Is Facebook Useful?

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I’m deeply ambivalent about Facebook. Inevitably, in the wake of a controversial news event, my feed fills with a stream of indignant ranting. A day later I’ll see the “thoughtful” reflections, and a day after that, “thoughtful” reflections on the reflections.

I don’t want to seem holier than thou. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m a mildly public person with a blog, podcast and books, I’d probably be participating in this social media shadow boxing and punch back with my own intemperate comments or “thoughtful” reflections. I know that those outbursts would come back to haunt me so I restrain myself. But, like watching a playground fight, I can’t resist reading those back and forth comments. Which is why, exhausted by the social media response to the Paris attacks, I decided to take a week off of Facebook and reflect on whether or not it is a useful tool.

Facebook is not all bad. It’s great for:

  • Keeping in touch with friends and family that I might not see on a regular basis.
  • Hearing about and helping promote interesting events.
  • Getting advice and/or help on homesteading projects.
  • Getting rid of stuff and finding free things for a project.
  • Access to expert advice (the Garden Professors Facebook group is a good example of this).
  • Hearing the opinions of folks I don’t agree with.

The negatives?

Facebook as acedia engine
If I’m avoiding an important project Facebook is there for me to offer distraction fueled by my own narcissism. Did anyone react to my post???? If I’m bored, lonely or depressed I can scan my feed for a quick dose of righteous indignation. The back and forth chatter serves to drive us all to distraction and keep us from doing the things that will actually make the world a better place.

The scapegoat complex
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speaks eloquently of humanity’s innate need to find scapegoats. I’ve noticed that a large constellation of dodgy websites exist with the sole purpose of serving hastily written articles that point the finger at whatever group we don’t like. I don’t care if you’re on the left, the right, or none of the above, there’s a click bait website ready to make you comfortable about your ideological bubble. The solution to scapegoating lies in the realization, as Taylor notes, quoting one of one of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Demons that, “We are all to blame” and that the only way out is to accept our collective responsibility for a solution. Facebook profits from dissent rather than collective and productive action.

Working for free
The creepy business model of Facebook is to get us all to talk about ourselves and then harness that data to sell to marketers. Use Facebook and you’re signed up for an invasive and unpaid marketing focus group. I used to think that I could post quirky and random things in Facebook to throw off their algorithms, but I guarantee you that Facebook’s programmers are always one step ahead of us all. Who needs the NSA when we’re (myself included) willing to give up so much personal information?

Competition for eyeballs
At the risk of sounding bitter, Facebook takes eyeballs away from Root Simple. If I try to use Facebook to send people to Root Simple posts, Facebook’s algorithms punish me and shunt them to the bottom of my friend’s feeds. I have a Facebook page for Root Simple but Facebook wants me to pay to promote posts. So instead I mostly use my personal page to promote stuff with limited success. But, worst of all, Facebook has distracted me from responding to comments on this blog and, instead, focusing on comment threads on Facebook. It may be futile, but it’s time to fight back.

What I’ve resolved to do
I’m not going to give up on Facebook just yet. I can’t really. As authors we have to use it to promote our work and events. And I like keeping up with friends and family. But I’ve resolved to:

  • Post only post positive things on Facebook. I do this already, but occasionally feel the pull of negativity. My favorite Facebook posts are by friends who post stuff that they are actually making or doing rather than linking to click bait articles.
  • Curate my “friends.” I don’t mean that I’m going to unfollow everyone that I don’t agree with. One of the things I like about Facebook is hearing from people outside my own liberal, Los Angeles milieu. But I’m going to unfollow “friends” who only post finger pointing click bait rather than their own opinions.
  • I will move some of the things I post from Facebook to Root Simple. If you want to keep up with what we’re doing you’ll have to come to this blog first. And I promise to do a better job responding to comments on this blog. Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, I don’t want to provide you with free content.
  • Limit my time on Facebook and other social media to two short periods a day. I already do this with email and I’ve found that it’s boosted my productivity.

I’m really interested in hearing from Root Simple readers about how you use or don’t use Facebook. Let’s get a discussion going!

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34 Comments

  1. I’m going to send you a friend request on Facebook……..

    You sum it up quite well! What drives me crazy about Facebook is the way it tries to polarize people, I’ve got plenty of friends that I like for reasons other than their political or religious views and yet I am constantly asked to affirm or condemn something that I just don’t believe in either way or don’t care to discuss my views on in a public forum such as Facebook.

