Facebook is Unnecessary

Everyone agrees that Facebook makes them feel worse. It accelerates the “Fear Of Missing Out” anxiety that is quite strong even when you don’t know exactly what your peers are doing on a Friday evening. But people continue to flock to Facebook. Yes, Facebook is losing teen users1, but this is not a precipitous drop. In any case, these teenagers are going to other platforms which are arguably worse than Facebook for reasons that I will outline in this post. What is so interesting on Facebook? Why does it exist? What is it for? These are incredibly complex questions. I will leave that hardest-of-all tasks to the technology philosophers. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that became clear to me after a recent conversation: The existence of Facebook is an anomaly. Facebook’s target user base will never need to use Facebook: Facebook is meant to “connect people.” Their belief is that if you know what is on your friends’ mind, then you are connected to them. The better you know someone, the more connected you are to them. The more you will be able to appreciate the posts they make, both personal and political. But the better you know someone, the less you need a tool such as Facebook to keep that relationship alive and healthy. So, you don’t need Facebook to connect with the people whom you are closest with in the world.2 So, …, what gives? Why are you on a platform where you are connecting with a bunch of people whom you know only vaguely and care about at the superficial level? I have some thoughts about this dichotomy.

Types of Posts

Let’s take the premise that posting on Facebook is a right. Broadcasting what is happening in your life is your choice and some people choose to exercise this right.

When you share what you have done or what has happened in your life, I think you can classify the post into one of three buckets. (I know this is a simplification.)

  1. Genuine Excitement: Something has happened in your life that you are genuinely excited about. Excitement is subjective and it is hard to quantitatively judge anything. Why someone is genuinely excited about something is besides the point. If they are sharing something that they are genuinely excited about, then the post falls in this bucket. I posted on Facebook about getting my first internship in 2015. I was excited about that opportunity back then and I believe that I will classify that post into this bucket.
  2. Feeling of Accomplishment: Something has happened in your life that you have been working toward for a long time. You had doubts about whether you would get here, but you have finally achieved whatever goal you were looking for. Once again, subjectivity abounds. What seems a “matter of course” to me, could be the hardest thing for someone else. We all start from different places and subjectivity precludes us from making any judgment about what content falls in this bucket. But the poster must feel this accomplishment and should classify their post into this bucket. I posted on Instagram after graduating from university. It was 5 years of struggling through a program that I did not particularly like and a lot happened during that time, and I wanted to share the accomplishment which I felt.
  3. Bragging: Something has happened in your life and you want to brag about it. Settle down, this is not “Shots fired!” Showing off is just a part of how we operate. It’s not some anomaly which needs to be tamped down on. I disagree that it is a worthwhile pursuit. But that’s my opinion and nothing more. On Facebook, this is simply one of 3 possible buckets that you might classify your post into. On Instagram, things get murkier. There’s not much space to say anything because Instagram shows a small segment of your caption by default. Most of the viewer’s screen is taken up by the high-resolution picture that you have uploaded. I contend that Instagram is a platform where most users would classify most of their posts into the “Bragging” bucket. A few years ago, I bought my first iPod and my first headphones. I posted a picture of the headphones resting on my window sill to Instagram from the iPod. I was bragging about these things that I had now. Looking back at my Instagram, I can see that it was a clumsy attempt at bragging about something, but I can’t bring myself to classify the post into the other two buckets that I have defined here.

Note here that I talk about classifying your own post. So, the onus is on the poster to decide what they are doing on the platform.

Where Does the Frequent Poster Come From?

Experiencing Facebook, one thing was clear to me. It is fun addictive. The number of views on a story, likes on a post, or comments on an announcement continuously increase. The product is designed to draw the user’s attention to these numbers. 3 years ago, I went on a trip and posted a picture from the trip to my Instagram story. I posted rarely enough back then that this triggered a notification to almost everyone who followed me. (The “… has posted for the first time in a long while. Check it out now!” notification.) Within minutes, about 20 people had seen the story. This number kept growing for the next several hours. For the 24 hours that this picture was visible, I could barely stop myself from opening the application, tapping on the story, scrolling down, and checking the list of people who had seen the picture. I have had similar experiences with posting a life update on Facebook, or a comment on a hotly debated post from my friend. The anxiety and excitement of waiting for a response and getting ready to re-engage is exquisite. It feels similar to the adrenaline rush that you would get when you were in a dangerous situation or right before you are pushed down a slide in an amusement park.

