Vows of Digital Poverty

Maybe deleting Facebook is something akin to taking monastic vows in medieval society.

Stay with me.

Here’s the background: In the aftermath of the latest spate of revelations confirming Facebook’s status as a blight on our society and plague upon our personal lives, many have finally concluded that it is time to #DeleteFacebook.

This seems like an obviously smart move, but some have pushed back against the impulse to abandon the platform.

[Self-disclosure: I have a Facebook account. I used to have a Facebook page for this blog. I’ve recently deleted the page for the blog because it struck me as being inconsistent with my work here. I have maintained my personal profile for some of the usual reasons: I thought I might do some good there and for the sake of maintaining a few relationships that would likely dissolve altogether were it not for the platform. The former now appears to be rather naive and the latter not quite worth the cost. I’ve begun to gradually delete what I’ve posted over the years. I may leave a skeleton profile in place for awhile for the sake of those weak ties, we’ll see.]

Here is how April Glaser presents the case against #DeleteFacebook:

I understand this reaction, but it’s also an unfair one: Deleting Facebook is a privilege. The company has become so good at the many things it does that for lots of people, leaving the service would be a self-harming act. And they deserve better from it, too. Which is why the initial answer to Facebook’s failings shouldn’t be to flee Facebook. We need to demand a better Facebook.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, no friend of Facebook, makes a similarly compelling case in the New York Times:

So go ahead and quit Facebook if it makes you feel calmer or more productive. Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy. If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse. Deactivation is the opposite of activism.

From a slightly different but overlapping perspective, a post at Librarian Shipwreck likewise complicates the impulse to delete Facebook. The post draws on Lewis Mumford to frame our use of Facebook as the acceptance of a technological bribe: “Deleting Facebook is an excellent way of refusing a bribe. Yet it must be remembered that the bribe has been successful because it has offered people things which seemed enticing, and the bribe sustains itself because people have now become reliant on it.” The post also cites Neil Postman, a vociferous critic of television, to the effect that suggesting Americans do away with television—as Jerry Mander, for example, argued—amounts to making “no suggestion at all.”

I confess that much of the foregoing analysis seems more or less right to me, yet something does not quite sit well.

None of these writers argue that there is a moral duty to remain on the platform, Vaidhyanathan comes closest to this position, but they all imply that the best path may be to remain and fight for a better Facebook, if not for yourself then for the sake of those, in the United States and abroad, who do not, for a variety of reasons, have the luxury of abandoning Facebook.

But what exactly is the relevant temporal horizon of moral action? If deleting Facebook has some unfortunate short term consequences, is it not still the better option in the long run? Can’t I find other ways to support the class of people, who might be hurt in the short run by a mass exodus of people from Facebook? If I don’t think that any good or even better version of Facebook is possible, isn’t it best to abandon the platform and encourage others to do so as well?

For my part, I find it increasingly useful, if disturbingly so, to refer to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” as a way of framing our situation and the choices that confront us. Sometimes the only right response to the moral compromises that are foisted on us is to walk away, regardless of what it might cost us. However … it is also true that when we consider walking away, by deleting Facebook in this case, we should also consider who we leave behind.

So here is a suggestion. What if we imagine the decision to delete Facebook, or to abandon social media altogether, as something like a vocation, a calling not unlike the calling to the monastic life.

The monastic life was not for everyone. For one thing, executed faithfully it required a great deal of sacrifice. For another, society could not function if everyone decided to take vows and join a religious order. Rather, those who took vows lived a life of self-denial for their own sake and for the sake of the social order. Because the ordinary man and woman, the ruler, the solider, the artisan, etc. could not take vows and so devote themselves to the religious ideal, those who could take vows prayed on their behalf. They also, for a time, nurtured the intellectual life and preserved the materials upon which it depended. And they embodied an ideal in their communities knowing that this ideal could not be realized or pursued by most people. But their embodiment of the ideal benefited the whole. They withdrew from society in order to do their part for society.

We can usefully frame the choice to delete Facebook or abstain from social media or any other act of tech refusal by (admittedly loose) analogy to the monastic life. It is not for everyone. The choice can be costly. It will require self-denial and discipline. Not everyone is in a position to make such a choice even if they desired it. And maybe, under present circumstances, it would not even be altogether desirable for most people to make that choice. But it is good for all of us that some people do make that choice.