    • Looking forward to seeing how you use Facebook. And, yeah, polarization equals profits. Sadly, even mainstream newspapers have been doing this for the past few years. You can always tell when something is written with the purpose of attracting social media attention.

  2. I’m not on FB. I host an Environmental Change-Makers page there, but I’m personally not on it by conscious objection.

    I absolutely hate the FB algorhythm which distributes my messages to a mere fraction of the followers of my page.

    But the story of how FB dumped all your FB friends during the trademark fiasco (https://www.rootsimple.com/2011/12/2011-in-review-urban-homestead-trademark-dispute/), was like my “last straw” reasoning to not be on there personally. If people want to find me, they can track down my considerable online content via Google.

    However, I seem to have a followers demographic which seems to be heavy FB users. So I use free tools like Buffer app and IFTTT to assure that the FB page shows something. And yes, it does all link back to my blog, and yes, FB dings me for it in what they display to the public.

    Meanwhile, I devote my time to writing blogs and larger pieces which are a much better fit for my style and my personal satisfaction. A much better use of my online time.

    You and your readers can create their own personal magazine-like compilation of blog feeds using free tools like Feedly. (RootSimple is definitely on my Feedly!) That way you don’t have to delve into the FB morass to see important news (such as developments in environmental solutions, which never seem to make the mainstream, corporate-controlled news).

    In the spirit of this week’s #smallbusinessSaturday and all the reasons that campaign is so very important right now, it seems like we need to be creating our own news reels (and … in reference to a previous post of yours about Amazon, perhaps even creating our own network of sustainability-oriented affiliates).

    • I still love RSS readers like Feedly, but certainly feel that RSS lost a lot of traction when Google killed its Reader.

      It’s a shame, really, because you can easily use a reader to to curate your network and feed.

  3. For all of your reasons and several more, I don’t use Facebook. If I had a business, I would create a FB page strictly for it. I know how quickly the siren song of the computer can suck me in so I avoid that particular section of the internet altogether…which leaves time for more real life interaction with plants and animals and people and such.

  4. Heading over to Facebook is like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole. There is no end to the craziness one gets into pursuing friends’ pages. But sometimes it is the only way I can find out what is going on in my family unless I want to get into the texting thing which is just as bad for me. There are so many better things to be doing but like caffeine and sugar, FB is hard to kick. I try and stay away as much as possible. I have your blog, and others that I follow, bookmarked.

  5. I ditched FB several years ago due to their ever-changing stealth privacy policy changes. No other company I deal with seems to make so many “opt out” changes that you only seem to discover via other FB users. Also got worn out by the bs ways of their “which pages/posts we yank, and which we don’t” shenanigans. And yes, the way they handled the “urban homestead” tm kerfuffle inclusive.
    If I had a business, yes, it’s a valuable tool, but for personal stuff, I just prefer not to line the pockets of so many invisible, voyeuristic marketing vampires if/when I can help it.
    There was an awesome article on the subject in the Aug 2012 issue of Taproot magazine. The author pens a “breakup letter” to FB, in a lovely, rustic, manual typewriter font.

  6. I despise Facebook. I tried it once and backed out almost immediately. It’s a myth that authors *have* to use it. And the surest way to guarantee that I’ll ignore something someone has written is to provide only a Facebook URL

  7. I also have to use it for work, so it is a non-stop barrage. I’m done with this position January 1, and my first action is going to delete the app off my phone.

    I like the funny. I like the hyperbole. I like keeping in touch with friends and family, which has really improved our quality of time when we DO get to see each other.

    I just really want to stop checking it every single time I get a notification. Looking at it in the morning and at night will be more than enough.

    • P.S. The only time I follow a blogger on Facebook is if it becomes obvious they are using Facebook more than the blog.

  8. Facebook is like television – I can’t understand how people find time to spend on either. Though it would be nice to make contact with people I haven’t seen in years, the thought of my interactions with them being saved by some third party (and for marketing purposes, at that) makes it not worth it. I blog but without using my real name for privacy reasons.

    I like your take on accepting collective responsibility. Imagine what the world would be like if more people did that. Your resolution to be positive reminds me of the Buddhist concept of wise speech – only saying what is true, kind, and helpful.

