The past two years have been bumpy for those in power. In 2017, the #MeToo movement brought the ugliness of sexism and assault to the surface, launching the strongest feminist movement the nation has seen in decades. In contrast, 2018 was a year when corporations faced a new wave of challenges from their employees, their customers, and their investors. We saw this locally, when thousands of Marriott workers went on strike in San Francisco for weeks, demanding better pay and benefits. Google employees left their desks in November and took to the streets to demand improved accountability for internal sexual harassment claims. And online shopping behemoth Amazon’s stock crashed this fall in part due to its declining popularity in the wake of new stories exposing warehouse workers’ slave-like conditions.
Not buying a product because you don’t like the company’s politics is one thing — shout out to all my Nestlé haters out there — but intentionally canceling an online account that was designed to make your life easier takes another, different level of commitment. Are you really going to cancel your Amazon account and sacrifice the possibility of getting anything you could possibly want shipped to your doorstep in two days?
For many people, the struggle with such seemingly mundane battles is real, and yet blog posts titled “How to Cancel Amazon Prime Subscription and Get a Refund” get tens of thousands of clicks. The social pressure to disengage from Amazon remains strong, and perhaps it’s becoming a successful campaign in part because it’s fairly easy to visualize the badly paid factory workers filling those brown boxes with Bluetooth headphones, dog sweaters, and vegetable peelers.
Facebook users on the fence face a different challenge. The company’s massive data breach earlier this year was known in theory to be bad, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who suffered directly from the mistake. Similarly, the platform’s disinformation campaigns targeting Black voters during the 2016 election were unquestionably awful, but still abstract and complicated enough to make them seem like someone else’s problem.
Nevertheless, users are dropping like flies. It’s even become trendy to hate on social media giant Facebook. “I hate Facebook,” people say, rolling their eyes, and usually following the statement with a “but I have to stay on it for work.”
A Pew study from September showed a massive drop in use. After the March data breach, 42 percent of those surveyed said that they’ve have taken a break from checking the platform for a period of several weeks or more.
It would be easy to credit this sort of loss solely to a sense of righteousness on behalf of users, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. An evolving social media culture that values quick, snappy images and stories has emerged, and Facebook’s longform one-stop-shop style — which lumps family members, old high school classmates, new colleagues, and businesses into one messy smorgasboard — is simply growing outdated. The data shows this: 44 percent of Facebook users between 18 and 29 have deleted the Facebook app from their phone in the past year, choosing Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter over that iconic blue F. (Of course, Facebook owns Instagram.)
Lily Sloane, a 34-year-old San Francisco therapist and audio producer, has debated deleting Facebook for months. The combination of data breaches and ethical violations have added up, but she still hasn’t quite been able to hit that delete button.
“I rage-quit Facebook many years ago, but I re-joined when I had work I needed to promote,” she tells SF Weekly. “First, I tried just having a business page, and it just didn’t work. I couldn’t reach people without having a personal page and friend network.”
Sloane’s podcast A Therapist Walks into a Bar took off in part thanks to her work promoting it on Facebook, but the decision to wrap up the show earlier this year has raised the issue of deleting her account once again.
“I feel really paralyzed about this decision,” she says. “There have been a number of times when a new controversy comes out, and I don’t do anything. The abstractness of the issues makes it hard to make a really clear decision. If I was like ‘This bad thing happened to me because of the way Facebook runs their company’ it would have been easy to say ‘Fuck them.’
“In the end, it’s the continuous news reports that pushes me in that direction,” she adds. “Just the discomfort in not knowing how much influence this thing has in my life makes me wary.”
Sloane used Facebook to ask her friends what they thought about deleting the platform. Some said they couldn’t get rid of it for work reasons, while others said the events feature is too useful. One woman confessed she values the social contact it provides with faraway friends, as she works alone.
In the end, at least with Sloane’s friends, it appears that while a perceived desire to delete Facebook is there, the range of functionality it brings to people’s lives have yet to be replaced by other platforms, in turn keeping users engaged.
But as the media continues to uncover human rights violations, data breaches, and ethically unsound behavior from Facebook, it’s becoming harder to ignore, particularly in a society that is rapidly becoming braver in standing up to tech corporations (and the men behind them).
“To think that a private company would have so much power, whether things were being done from an evil money-grubbing place or ignorance, either way it’s a really big problem. This feels like an extension of how we don’t want men to get away with things,” Sloane says, referencing the #MeToo movement. “I don’t want unfettered capitalism to be getting away with harming people because of their greed and power.
“I keep being faced with these decisions,” she says. “I think a lot of us are.”
These decisions — how much of a role we want to play in being complicit to bad corporate behavior — aren’t going to get easier to make in 2019. But Americans appear to be on a trajectory. People are reading journalists’ exposees on corporate responsibility and corruption not with hopelessness, but with a self-righteous sense of power. As the #MeToo movement continues to teach us, our voices do actually make a difference, no matter how mighty and rich people or companies may be.
Regardless of what fresh political hell 2019 brings, there’s no doubt it’s going to be a year of reckoning — not just for Facebook, but for us.