating tons of amazing food, and exchanging stories and memories. Brother Win was greatly missed, of course. Wish they could only have stuck around longer!
Snax with roasted kale and butternut squash, because, believe me, this week’s Snax are super-delicious and good for your heart:
With Love from Chitwan. To my heart’s relief, Grace is alive and finally well in Chitwan, Nepal! Read about her adventures and go see how totally adorable she looks on a bicycle by a rice paddy. (Como Say What?)
Proust Questionnaire: Tina Fey. One of my all-time favorite women answers the classic questions from one of my all-time favorite authors. What do I have to do to become BFFs with this woman? (Vanity Fair)
Big Laughs, Cheap Grace. Thank you, Rob Hays, for finding the words for my dislike of “Modern Family.” Thanks for finding the words when I could not. It is entertaining, but perhaps that is all one can say. (The Curator)
Iceland Part 1: Roadside Horses and Geysir. Here is a Law of the Universe: If anyone on the Interwebs posts photos of Icelandic ponies, I shall immediately repost photos of said ponies. This law is immutable and shall remain unbroken for the duration of time. (Kris Atomic)
Origami Animals. Origanimals. My dad had a client who once made me an intricate Japanese beetle out of a $5 bill. He would have liked these paper animals. I like them, too; they look like they want to be friends. (Miss Moss)
The Desktop Wallpaper Project. I change my desktop image every Monday on my work computer, and my Mac desktop rotates every 15 minutes, so I guess you could say I’m a bit of a stickler for change. It makes me happy to have a new, pretty image on my computer. If you are like this, check out this site. A collection of beautiful, graphic designer-friendly desktop wallpapers! Artist Michael Cina’s work (around page 7) is my favorite. (The Fox Is Black)
Is Ulysses Overrated? Now I feel a little bit better about giving it only spot no. 7 in my top 10 books of 2010. This guy from Slate thinks it’s a crock and not worth all of the hype. He says there’s only one chapter worth reading. (Slate)
Happiest States According to Twitter. As far as useless and unreliable maps go, this one may rank quite high, but I like its findings. According to a mood map of Twitter, the top three happiest states are: 1) Tennessee, 2) Colorado, and 3) North Carolina. I like it! I can definitely attest to Colorado and NC making that cut. (Daily Intel)
I Am Only 6, But I Think I Can Do This Job. KIDS! Killing me again with cuteness! Application letter from 6-year-old Andrew Scott, who applied for the position of Director of the National Railway Museum. What is it with little boys and trains? It will never fail to make my heart melt. (Letters of Note)