I write this from a patio in the Dominican Republic. The street here is an obstacle course. You walk out to buy coffee, but you’re attacked by one, five, eight people offering you things. What they offer is not what you want, and they don’t know that because they don’t ask. If you tell them what you want, they say they have it—even if they don’t.
It’s a lot like Facebook in 2013.
How I Started
A lot of people don’t like Facebook. Some always hated it, some never even tried it out. I’m not one of those people.
I was a latecomer, but when Facebook was explained to me I took to it quickly. It was especially valuable when I started to travel, connecting me to faraway friends and family. Some people complain when their mom joins Facebook; I convinced mine to.
Now I’m leaving it behind.
Facebook no longer serves my needs, neither as an individual looking to keep in touch socially nor as an author seeking to promote my work. I’m phasing out Facebook completely, and shifting my focus to other, better designed social media networks.
This will reduce the amount of traffic I get to Rogue Priest, and it may adversely affect my work. I’m doing it anyway. In this post I hope to explain why: what’s wrong with Facebook, why it doesn’t work for me and what that means for me as a writer.
This decision has nothing to do with “privacy.” There’s a lot of fear about how Facebook uses personal data, and I don’t share that fear. I knowingly consent to let Facebook use my anonymous metadata. That metadata lets them give me better friend recommendations, return better search results and generally improve my user experience.
I also have no qualms with social media as a technology. It doesn’t scare me that people are online a lot. Go ahead and check your phone at dinner—you’ll catch me doing it. Today, digital space is more like an extension of geographic space; there is no competition between engaging the digital and engaging the “real world.” At least, there doesn’t have to be.
You might feel differently than me. Maybe it’s deeply disturbing that children are learning cool things from an intuitive touch screen instead of rickety film strips. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their opinions. Even if I find those opinions reactionary.
But I personally am very comfortable with the expostmodern world we’re creating.
What’s Wrong With Facebook?
If I’m so pro-social media, why am I pulling Rogue Priest off of Facebook?
Because it’s not the best tool for the job, and I’m using other tools instead.
Facebook has, quite simply, become a terribly unhelpful social site, one that’s no longer fun or functional. For example:
1. Cluttered layout.
I just opened Facebook in another tab and counted. It has 12 different toolbars, streams, widgets and panels spread across five different screen areas. That is ridiculous, especially since eye tracking studies show that we only look at the faces and words of our friends and ignore all the other content.
The layout of Facebook reveals two problems with the site: it’s trying to do too much, and it’s organizing it poorly.
Compare this with the smooth, streamlined layout of Twitter. Twitter has 6 panels spread across only three screen areas. They strike you as a single stream with one sidebar. I feel more relaxed just looking at it.
2. Emphasis on ads.
Ads belong on social media sites. We-the-users are the product, not the customer—ad sales are how our networks stay afloat. That’s better than charging me for it.
But I resent advertising that conflicts with functionality. As a kid National Geographic outraged me because I could never find the table of contents amidst all the ads. It was intentional, because that’s prime real estate. And Facebook’s grabby ad-fingers are intentional as well. But now the real estate isn’t paper, it’s my eyeballs. Hands off my eyeballs, Facebook.
Facebook uses three main methods to advertise. First, the ad bar on the right side of the screen. Okay. Second, “sponsored” posts that appear in my main news feed and masquerade as shares from friends. It’s like sending a salesman in disguise to my birthday party. (This is icky.)
Third and most backwards, Facebook artificially adjusts the sharing ecosystem so that non-paid content reaches fewer people. While this seems fair, it artificially overrides supply-and-demand. That makes any system inefficient (and alienates people). Facebook doesn’t just add sponsored posts to my news feed, it down-regulates how many posts I see out of the ones I want to see.
This is frankly a strategic failure. Aside from haughtily disregarding user preference (and potentially losing eyeballs to sell), it also alienates advertisers and content producers, the people that Facebook makes money off of. The cost of reaching Facebook users is ever escalating, while the value of reaching them declines—because they won’t keep seeing your regular unpaid content after they “like” you.
3. It’s buggy.
There are numerous glitches and poor functionality choices involved in Facebook, especially for a Page that wants to use it as a promotional tool. I don’t mean the aesthetic choices like switching to Timeline, I mean things like no longer being able to edit a post (you can edit comments, not posts); complicated notification settings; and the fact that unfriending someone doesn’t unsubscribe them from your feed, so under most privacy settings they can still see what you say.
(I had a lot more examples but they made this article too long. Please leave a comment and tell me what features you don’t like about Facebook!)
My impression is that Facebook began as a well designed site. It declined due to function sprawl, poor design choices, too much emphasis on ads, no unified vision for the site, and trying to cater to too many users.
It really is Facebook’s success that crippled it. Facebook wants to be everyone‘s social media site. It’s so padded, so crude, so addictive that even people who can barely turn on a computer decide to make a profile and check it every day. It should be obvious that more fluent internet users are going to want something more (or something less) from their go-to online channel.
Facebook hoped to be the village bicycle and it has succeeded, with all the pros and cons that that sweaty seat entails.
The Users Don’t Help
While the site itself is the source of many frustrations, the way people use Facebook has changed too—and not for the better.
Sometime in early 2012, almost overnight, there was a huge uptick in sharing images as status updates. Not photos from your phone, but motivational or “funny” images cribbed from the web. I don’t know if this corresponded to some change Facebook rolled out (easier image sharing?) but it forever changed what I get from my friends’ feeds.
I like my status updates pithy and amusing, but at the very least personal—which they are if you write them yourself. When you use a meme, joke image, or poster as your status I feel less like I’m talking to you (social media) and more like I’m looking at a bulletin board you assembled (your waiting room).
During some peak times, the majority of the statuses I see are memes. Many are poorly worded, fall flat on their jokes or are purposefully inflammatory. I guess that’s what happens when a site becomes less about social contact, and more like a place to collect bumper stickers.
[Friends and family: I love all you guys. I just like hearing what you have to say more than I like looking at posters together.]
I also see more fake names—officially forbidden by Facebook rules, but hard to enforce—which makes the site harder to use and exacerbates the use of inflammatory content.
What’s Best as a Writer
My main purpose in using social media is to share my work. My hope is that more people will find it, read it, and enjoy it, ultimately resulting in a larger audience. As a philosopher, a larger audience means more dialogue which helps me refine my ideas. And it bolsters my ability to make a living through my chosen art.
Facebook complicates this. The complication is more than the difficulty in sharing nonpaid content, or the buggy, poorly designed structure. It comes down to integrity.
Facebook feels like a crowded, cheap, tourist trap of a bar. If I don’t want to be there, why do I want my content there? And more important, why would I direct my readers to go there?
No part of my writing career has to be enmeshed in a large time-wasting machine. And neither does your life.
It hurts to know that I’ll lose web traffic. My blogging is unpaid, and the only return I get is in the form of engagement with readers. When a lot of people read and engage my work I feel good; when few people do, I feel sad.
But I still choose to live and create on my own terms. I’ll change to other, better social media and hope to build my traffic back long-term. And maybe then it won’t be so dependent on a single, unhealthy source.
Perhaps we are more than fuel in someone else’s ad machine.
Follow me @Rogue_Priest for more updates.
My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.