  9. This is great news Eric! As someone who made a choice to not join Facebook, I find it really amazing to observe the power it has. As a long time follower of the blog (bought your first book back in 2004 I think) I am really happy to hear that you intend to post info that otherwise would have been posted on fb here. Something that fb users sometimes forget is that when they post *only* to fb, they miss out on us on-users entirely, because we have no way to access those posts. We’re blocked.

    • Something I struggle with is if I would overwhelm the readers of this blog if I put up too much content as well as posts that might seem off-topic. I guess you’ll all just have to let me know.

  10. I tend to use FB to 1) look at cats, 2) moderate the model group I’m a member of, and 3) post pictures of my knitting. I use Inoreader to keep track of all the RSS feeds of things I actually care about

  11. The “ick” factor of FB has always bothered me. I use an account there for occasional contact with distant friends and relatives but the harshness of the political/social messaging is so unappealing that I often go a month or more without checking in. Thanks for thoughtfully articulating your experience in detail so I may share it with dear friends who seem to be sucked down the FB rabbit hole.

  12. Hi Eric! I was so excited to read this post because I, a 30-year-old, 10-year veteran of Facebook (I’m the same age as Mark Zuckerman and I went to college in Boston, so I was in the first market Facebook opened up to after Harvard…which means my whole stinking adult life is on there, heaven help me) have been thinking for quite some time now to get off Facebook. My hesitation is that my brother and sister, who live on the east coast (I’m in LA) and each have a litter of cute little kids, post cute pics which I always want to see. At the moment I rarely go on anymore, and when I do, I get out of there as quickly as I can before the deluge becomes too much. But, like I said before, so much of my information is just OUT THERE thanks to Facebook…and I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with that!

    • Robin–thanks for your perspective. Like you I want to keep up with close friends and family. I’m wavering right now between deleting my account or heavily curating my “friends” down to just the people I’d like to stay in touch with. It’s a tough call.

    • Margaret–many thanks for that link. In the two days I’ve been off Facebook now I’ve come to many of the same conclusions Kingnorth has.

  13. I really only use FB to keep up with people/organizations that are important to me. I wouldn’t have found out about a lot of worthy events/concerts/programs without a quick look through my feed. I rarely comment on posts, only ones where my support is appreciated. As for businesses, I appreciate being directed to their website, rather than a FB page. FB can be helpful, you just need to limit your time and choose who you follow mindfully.

  14. I withdrew from Facebook cold turkey over 2 years ago because I felt like I was emotionally enslaved to it (earlier attempts to minimise my usage had failed). My excuse for joining it five years earlier had been to promote myself as an artist, but in reality there were virtually no benefits to my art business to come from Facebook, and Facebook’s popularity meant my blog readership had dropped to almost nil (so I virtually stopped blogging too).
    I am much happier since quitting but I’ve lost touch with some distant friends and family who exclusively use Facebook,and I often miss out on invitations to local events that are exclusively advertised on Facebook. Those are costs I’m willing to pay in order to be free of all the negatives which you and other commentors have described so well. When I observe the ongoing emotional enslavement to Facebook of so many people around me, it only reinforces my determination to stay free.

    • I think this insistance that every artist must engage withe social media is something all creative types must come to terms with. Surely there are many examples of people who have leveraged social media to great advantage, but how many have never produced their best work because of the distraction and ennui caused by social media. And does good work rise to the top anyway? And should great artists stand outside the fray? The Kingsnorth piece above made me laugh out loud–he opines on how he’d feel if “… Mary Oliver began sharing petitions on Facebook or Cormac McCarthy began posting pictures of his breakfast, I think my world would end.”

  15. I’ve never used FB, and I am unlikely ever to do so.

    There’s just something very 1984 (the novel, not the year) about it. And it seems like one of those slick ways of getting people sucked into an addictive process (oh, come on, just one little bit won’t hurt–yeah right) that must inevitably end badly.

    So many people I know in real life are being hurt emotionally and having families broken over posts on FB. It’s very off-putting. I hear absolutely nothing good from anyone about FB, no one is made glad by it, and yet they keep going back to it.

    I have a small online business and I plod along with my blog that few people read but I’ll continue to get by without FB. Nothing is worth getting involved in all that mess.

