BY BENNETT MCINTOSH
Ivy wunderkind and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stares at me through a metal mask, his curly hair and huge grin somehow rendering the image more sinister. The caption, in Facebook’s characteristic blue color scheme and simple font, reads, “Faceborg: Resistance is futile.”
I first saw the image more than a year ago, but there was something so striking about its presence on my News Feed that it has stuck with me. Critiquing Facebook on Facebook is no contradiction. This seeming paradox simply shows that it is the go-to site for our every musing, even those criticizing its very role. Nor is the idea unique — a simple Google search for “Faceborg” yields all manner of memes, screenshot statuses and cartoons espousing the same idea.
See, whatever value Facebook provides us, we — the users — are actually its product. The advertisers are the real customers. This is no secret, but it is often presented as a shocking scandal, as if Facebook is some sort of vampiric people-farm straight out of The Matrix, selling the life force of legions of prisoners to advertisers. The fact is we’re providing our time and attention voluntarily. And that makes sense; Facebook provides a valuable service, by keeping us connected to friends and allowing us to share and collect our own information.
There is, in fact, a cost for us, though. Facebook clamors for our time, our information and our attention — resources that are rather limited given our busy lives. Yet, according to Psychology Today, the Internet capitalizes on our brains’ reward circuits to ensure that we comply — the endorphin rush provided by an unread email from a listserv, the Taylor Swift goat video, an article on capsaicin I found while Googling endorphins always seems better than finally getting started on that problem set or that column for the ‘Prince.’ It requires conscious effort to break out of this loop, and this is no accident. Every post provides more data to keep the real customers — the advertisers — happy.
So though our participation in these communities is voluntary, we are being subtly convinced to spend more time there and less time out here. We are not oblivious to this problem. Various methods try to balance this dynamic — SelfControl for Macs helps users avoid distracting websites, and many, including myself, find it productive to turn off their computers’ Wi-Fi while studying. Facebook in particular is targeted by many of these efforts — come exam time, News Feeds are full of friends bidding farewell to the virtual world until the end of exams.
Lent — the six weeks before Easter that are often used among Christians for deliberate self-improvement — is another common time for attempted separation from the Faceborg. One night at somewhere around 3:30 a.m., I noticed that I had been passively scrolling down my Facebook News Feed for the past two hours — hours much better spent sleeping. Worse, I wasn’t even engaged; I really care very little what middle school classmates at the bottom of my News Feed have to say. It became clear that I needed to take some time off. I decided to make the leap this Lent.
But it’s not so simple. Giving it up completely would be severing myself from parts of Facebook necessary for campus life, so I allowed myself continued access on my phone. Especially for college students, Facebook is an invaluable means for keeping in touch with distant friends, and it acts as a day-to-day productivity tool. It’s not only a social instrument, but also a combined class discussion board, event calendar and means of asking favors of acquaintances whom you wouldn’t be able to track down otherwise. Zuckerberg has created a social architecture that is now inseparable from “real” life.
It is no longer possible to maintain disconnection in a hyper-connected world. We can no longer leave our online communities — Facebook, email, blogs, Tumblr and Reddit — than we can walk out of FitzRandolph Gate, never to be seen again. These are our homes now. Quitting would be leaving our friends, our news sources and a large chunk of our lives behind.
This is not to say that there’s no point in critically examining our online presence. Just as school breaks allow us to come back to campus for a fresh start, and a week in the woods without phones allows so many freshmen to start life at Princeton with new perspectives, my voyage into the electronic wilderness made me think carefully. Is that video really worth sharing with hundreds of people? Does that political post really add to the discussion? Even after my time away, the answer will still often be yes. However, I have begun to acknowledge that since we can’t — and don’t want to — escape Facebook’s world, we would be well-advised to be mindful of how we shape it. The difference between being a user and being used is the difference between procrastination and productivity, ignoring our surroundings or engaging them, unquestioning assimilation with the Faceborg and calculated resistance.
Bennett McIntosh is a freshman from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.