Daniel Bellow: Facebook, you gave me no choice


GREAT BARRINGTON — I will no longer discuss politics on Facebook.

Years ago, at the turn of the century, when the internet was in its infancy, I worked for the mighty Microsoft Corporation. In those days, children, a computer was a big old cathode ray tube that sat on your desk, and Microsoft was like the sun, sucking smaller and lighter bodies into its orbit and then subsuming them altogether. The annual employee meeting was in the Kingdome. I was a lowly contract employee in the research department website; it was my job to interview brilliant geeks and then describe their work in terms your mother could understand for the website.

My favorite person was another guy who seemed to have gotten there by mistake, a sociologist named Mark Gold. His job, as he saw it, was to figure out how the company could make money off the internet, which at that point was blowing up and changing day by day. He had, I thought, a tremendous insight: "People," he said, "are interested in other people. The otters at the zoo are fascinating, but after about 20 minutes of that, we're back on people. Human attention is going to be the most valuable commodity on the Internet."

Another friend by the name of Dan Venolia also guessed right, he imagined a little device with a little screen that had a list of all your friends, so you could stay in constant contact. No such thing existed, so he made one out of cardboard to show us what it would look like.


Both these prophecies have come true in the form of Facebook, a platform for social interaction that has taken over the internet and replaced Microsoft as the most massive object in the galaxy. As it does its best to corner the market in human attention, it has introduced to us a whole new modality of human interaction, I am now in touch with just about everyone I have ever known, and they can all (theoretically at least) see me. There can be no doubt that it has changed the world in ways that we are only beginning to understand. It also seems clear that like other technological revolutions, it is a mixed blessing.

Back to my threat, which I intend to carry out:

1. Facebook is a time and attention sink, a black hole that opens on your phone and sucks you in. This is a feature not a bug, the more you look at it the more money it makes. It is seductive, it is mesmerizing. Like the Borg in "Star Trek," it will assimilate you. Resistance is futile.

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2. If you are not paying for the product, you are the product. The management is selling all my personal information to advertisers. They are farming me. Like in "The Matrix." I looked up a pair of nice Danner hiking boots on Amazon, and now they are following me around Facebook. It's creepy, but as Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNally told a group of reporters in 1999, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

3. Politics makes monsters of us all, and in a frictionless environment like Facebook people will say things they wouldn't dream of saying to your face. I am astonished at the bad manners and bad faith argument I routinely see, I have lately been called an antisemite, a toxic male, and other ridiculous things by people I have actually met. I used to edit the letters to the editor, which is why you never saw this kind of thing in The Eagle. On Facebook, it's all out the window.

I inherited two sweet old southern lady aunts from my ex-wife, and I am dismayed to see that they have become rabid Trumpers, passing along hateful memes and stories from Fox News applauding the separation of children from their parents at the border. Everyone's character is dissolving before my eyes. Even people I like and agree with have begun to bore me with their Trump obsession.


4. You never know if you're arguing with a real person. My friend Gabe has a friend named Irina; she claims to be an anarchist even though her vocabulary is right wing. She appears as a woman with enormous breasts in a flannel shirt tied above her navel with a Confederate flag backdrop and she makes trouble like a pro. I'm pretty sure she is a Russian bot, some pimply teenager in a bunker somewhere.

Facebook has become a vehicle for propaganda, it's a weakness in their position, which requires them to be neutral and let everyone post what they like or else be deemed a publisher and fall into a chasm of liability. Everyone is in on the game, not just the Russians, who for a modest investment got millions of shares and likes for their agitprop. Human attention is the most valuable commodity on the internet. Facebook realized late how it was had in the 2016 election. It is embarrassed. It fears congressional inquiry and antitrust action, and rightly so.

The problem is, it has become like the phone company. My 18-year old kid doesn't text any more, I have to reach him by Facebook Messenger. I sell a lot of pottery posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram. I can't give it up.

So here is what I'm going to do. I hereby declare that Facebook has seen the last of me except for pictures of my pottery and the activity in my studio, my family and friends, my adorable dogs, my morning coffee, my walks in the Berkshire woods. If you're looking for me there, my new name is Daniel Bellow Pottery. If you want to know what I think about politics, I have a column in The Berkshire Eagle from time to time. If you disagree, write a letter to the editor. If you are really my friend, and you want to talk, come by at quitting time with a six-pack. That's all.

Daniel Bellow is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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