  16. I use FB for promoting my art business and keeping my finger on the pulse of our local music scene. I think I’d have gotten off of it aside from that. I’ve considered it several times, but instead landed somewhere sort of like you, I think. I don’t check it daily. I keep my friends rather limited. I do enjoy staying in (near) daily contact with a few farflung friends and family members that I wouldn’t otherwise so there is also that. All the fingerpointing and political slandering and “facts” without citations drives me nuts. I like your guidelines. They seem a very reasonable balance. I rarely make status updated on FB, but link up my blog. I find its depth more meaningful in my life.

  17. I’m there with you. I don’t enjoy the click bait and prefer to see things that people are actually making or doing themselves.

    I do enjoy the voyeurism possible on the platform. That tiny window into the lives of distant relatives and classmates I haven’t talked to in years.

    A couple of years ago I went from private and only people I know in real life to making my profile public and accepting most friend requests. I mostly post art and cat pictures so I decided to understand it as a public platform for self promotion.

    I don’t really know if artists “need” to be on social media but a few people have told me that my pictures are the highlight of their feed so I keep on doing it. Which is a sort of self reinforcing behavior since at times I’ve decided to stayed on facebook mostly because there are some artists I wanna follow that don’t post stuff elsewhere.

    If I were to Pollan-ize my personal rules for social media I would say:

    “Post positive things. Mostly yours. Not too much.”

    • Funny you should comment–in an earlier version of this post I said that I really admired Facebook friends who post their art–and I was thinking of you. I really like the stuff you put up and would miss seeing it if I pull the Facebook plug. I like your Pollanized Facebook rules so much that I think I need to build another post around them.

  18. my main issue is the News Feed Algorithm. I want to be able to see everything more chronologically, and potentially have differing outside opinions added to the mix. (but only on things I’m interested in.) I also don’t care for people resharing stuff they find funny, as I have my own sources for discovering humor. (Pinterest, Vine, people/pages I have chosen to follow, Google+ collections, etc.) Speaking of Google+, I like the idea of posting to collections, so if I want to see gardening but not cat videos from you, I have that option. Overall, I believe the service has become bloated. (I also have Vine, Google+, Pinterest, Twitter, Medium Periscope, and Instagram, but I like to use each thing for what it’s best at.)

  19. Every last word you’ve said here rings true for me and reflects my own decisions on how to handle my profile and my feed. I, too, have decided to focus on the positive, share relevant feel good or positively informational articles, unfollow those who I don’t yet want to unfriend but can’t handle, and simply spend less time there (which also allows me more time to comment on other blogs and respond to comments on my own. I feel healthier and happier already. Magic 🙂

  20. Pingback: I Gave Up Facebook for a Week and Didn’t Miss It | Root Simple

  21. I’ve never really understood the attraction. Even when an active FB user, I only checked once a month or so, and then found the checking process fairly tedious. As distractions go, it didn’t hold any appeal. For a while I felt I “should” maintain an account so that I could stay in touch with friends from high school, etc. – people who aren’t actively in my life anymore – but then I realized that if I’d drifted away from someone, FB provided only a superficial connection. I would rather not read the racist comments of the sweet red-headed boy who sat behind me in grade school, now an angry, muscle-bound dickhead. I shut down my account four years ago and have never regretted the decision.

  22. I’ve never had an FB account and I still feel that all of the items in your “good” list are things that I keep up with on a regular basis anyways. The world doesn’t stop spinning when you don’t have an FB account. In fact, its nice when I sit down with a friend and/or family member I haven’t seen in awhile and we can genuinely catch up and not just rehash what we’ve seen on each others social media pages. Just wanted to give a different perspective.

  23. Here via one of your link round up posts…

    I quit Facebook at the end of last April. I joined in 2008 on the cusp of my 10 year highschool reunion, jumping the MySpace ship. For the most part it was great at that time, and in 2009, early 2010, I took a six month hiatus. It was great! But I got back on when my husband and I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail and stayed on until last April. I’d taken a week break here or there but I found the compulsiveness to constantly ‘be up to date’ and ease for distraction was difficult. Being gone this last year has been wonderful and I do keep up with Twitter and joined Instagram recently.

    I plan to go back on the anniversary of my ‘quitting’ and download my data and then delete it permanently. Sure, I miss seeing updates from friends and family but guess what? I have their email and phone numbers! Everyone else…well, like someone else mentioned, I’m very Google-able.

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