The great American writer Kurt Vonnegut, famous for such novels as Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, coined his own Neo-religious language in the latter book, which has now thrived for nearly six decades. Bokononism, the religion is called, speaks of the karass, or the sum of an individual’s personal relationships; and it warns of the granfalloon, or any artificial association designed to bring people together under a proud yet meaningless umbrella of connectivity. Vonnegut didn’t live long enough to witness the proliferation of Facebook in modern society, but if he had, he’d certainly accuse it of being one of the great granfalloons of our era.
We’re living in a time where people don’t trust each other, and they trust big business and organizations and governments even less. Ironically, we all readily log in to Facebook, an omnipotent behemoth of a corporation, like lemmings to the sea, suckered by the allure of one of the most contentious granfalloons that ever sought to damage our karasses. And for many of us, we do so even though we don’t want to. The whole experience of using Facebook has become nearly unbearable, yet through some hideous cultural process of psycho-digital-masochistic conventionalizing, we want more.
To borrow another piece of Bokonist vocabulary (the term for “shit storm”), the whole experience of using Facebook has devolved into an unavoidable pool-pah.
Nevertheless, we persist.
Ask anyone why they originally joined Facebook and you’ll hear the same innocent answers: to keep in touch with family and old friends! to stay in contact with college buddies! to organize groups and events! They are everyone’s reasons, yet nobody’s truths. Facebook doesn’t allow them to be true. If someone doesn’t post often, they become invisible. If they don’t interact with others, you’ll never see them. Instead of keeping in touch with distant friends and family, or getting a taste of what everyone you follow is doing, Facebook has transformed the user experience into a reinforcement of the belief systems and social groups with which we most frequently engage. It has become a buttress to fortify our existing notions, pair us with the people we know who think and act most like ourselves, and ignore the rest.
Yet we want it.
Every now and then, you’ll come across someone who says they don’t have a Facebook account.
“How can that be?”
“What do you mean?”
“What kind of weirdo doesn’t have a Facebook?”
At the same time, we all want to delete our accounts. We’ve all thought about how freeing it would be to throw in the towel, close up shop, and remove ourselves from the burdens of the platform. Every now and then, someone has the fortitude to actually do it.
“I’ve been thinking of doing the same for a long time,” we say to these unimaginable titans of defiance. “I just can’t do it.”
“It’s like getting rid of Netflix or Amazon Prime. How?”
Pushing the delete button on your account is as harrowing an idea as lifting up a car. Only mothers trying to save their babies from death can muster up the required adrenaline to make it happen.
Does nurturing Facebook’s social dichotomy make Zuckerberg the most dangerous man in the world? Maybe, on accident. He didn’t create Facebook to be malicious. (If you believe the narrative in the Fincher film, he kind of created it to be a perv.) But the structure of Facebook’s algorithms and the nature of its advertising model fuel the division of its users. Again, it’s not all Zuck’s fault: Facebook preys on our weaknesses and social tendencies. Humans love to set their own scenes, to find and cultivate echo chambers where they can feel wanted and accepted by believing and liking and sharing the same things as their friends. Facebook is designed to capitalize on those desires. But in doing so it conditions us to judge others, helps us learn to dislike our friends and family members, and gives center stage to previously-private personal preferences which others can use to make assumptions and judgments, whether intentionally or not. Beliefs and views that would not have otherwise been displayed with such bravado are showcased publicly with little regard for consequence, poisoning third-party perspectives and fostering bias. In a way, Facebook is a digital ice-nine released upon the world; a massive, self-driven, product-sponsored collapse of intellect and rational thinking operating under the illusion of a social liberty.
How would our lives be different without Facebook? If it had never existed? What would the nature of news be like? Of political discourse? Of social justice?
Some of Facebook is good. The memes are great. They are comedy gold. And gifs are fun. If it weren’t for taking images and videos out of context and using them for humor, Facebook would lose all of its appeal. But finding those delicious nuggets means scrolling the whole timeline, sifting through and enduring all the unsavory mold growing around them.
So why do I keep using it? For me, logging in is a habitual motion fueled by my hope for a few minutes of casual downtime. Is it just social conditioning? Cultural necessity? Basic societal expectation? What else am I going to do while sitting on the toilet?
Every time I click that big blue F, I hope for a minute’s entertainment. I trick myself into thinking I may see something interesting. Instead, I almost always leave sad or angry. I post infrequently because I don’t feel the need to unleash more mindless garbage upon the world, and only contribute when something truly worthwhile is worth discussing. But taking that responsible stance means nothing I post ever gets seen, save for by the 4-5 people whose material I regularly engage with. What benefit do I get from Facebook? One could argue “you get what you give,” but that’s factually inaccurate in this case: Facebook gets plenty of demographic and preferential information from me which it turns around and sells to advertisers. All I get is silence when I want to share something important, and emotional trauma when I am hoping for a few moments of idleness.
I continue checking the big, bold, energetic world of Facebook hoping for a whisper of something meaningful, and all I can hear is vitriolic noise that rings in my head like an elegy for human sanity.
Maybe it’s time to get out. Facebook has come a long way since I first joined back in the mid-2000s, when it was a college-only platform available only to active students. I can’t say it’s made the journey for the better. Big ideas can easily go bad – just ask the Bokononists.