Around this time last year, I was contacted by a recruiter from Facebook wanting me to apply for a technical writing position there. We talked for a little bit, I got the job information; it sounded pretty interesting, and the folks I know here in Silicon Valley who work for FB generally love it. They take care of their employees as much as modern tech companies do, and that’s not meant as a slight; while FB is more prone to the “constant frat party vibe woo” stereotype than possibly any other company as large as it is, they pay incredibly well, and have generous benefits with respect to bonuses, vacation, insurance, and retirement. And, at this point, I’d been out of work for a few months; part of that was by choice, in that I didn’t start looking for new work right after being laid off from Realm in September of 2017, but I’d just had a couple dispiriting rejections after trying to get back into the workforce and was feeling a little desperate.
But…I didn’t feel good about working for Facebook.
This is not about politics, per se; it’s about the way Facebook aggregates, synthesizes, and applies data. It is not an exaggeration to say that they’re the biggest intelligence-gathering organization in the world. We willingly tell them who our friends are and what groups we belong to; they can infer information we didn’t explicitly offer, based on who our friends associate with and what groups they belong with. They know what ads you’ve clicked on, even ones that aren’t on Facebook, since they supply advertising networks to other web sites and increasingly run free wifi at coffee shops and other businesses (just log into your Facebook account to connect). They know what you’ve searched for on Facebook, but they kind of know what you’ve searched for anywhere else, because they served you ads based on the search keywords you used and, hey, you’re logged into Facebook, so it’s you, welcome back! They know things you don’t tell your friends, or at least don’t tell all of them. They probably know if you’re gay, even if you’re still in the closet. They know you’re a science fiction fan, or a Golden State Warriors fan. They know you’re a furry. They also know you’re an alcoholic, or that you have a gambling problem, or that you have an STD. You’ve never explicitly told them any of those things, sure, but they’ve designed their platform to be one giant automated private investigation service…all in the service of giving you better, more targeted ads.
They’d tell you that their mission isn’t just to serve you ads, of course, it’s to “connect the world.” But that makes it a little worse in some ways, doesn’t it? That gives them a philosophical backing for their ends-justify-the-means mentality. Isn’t connection good? Does that end not justify virtually any mean? Can’t any problems just be written off as collateral damage?
Well, no. No, they can’t. Again, this isn’t about politics, per se, but on a meta level, it kind of is: Facebook wants us engaged, and we get engaged by clickbait. We’re engaged when we’re outraged. We’re engaged when we see which of our so-called friends are so very, very wrong about whatever’s got us fired up. Facebook has “connected” us with people we probably didn’t really need to stay in contact with beyond the occasional Christmas card. We think we’re expanding our social circle tenfold, but too often we’re fraying it, click after click.
So I called the recruiter back and said that I couldn’t pursue the position.
Nothing that happened since then has made me feel that was a bad call. Every month seems to bring a new story about Facebook’s essentially unethical behavior. And it is hard to overstate how much reach and power Facebook has in our economy and our society right now; the claims critics made just a year or two ago that seemed bombastic and ridiculous keep being proven right. It’s frankly not a good, healthy place to be, either as an employee or a customer.
So far I’ve avoided deleting my Facebook account, because there are still people who I will literally only hear from if I remember to check FB (which I increasingly do not, for the record). It is so woven into the fabric of hundreds of millions of lives that the notion that someone you care about is not seeing your Facebook posts seems almost absurd. But I’m not checking very often, and I don’t expect that to change. It’s not impossible that 2019 will see me deleting the account entirely.