What Value Does Facebook Add These Days?
I spend too much time on Facebook. You probably do too. A five minute newsfeed-scrolling phone break at work turns into fifteen. Facebook is the first website visited when the laptop turns on, intended to be a cursory glance at the activities of friends, family, acquaintances, and the latest news but sometimes turning into an hour. I recently decided to take a ten day break from Facebook; today is day number three and it’s hard. I’ve even gone to the Facebook website, without logging in, just to see my smiling profile picture and how many notifications I have. 17 at last check. What could they possibly be?
They almost certainly aren’t all my friends or family responding to a post of mine; it’s been days, maybe even a week or so, since my last post. A few of them might be people posting to my timeline, one or two might be tagging me in a picture, and there might even a message from old friend in town who wants to get coffee and doesn’t have my phone number. Most likely, all or almost all are reminders about events I marked that I was “interested” in but have no intention of going to, notifications letting me know I may have missed the latest post from The Hill or another news page I follow, or perhaps telling me that Joe Biden or some other politican I’ve “liked” was live. I know the notifications I see on the Facebook login screen are probably meaningless. Yet, I am tempted to log in and check them. I’m trying to figure out why. That’s what’s brought me to the question: what value does facebook add these days?
I’m thinking about this question as it relates to me and my life, but hope that it might help other people as well. The point of Facebook, of social media overall, even of outlets like Medium, is to connect people, to bring them closer together. Yet, Facebook has become steadily more impersonal for me in the nearly eleven years since I first joined it, in December 2008 as an eighth grader. I remember logging onto Facebook and feeling like it was akin to walking into a massive cafeteria at school. Everyone you knew was there, and you could talk to whoever you wanted easily, without having to search for them in the hallways or know their phone number. Most importantly, the newsfeed was primarily pictures or statuses posted by your friends. You could feel a connection to those posts, as though you were in a crowded cafeteria and could interact with whoever you want.
Now, when I scroll through the newsfeed, I feel almost lonely. Virtually everything I see is a news article or a meme from a page I follow. I rarely see posts from my friends. This may be unique to me; I am into politics, so I follow a lot of political news sites, many of which will publish the same story when something notable happens. I am also older than I was in middle school, and have an older circle of Facebook friends, who have largely grown out of broadcasting everything they think, feel, or do to the rest of the world. There are those organic reasons why my newsfeed experience has changed. But I don’t think that accounts for the overall change; Facebook, and a lot of other social media platforms, have in my view gone from being simple places to connect to becoming outrage machines. Since the most sensational news stories garner the most likes and reactions, the Facebook algorithm promotes those stories the most, and seems to show them on the newsfeeds of people even if those people aren’t subscribed to them. When I log on, I see a cacophony of anger, from stories about the latest outrageous tweet or a political rant from a friend. These things upset me, and I’ve actually relished not learning immediately about the latest outrage. Rather, I read the Washington Post, and learn about events calmly, quietly, and in a way that I can better manage and evaluate.
Oftentimes, it is not clear that some stories are true. Facebook has become less based in reality than it was when I first joined. Tweets and memes promoting fake news or oversimplification of events populate my feed. Worse, fake profiles, oftentimes bought and paid for by shadowy entities looking to make a quick buck or manipulate the public mind towards some political agenda, populate the comment sections of virtually every post, especially political ones, that I see, at least those are from pages and not directly from a friend. Fakeness is not limited to Facebook; I deleted my barely-used Twitter account because it was being made to follow pages I had no interest in, and in some cases was actively repelled by. According to a quick google search, this is Twitter’s policy; seldom used accounts can be essentially “rented” as a follower for a low-trafficked accounts. Though I don’t have an Instagram, I wonder if it has the same problem. I’ve heard of people being able to buy followers, and I think I’d have trouble keeping track of different usernames. It seems as though it’s impersonal, just like Facebook or Twitter.
I don’t know whether the people I know are turned off of Facebook for the same reasons that I am. But I believe I can infer that I am not the only person who feels the quality of his Facebook experience has decreased; I can name some dozen friends who have permanently deleted their Facebook accounts, including some fairly social people. Every time I check my Friends list, it seems there are more deactivated accounts. I’m contemplating the possibility that I should get rid of my Facebook page altogether, as well. Thinking about the value added to my life, and maybe to yours, here is the value I have derived from Facebook:
- Pictures. I like to travel, and when I do I like to take pictures, both because I like photography and because I like to have the memories. Facebook is a nice place where I can store, organize, geo-tag, and show my friends and family my pictures of places I’ve gone. It’s also a good way to accumulate pictures of myself, which can be used for memories and dating apps.
