Indo col 48:
I can still remember the first time I heard about Facebook. A friend who works for Apple (and therefore has his finger on the tech pulse) told me it was the way forward – clean, functional, smart, the exact opposite of its social media predecessors, Bebo and MySpace. So I joined, and spent about four years of my life enslaved to it. I took to it partly because of who I am – a slightly introverted, fidgety individual with a love of smart-aleckry – and part of it was the sheer genius of Facebook’s model: You post something, someone likes it, you feel good. You reconnect with long lost friends, classmates, distant relatives, get a glimpse into their lives, and bask in the glow of a more connected world. In an increasingly dislocated society, Facebook felt like it was bringing us all closer together. Except obviously, that isn’t how it works.
I soon realised that the reason I had lost touch with my classmates is that I wanted to. Long lost acquaintances got lost for a reason, and exs are definitely meant to stay exs and not transition into digital chums. It’s a fairly short hop, skip and jump from ‘we should catch up over coffee’ to living in a bedsit above a plant hire shop and only seeing your kids on Saturdays. Most of the time, the past is the past for a reason.
Even those on the friends list from my present day life were starting to grate – Facebook is like a curse from the gods that forces you to listen to the innermost thoughts of people whose outermost thoughts make you want to stab chopsticks into your ears so you can’t hear them. Good friends who you believed to be reasonable human beings were now posting photos of sunsets with motivational quotes pasted across them, when you knew full well that they were doing it whilst lying on a couch eating a bowl of Doritos. It is the projection that makes Facebook so draining – you become a performer, playing the role of your best life, your best self. But it is a Nietzschean abyss, and the more you gaze into it, the more it gazes into you. So I deleted my profile, and the platform went from strength to strength, spreading across the world like a virus, with some 60% of Irish people using it. It seems unlikely to change any time soon, despite the Cambridge Analytica bombshell.
Is there anyone who didn’t think their data was being harvested by Facebook? It seems unlikely, given how much of their life people are willing to fling at the site – photos, videos, dream diaries, all are chucked enthusiastically into Zuckerberg’s vast nothing. How did they think Facebook made money? Data mining has been a lucrative trade since the dawn of the internet, it is hard to imagine anyone naive enough to think they weren’t being targeted. Yet it would appear that some people actually bought into Zuck’s greatest sleight of hand – the notion that Facebook is private and secure. I use Twitter but I do so in the full knowledge that it is a broadcast tool – it is not a closed network, so I know I might as well be standing on a street corner with a megaphone screaming my opinions at the world, and that knowledge keeps me in check in a way that Facebook and its thin veil never did. I mean, sure, Twitter is overflowing with Nazis and trolls, but at least they can only spit their venom in 280-character bursts. Underlying Facebook is a rich seam of deceit – from fake profiles to fake news to fake ads, all preying on people who might not be fully aware that in the haunted funhouse that is the internet, nothing should be taken at face value.
Ditching Facebook wasn’t the easiest thing in the world – listening to co-workers talking about something fantastic they shared on FB leaves you feeling a little left out. But then you discover that what they shared was either a video of someone falling down a hole, a baby panda sleeping, or a video of Alex Jones from Infowars screaming about George Soros, and you feel reassured that you did the right thing. You lose touch with certain people, but not the ones who matter. Life becomes less cluttered.
As for Cambridge Analytica, it seems a stretch to suggest that they won the election for Trump or even got Brexit over the line – but they certainly tapped into a rich seam of rampant nationalism and weaponised it. Thankfully, it is unlikely that they would be able to manipulate the Irish electorate into voting a certain way – as the ten-year anniversary of Bertie Ahern’s resignation looms, it is comforting to remember that thanks to a hot mix of Civil War politics, populism and dedicated self interest, we’re more than capable of making poor choices all on our own.