In your face

Like most, my relationship with Facebook is complicated

My first Facebook profile, way back when you still needed a college email to create one, was a picture of one of those little dinosaurs that get bigger in water, which my brother kept in an old bottle of Colt 45. His name was Strumpet, and he was a stegosaurus. Although Strumpet has gone up north to live with a nice family on a farm, I still get birthday notifications for him occasionally.

Strumpet was my way of being on Facebook without actually putting myself out there. I was terrified people would pore over anything I posted and get the wrong impression. That hasn't changed, but at least now I'm comfortable knowing none of my friends give a shit. I think this gets to the heart of what Facebook has become: A place where the only people actually paying attention to all the mundane things we post are the ones who work at Cambridge Analytica.

Everyone on Facebook is creating a brand for themselves and selling it to their friends, desperately hoping they will buy it. I'm as guilty as anyone else. I share travel photos so my friends will think I'm some globe-hopping world traveler. I shamelessly pimp my journalism because likes and shares are what gets you work nowadays. And I try not to post about politics because I'm pathologically unable to resist an argument, and I don't want to ruin my whole day. And it works.

In May, I'm getting married to someone who I would never have kept in touch with if not for Facebook. I met her a few days before leaving on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, and Facebook was our primary method of communication. It could have been email, sure, but there is undeniably something more personal about messaging on Facebook.

Afghanistan is 14 hours ahead of Hawaii, where she was living at the time. As the sun was setting on my little corner of the war, it was rising on a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in Waikiki. I would send her embarrassingly sappy morning messages as often as I could—messages which will live forever in a server farm somewhere. I wonder what valuable advertising data is being gleaned from them as I write this.

Maybe Facebook works because we think we really know someone when we see what they are eating and who they are hanging out with, what their political or religious beliefs are, what kind of relationships they've had in the past, how many pictures of cats they post per day. And the combination of people trying to sell an ideal image of themselves and other people using those images as a substitute for real connection, is why Facebook is the behemoth that it is.

Facebook is like watching an episode of MTV Cribs starring your friends. I look at the picturesque lives of my Facebook friends—usually while I'm slouched over my desk, unshowered—and inevitably compare them to mine. I know it's dumb, but I can't help myself. Facebook is tapped into a part of my brain I can't control. It's the same part that forces me to watch movies starring The Rock.

The problem with these comparisons is this: Real people are not who they are on Facebook.

When I finally created a real profile for Facebook one of the rules I made for myself was that I would only ever friend people I had met face to face. This came in handy when I added U.S. Army as a job and was instantly barraged with random friend requests from scantily clad women. (These accounts are foreign intelligence agencies trying to trick dumb privates into giving away troop movements, and they work.) But friending only people I've met also means that when I see a meme about the shooting at Sandy Hook being a false flag operation or suggesting vaccines are causing autism in my feed, it isn't the voice of some faceless other. It's the opinion of someone I know, for better or worse.

I grew up in a small college town in Wisconsin with hippies for parents. As a result, most of my Facebook friends from high school are of the liberal persuasion. The friends I made in the Army came from all over the United States and Texas, but in the military, there is definitely a conservative majority.

However, for the longest time my feed actually demonstrated how alike we all were, regardless of political affiliation. We all posted baby pictures and wedding announcements, photos of family get-togethers and memories of the people we have lost. But in the last few years, something has changed.

I think it had been simmering for long time, but the 2016 election saw the boiling point.

Facebook was no longer a place to keep in touch with friends. It became a battleground to be won or lost. I got caught up in it as much as everyone else, posting in support of Hillary—despite serious misgivings. In the end, I got a bunch of praise from liberal friends, and my conservative friends just ignored it.

I didn't change anyone's mind, and I certainly didn't win an election for anyone. I just forked over more of my personal beliefs to some algorithm so it can more effectively categorize me for advertisers, Facebook's true customers. In fact, if I've learned anything from having a diversified friend portfolio, it's that what Facebook does best is chunk complex people up into monetizable parts.

Since this is a guide, I suppose I should offer at least one piece of advice. Take Facebook off your phone. It's a shitty app that uses a ton of storage and memory, even when you aren't using it. Make being on Facebook a conscious choice, and if you find yourself mindlessly scrolling away, getting outraged at people thousands of miles away—you're doing it wrong.