"We need to refocus the system," is how Mark Zuckerberg explained the dramatic changes he plans to make to Facebook's News Feed in an interview with The New York Times. "We want to make sure that our products are not just fun, but are good for people."
It's as close to an admission as we're likely to get from Zuckerberg about the negative effects his company has had on humanity. Of course, refocusing on "meaningful interaction" (that is, high impact posts from close friends) can only come at the cost of massively reducing the reach of publishers. A small price to pay, perhaps. But I think my own overhaul of Facebook might have Mark's beat.
All images: Facebook.com
Since early December, I've been systematically clearing everyone and everything from my feed. Most days, nothing remains on the social network I joined 12 years ago except for this: "Welcome to Facebook. Get started by adding friends. You'll see their videos, photos and posts here." Occasionally, the site offers a more exhausted message: "There are no more posts to show right now."
There are certainly more efficient methods to unfollow everyone on Facebook, but I opted to dismiss people and groups as they appeared on my feed to see how the platform would react to my rapid decoupling. Present coworkers were replaced by past ones, and close friends gave way to more distant ones I probably owed a call or an email to. I saw names that were familiar from high school next to faces that were now strange, then relatives of exes whose digital friendship merited neither the animosity of deletion nor the awkwardness of interaction. It was a slow, weeks-long journey to the outer reaches of my social circles, all the way out to people I had no recollection of, living in places I've never been.
As people disappeared from my timeline by the dozens, Facebook dutifully surfaced posts for me - although they were getting increasingly stale. Wishes of "happy birthday Tim!" directed at a musician I knew in university hung around for days after he'd turned, what, 29? Thirty years old? At its most desperate, Facebook shoved week-old posts into my withering feed, starved for anything that would keep my eyes trained on its infamous blue and grey walled garden.
Certain that I would at least want to see posts from a page I managed, my Facebook feed became a deluge of Gizmodo links - so I revoked my administrative privileges.
By day three, the feed began visibly panicking.
It would do this a few times before landing on the "no posts to show" message
And a day later it gave up. Just like that, all my digital friendships were tucked neatly away. Unfollowed but not unfriended, even passive interactions with my Facebook relations became optional when I logged on. (Some of these steps, I should note, had to be repeated for Facebook's mobile app, which seems, by design, to ignore your desire to receive fewer notifications.)
Keen to keep going, the next target on Facebook's remarkably cluttered front page was the "shortcuts" menu - something I've never used and possibly never even noticed before launching this crusade to vanquish Zuckerberg's UI for my own well-being. Like much of Facebook, these sidebar links appear to be automatically generated, and they can't be deleted. But they can be hidden, manually, one at a time. When none remain, the shortcuts menu disappears.
Facebook was a lot more excited for my birthday than I was...
The same holds true for the "stories" module - with no stories to fill it, it collapses into nothing. Only one person's story appeared on my feed, and I didn't recognise the name of the poster. Unfriended. Gone.
Trending topics can also be removed (one at a time) until there are none left, resulting in an eerie question mark, drifting too close to module's border. But the topics refill so quickly that it's hardly worth the effort. Functionally, nothing else on Facebook's main page is optional. With the core product absent, a cavalcade of utterly useless features are all that remain, exposing the company's ad hoc approach to harvesting time and data from users.
The question mark just sits there.
Similar to how I'll open the fridge to stare at the same leftovers when I'm more bored than hungry, I used to check Facebook dozens of times a day. Call it emotional lethargy. It's an unusual habit to break - one which hundreds of people a lot smarter than me worked very hard to make as difficult to quit as they could. Being greeted by nothing has provided powerful reinforcement.
Why not delete my account completely? I can justify Zuckerberg's algorithmic nightmare as an invaluable tool for reporting, but it's also undeniable that nothing holds more of my digital memories than Facebook. Many of them exist nowhere else. Photos of summer cookouts. Jokes between friends now passed away. Facebook lets people download their full user archive but, according to the company, "unfortunately, there's no way to individually select which data you would like to download when you download your Facebook info."
Not all of these memories need to remain stored on the servers of a company I (and much of the Western world) no longer trusts, but I'd like some of them to be saved. Preserving what's meaningful and deleting what isn't will be an arduous project for another day. In another 12 years I'd like to relive a few of them again, with or without Facebook's help.