What It Would Take For Facebook To Stop Manipulating Us

Published in Online Spin, June 22nd, 2018

Several months ago, I decided to take steps to reclaim my own attention.

I used to leave Facebook open on a tab on my machine, allowing me to see instantly when there were new notifications. Now I log out and close the tab. This small bit of extra friction has reduced my use of the social media platform by, I’m guessing, 80%. 

I also uninstalled the Facebook app on my phone. I was sick of its neediness. Sick of its notifications and its constant demands on my attention. Sick of observing my own desire to respond to those demands.

Now if I want to look at Facebook on the phone, I open the browser and navigate to the site. Again, it’s a small amount of additional friction; again, it has dramatically reduced the amount of time I spend there.

Facebook is not happy about this.

For a while, when I navigated to the site in the browser, I was greeted by a notification at the top: “Your friends are posting things that can only be seen in the app! Install it now!”

Every time I saw this message it made me angrier. We all know that Facebook’s core skill set — the thing it does better than absolutely everyone else on the planet — is manipulating our attention. But this just seemed so blatant. 

Today, it got worse. “Your friends have posts on the app that will expire in 10 hours! Install the app now!”

When I get messages like this, I imagine myself as some high-powered executive — Steve Jobs, say, or Bill Gates. I imagine my assistant running into my enormous penthouse office, overlooking an incredible view.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he says, breathlessly, “but this is urgent! Your friends have posted things to the Facebook app and they’re going to expire in 10 hours! Should we drop everything?”

Their attempt at coercion is more than laughable; it’s offensive. Do they really think so little of my time? Do they really think my level of insecurity is so high that I would be incapable of resisting the need to know every single thing a friend might post to the social network?

It’s especially offensive given that Mark Zuckerberg himself doesn’t use Facebook the way you and I do: he’s got a team of people carefully curating his public image and monitoring comments for appropriateness and, despite the launch of Messenger for Kids, won’t let his own daughter join the social network until she turns 13. 

All of this makes the idea of Facebook being in charge of ensuring time on the site is — as Zuckerberg wrote earlier this year — “time well spent”… well, laughable.

(It’s worth noting that the phrase “time well spent” originated with Tristan Harris and the team at the Center for Humane Technology, not with Zuckerberg.)

There are lots of arguments as to why Facebook will never make a meaningful change away from these active attempts to hook and manipulate your attention. Many of these arguments center on the financial imperative: the whole business model is built on eyeballs, and if the eyeballs go away, the empire falls apart. 

But I don’t buy it. Facebook posted $4.3 billion in profit last year, an increase of 61% on the previous year. They have plenty of room to reduce their stranglehold on our consciousness while remaining profitable, and Zuckerberg, with total control over the company, has the ability to singlehandedly make that call. Even if he didn’t, despite popular belief, the idea that the sole responsibility of a company is to maximize returns to shareholders is a myth. There is literally nothing stopping the social network from ceasing its blatantly manipulative, disrespectful tactics.

Nothing except culture and political will. Do they have any of that?

Kaila Colbin