My inadvertent Facebook experiment & what it might mean for the future of social apps

It started with a trip abroad, with limited connectivity. It continued with an unexpectedly dead phone and a forced edit of apps, and continued for a few more weeks mostly because I was just too busy to get back to it. In the end, I stayed off Facebook for almost two months, which included my birthday, a day I’m usually happy to spend time on Facebook.

I didn’t go back because the Facebook “experience” was wearing me down. What I wanted was to stay in touch with a close circle of friends that I cared about and to receive updates about significant life-moments from those a not as close. What I got was page after page of in-stream ads, “suggested posts” that had no meaning for me, articles that someone more distant to me liked, a distant friend who connected with someone I have never met, and more. What’s worse, all of these irrelevant distractions hid the updates I did want to see. Now, this isn’t new. All of those irritations have existed for a while and I was still on Facebook. What tipped the scales for me were the political posts – their frequency, their extremism, and their clickbait headlines.

And you know what? I didn’t miss it. I found that cutting Facebook from my day saved me frustration and time. I figured that I could stay in touch via email, WhatsApp and Slack, and I felt that it worked. During this period Facebook sent me twice daily emails with attempts to draw me back, but the content they chose to highlight just served to show me that not logging in was a good idea. Examples included “[distant friend] commented on her photo” and “[a coworker from 10 years ago] shared an update” which did not really interest me.

Then came last Friday, when out-of-town friends and former neighbors posted that they were enjoying the Giants game at AT&T Park. My husband saw it and wondered how it was that they were in San Francisco and that we didn’t know. After a short exchange in the comments, I logged in and noticed that they had, indeed, contacted me on Messenger over a month ago. All this led me to spend some more time on Facebook to see what else I had missed. Turns out – another biggie: friends visiting from Europe left a wall message, along with a birthday wish, that they were in the Bay Area for a few days…. two weeks ago! I had missed them completely. On the bright side, I had several wonderful birthday greetings which were fun to go through.

So what’s going on? Does this mean Facebook is impossible to quit? Kind of. Facebook exclusively owns many of my lesser relationships and it created an easy, person-based way to contact them, one where I don’t need to know their current email or phone number. Once a connection is established, that friend is reachable forever. That’s a very potent draw, and a huge competitive advantage. Sure, Snapchat can entice the teens with cool features, stories, and streaks, but they still connect on Facebook because they can easily get in touch with each other when they need to coordinate a homework assignment.

Facebook’s welcome screen. It’s all about friends.

What’s intriguing is whether Facebook’s ownership of these relationships means game over for any other company that tries to implement a social application. Is this a barrier that no other competitor will ever overcome? In our age of constant innovation I want to doubt that. After all, Yahoo was well established when Google came along. Yet take a look at voice-operated speakers. Already, Facebook is playing catch up with Amazon and Google, but their upcoming home video-chat device is one that has social interactions already built in. Will Facebook be the only company to ever own our meaningful social graph?

I want to wrap this up with a recommendation to listen to a Forum episode from earlier this week with Tristan Harris, a design ethicist. He argued that the social media companies, including Facebook and Snapchat, aren’t behaving ethically because they are intentionally preying on “very deep human evolutionary instincts.” Says Mr Harris: “It’s very useful and very important to know what other people are thinking about you and saying about you, [such as] if other people in your social group are hanging out and you are not invited. The ability to know at any moment where I am in the social hierarchy is new and is being deliberately manipulated to get attention. They’re playing with the delicate and vulnerable parts of the human psyche.” So when we find ourselves unable to resist Facebook’s pull, now at least you we know why.

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