If you aren't feeling squeamish about using Facebook these days, you aren't paying attention.
The social network, with its two billion users, was the primary vehicle for Russia's covert campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and destabilize American society. It helped an anti-immigrant group learn the best way to target its fearmongering ads, and then used those ads as a case study to test the effectiveness of a new ad format. Its ad-targeting algorithms automatically created categories for people interested in anti-Semitic topics.
Rigorous research confirms using Facebook is detrimental to physical and mental health. Even Sean Parker, a Facebook billionaire and the company's first president, says he has become a "conscientious objector" partly out of concern for "what it's doing to our children's brains."
The problem is, however squeamish you are, it's still really hard to cut Facebook out of your life. Sophisticated behavioral design makes it and other social media apps more addictive than any slot machine. And powerful network effects make it an ever more important venue for everything from party invitations to finding an apartment. Quitting means missing out.
A year ago, I suggested persuading a bunch of your friends and family to quit at the same time would make it easier for everyone to stay away. No one took me up on that, and I don't blame them.
I don't even want to quit Facebook, really, I realized. I have a lot of photos stored there that I'm too lazy to move, and I want people looking for me to be able to find me easily, and every now and then I have something to share with a lot of people, whether it's a magazine article or a baby photo (although the decline of organic reach has made that kind of sharing less rewarding). Deleting my account altogether would be a symbolic gesture, one I'm not sure is worth the tradeoffs.
What I really want is to use Facebook dramatically less -- almost never, if possible. Doing that means I'd be less susceptible to disinformation warfare being waged on the platform. I would stop giving away my personal information to shady marketers and other potential bad actors.
Most important, I would get my time and focus back. The average Facebook user spends 50 minutes a day with Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. That's an insane amount of wasted productivity, and that's before you factor in the effects of continuous partial attention on mental acuity.
Last year, during a month in which I was up against a hard deadline, I came up with an absurdly simple method that enabled me to spend hours at my laptop without mindlessly pulling up my Facebook feed. I logged out of my account. That was it. One click of a button, and suddenly I could go days without looking at Facebook for the first time in years.
Obviously, it would have been simple to log back in. But since I didn't have my username and password stored in my browser, I would've had to type them in. That tiny bit of friction was enough to stop me. Every time my fingers zombie-typed "facebook.com" into my URL bar and hit enter, I'd find myself looking at the login screen and think, Why am I doing this? Then I'd go back to work, or at least find a better way to procrastinate.
I should note that I'm an atypical Facebook user in that I spend most of my time with the service on a desktop browser, not in the mobile app. But it's simple enough to log out of that, too, if that's your poison. For me, turning off all notifications from the app was all it took.
I recently decided enough was enough and logged out on both of my laptops. If anything, the trick has been working even better this time. For one thing, there's the steady drip-drip of ugly news about the company validating my decision. Even better are the "growth-hacking" efforts Facebook uses to get insufficiently engaged users to check their feeds. The "Social" tab in my Gmail inbox is just one increasingly desperate come-on after another: Did you see [person I don't like] commented on his own status? Did you know [person I could go the rest of my life without thinking about] just posted for the first time in a long time? A glance at the subject lines is a quick reminder of how utterly inessential almost everything on Facebook is to my life. Why did I used to look at it so much? I can hardly remember.
Even better is what I see when I unthinkingly click on one of those emails or pull up Facebook in a browser window. Since my initial experiment with Facebook fasting, the site's added a button that shows even a logged-out user how many notifications are waiting for you. Presumably, it's supposed to make me feel anxious about how much I'm missing out on. Instead, it feels like positive reinforcement. It's a game, like Snapchat's streaks: How high a score can I run up? Facebook has unintentionally gamified its own irrelevance.
Quitting Facebook can feel impossible. But you don't have to quit to stop.
And stopping feels fantastic.