My self-regulation was not good enough to prevent this kind of usage of Instagram. I was (thankfully) vigilant enough to realize what was happening and managed to cut out Instagram posting. A few years later, I completely got off Instagram. But most people don’t take this approach.

As the high from a single story becomes duller and duller, more highs are needed. And so, users start posting more. This is how the frequent poster is born: They start out as a standard user of the platform; and then, the platform’s incentives and product design force them into posting more often to get the same feeling as they got from a single post when they started using the platform.

What About Comments and Discussion?

I have seen Facebook posts which fall into each of the three buckets above. And I have seen the comments on those posts. More often than not, the comments section turns into a heated debate about some obscure, tangential subject which is barely even related to the post. It seems to me that the likelihood of this happening is proportional to the abstractness of the topic of the post. The more concrete a post, the less people want to engage with it in the comments section. Why does the comments section feel like a halfhearted addition? Because it was.

As the movie Social Network shows and as early users of Facebook know, the original point of the platform was to simply post updates about your life. The comments section feels like a tacky add-on which is there for the minority of friends who want to say something, as opposed to the majority who want to catch up on others’ life updates. The Facebook mobile app (even now) barely allows you to read all the comments at once in chronological order. It will show you the latest few comments below the post. If you want to see the first comment, you have to begin doom scrolling up to the end of the planet. It seems obvious that the product is designed to keep people scrolling on the feed, rather than go into a single post and check the comments on it.

Why Do People Use These Platforms Then?

Posing big and profound questions like this is easy and fun. Answering them is impossible. I can only point to some of the other things that are happening in society, just as we are starting to notice that people of all ages and backgrounds like these platforms:

  1. Everyone is in a more urban setting now, than a few decades ago. I am extremely glad about this: It is an indication of the economic progress that middle-income countries have made. But urban settings have long been characterized by lax barriers on individual freedoms and cold, disconnected lives lead in a crowd. If you are the type to long for the warmth of a rural setting, then you might wax nostalgic about this. I have no such longings and I think that urbanization is a net good which improves our lives. Nevertheless, the disconnection of an urban life must be balanced by the connection that one pursues on social media.
  2. Organized institutions are declining. This is a phenomenon that has been documented in America. Rotary clubs and organized religion have lost their grip on the population. There are few institutions where people congregate for the sake of congregation. (Developer conferences have become caricatures of the corporate networking events which they tried desperately to not emulate in the early days of the Internet.) Whether this phenomenon is occurring in other countries at the same rate is an open question.
  3. Capitalistic work is inherently alienating. While earlier forms of work and toil involved some pride in the product of the work, most forms of work in capitalism are alienated because the mere worker never gets to see the final product or the financial gains that were achieved through their work. This is not a bad thing: I am glad to not have to “see myself in the products I make.” But what if this was a bad thing? What if the activity that a lot of adults spend most of their time doing must necessarily be something that produces something they feel proud about?

Do You Need Facebook?

We are all at crossroads all the time. We make decisions about which search result to click on and what post to like. What about the Facebook crossroad? Do you need it? I don’t think anyone needs Facebook or Instagram.

Indulge me by letting me state the obvious: These tools exist now and they are not going anywhere. The whole world is not going to stop using them at the drop of a pin. These companies are run expertly by capitalists who have built systems to ensure their survival. What does one person’s mutiny achieve?

It achieves nothing. The refusal to use Facebook or Instagram is an ideological one for me. I think that it is superfluous to my way of life and to the connections that I wish to build with people. If you are not affected by the bragging or if you are friends with people you really care about and don’t mind receiving the same information twice (once directly from a friend and once through Facebook) or you like seeing the periodic heartwarming post that the algorithm serves you or if you use it to catch up on updates from a news service or a film actor or etc etc etc … then it might be a great tool for you. You are the target user. For everyone else, Facebook is unnecessary.

  1. Details about the drop in teenage users in the US emerged in the late 2021 Facebook Files leak. This is a good summary of the documents that were published by the whistleblower and what they indicated about the future of the Facebook platform. 

  2. I refuse to use “the real world” here because as much as people from previous generations might try to convince me that Facebook is part of the “virtual world,” I don’t believe such a thing exists.