- Connectivity. I’ve found Facebook to be a good way to connect with old friends and acquaintances whom I perhaps don’t know very well and would like to get to know better. I’ve on a couple of occasions seen on Facebook that an old friend or classmate was moving to the DC area, reached out on Facebook, and created or strengthened a friendship that way.
- Expressing Oneself. Anyone who is friends on Facebook with me, or who knows me personally, knows that I am not averse to writing my thoughts on the political events of the day. I like to write serious and funny pieces on the events of the day, as well as on my day to day life. I enjoy making people laugh, and I enjoy sharing my thoughts and observations on things that are important to me.
- Learning About Events. As of late, this is where I think I derive the most value from Facebook. Though many events showing up on my feed are extraneous, I’ve discovered some that I really wanted to go to and might not have thought to search for otherwise. The Rosslyn Jazz Festival, an Evening at the Embassy of Kurdistan, the Baltimore Crab Festival, Zoo Lights and bar crawls on Halloween, and a talk by Stacey Abrams are all examples of fun things I’ve found on Facebook that I likely wouldn’t have thought to look for otherwise, or at least not had the time to search for and that is valuable.
You’ll notice that “keeping in touch with my friends” is not on the list. This is because my friends spend less time on Facebook, and I see fewer of their posts, in favor of an endless stream of news and memes. I’ve been spending more time with them in person, anyway. That was supposed to be the primary value-added of Facebook when it was created, and it seems to have dissapeared. As of late, Facebook has been adding value to my life in less of each of the areas, and they seem to be unnecessary, particularly in light of the value-subtracting time wasted on Facebook, lonely impersonality, endless outrage cycle, and the frequent breaches of privacy.
So where does the value-added of Facebook stand now? The first two points seem less relevant these days. I don’t need Facebook to organize my pictures; I can do that on my computer and download them into a PDF, maybe even with captions. I can ask my friends who take good pictures of me to send them my way directly. At this point, I think I’ve “tapped out” all of the friendships that can be made from Facebook or from old friends moving here, simply because reigniting a friendship only works if a friendship existed in the first place. I believe that I have three friends today that I would not have had but for Facebook. One is a friend from high school and two are friends from a semester abroad program. I’d lost touch with all three, but our friendships restarted because of Facebook. One simply because of more interaction, the other two because they moved to Washington, DC and I decided to reach out. The common and crucial element, however, is that we were all friends before we lost touch. If a friendship didn’t grow when two people were regularly spending time together, at least in my experience, one won’t emerge upon reconnecting via Facebook or some other method. Were I to delete my Facebook, I could simply message the friends I have in other cities for their phone numbers, and call/text them when I travel to Chicago or Boston or Seattle or wherever else they are, and have them do the same for me when they come to Washington. I’ve already found Snapchat, based on phone numbers, to be a more effective way of reconnecting with old acquaintances anyway.
The other two are more pertinent. It’s true that my writing has less of an audience if I don’t share a piece to Facebook, and how important audience size is to me is something I’ll have to weigh if I do decide to go forward with deleting Facebook or substantially reducing my usage after a short hiatus. Even then, it’s worth noting, anything anyone writes on Facebook tends to disappear from peopleAs far as learning about events, I would need to work harder to learn about thing going on in Washington, DC. That might not be a bad thing, though. If I go directly to the website of a place I patronize or one of many blogs devoted to activities in the DC area, I might actually wind up more connected to the community around me, through virtue of having made the effort. Besides, the Facebook algorithm is not perfect; by being complacent and relying mainly, perhaps even only, on Facebook to tell me about events, I may be missing out on things that I would like but Facebook thinks I wouldn’t. Besides, the idea of Mark Zuckerberg having more control over what events I see or don’t see coming up creeps me out. Why sacrifice my autonomy for convenience?
Given the downsides and the decreasing relevance of the upsides, what value does Facebook add these days? Is it worth keeping around? For more and more of my friends and family, it does not seem to be. Maybe it isn’t for me either.