In this way we can create a legitimate space for refusal, while acknowledging that such a choice is only one way of fighting the good fight.

Those who choose to walk away will, if nothing else, be a sign to us, they will embody an ideal that many may desire but few will be able to pursue. They will preserve an alternative way of being in the world with its attendant memories and practices. And by doing so they will play their part in working for the good of society.

Of course, as it was with medieval monasticism, not all who pursue such a choice will do so in good faith, but those who do will be marked chiefly by humility.


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9 thoughts on “Vows of Digital Poverty

  1. I think you mention this in passing but it deserves reemphasis: it is easier to leave Facebook if you have an alternative platform where you can air your views. So it’s easy for, say, Sherry Turkle who writes occasional New York Times op eds, and who can reach a national audience without the use of social media to preach the virtues of the offline life. But for the rest of us? Not so much. That i think is Nathan Jurgenson and Zeynep Tufekci’s strongest hand in their battle against digital dualism; that digital sabbaths are only something the elite have the privilege to engage in. Could similar critiques be leveled against the #deletefacebook movement? I for one think so. I think i started a blog 11 years ago and i worked at it tirelessly. But i can count on my fingers how many comments i got back on it. It took me way too long to realize that no one was listening. I threw in the towel 6 months ago and started using FB. And there, with much more banal and far less refined posts i discovered intellectual community. So yeah. If you have a successful digital platform by all means consider a vow of FB poverty. But for me personally? If i want any voice? It’s not a great option.

    1. Well, I’d say that I more than mentioned it in passing. That’s pretty much the gist of the three articles with which I interact and quote at some length. I definitely get the point, and I grant it. I understand that it can be a sacrifice, which is why I frame it here as conscious embrace of limits, limits not everyone is required to embrace. I also understand the desire to establish a platform, I’ve been working at on here seven years with only the most modest success to show for it. In any case, I’m glad for your discovery of intellectual community. That is no small thing.

  2. It seems there are two choices. Stay with fb and fight (how!?) for change – as I think librarian shipwreck recommends, or leave and thereby hope to sink it. I would argue for the latter, if enough people are prepared to do it. Then fb is forced to rethink its model. That said, I have no intention of leaving it – I always understood the bargain and I think (for me) it’s a fair one. I just think it should be transparent – I keep in touch with friends and family, make free video calls to Vietnam and Greece, post things I care about or which I think are interesting, and fb gets my data. I never take any notice of their ads or news feeds. I have done one or two of their silly quizzes.

  3. I deleted my Facebook a year-ish ago. To be honest I can’t really remember when (life without an ever present timeline is tough). I did it after listening to Tristan Harris and a Ted talk with Scott Galloway. I couldn’t stop thinking about the manipulation factor. Every time I found myself scrolling through Facebook I would stare at it surprised, wondering how I even got there. I realized I was never actually thinking about my use, and that even when I tried to limit myself I would be back to scrolling incessantly in a week. Eventually I had to delete it. Now I have no idea when events are happening. I find myself in groups of friends and they’re all chatting about each others business while I stand there oblivious. I take adorable pictures of my dogs and shove them in peoples faces. I have emotions and thoughts and can’t share them instantly.

    Then, when I get truly and completed frustrated, I end up laughing at myself. All of the things I’m frustrated with are ridiculous. I find different mediums to share my thoughts, pictures, and life with. Usually by interacting with friends, or writing on my blog, or (and this ones real crazy) just keeping it to myself.

    Facebook is extremely useful, but I always wonder why we can’t just scrap it and figure something else out. Why the hell are we relying so heavily on Mark Zuckerburg to make us happy?

  4. Ultimately the question of what is or isn’t good for a person has to be answered by that person alone. And I think the suspicion of these platforms is that they won’t leave us alone long enough to work out the answer.

  5. Pertinent quote from the counterculture genius Robert Crumb: “If you people are really serious about making a revolution then you must begin with some personal sacrifices! Let me add here that I’m not calling for any severe self-denial trip for its own sake…quite the contrary! It’s a simple matter of getting rid of all this illusory booshwah [sic] junk that clutters the human spirit and encumbers the will in its battle for freedom—we”ll start with this!” (Rips telephone jack from out of the wall)

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