John Scholvin

John Scholvin

still can’t fit a half-stack in the trunk

27 Oct 2020


It’s a little hard to tell exactly when I started, based on the half-gigabyte dataset which I have to navigate without any signposts other than filenames and JSON tags. I’ve gathered this: I made my first friend on May 26, 2007 (yo, Ken), and my first status update on September 18 of that same year (“Let that be a lesson.” No idea.). Wandering deeper into this maze which represents my entire history there, a file called profile_information.json contains a “registration_timestamp” tag with a time_t value of 1160416409, or October 9, 2006, early afternoon. That feels like it was probably the start of the odyssey. It ended this afternoon at about 4:00, making it just a shade over 14 years from launch to splashdown.

In hindsight that was about five years too many. It stopped being fun or productive long before that, really. If you date back as long as I do, you remember that period over the first couple of years where everyone was joining this exciting new thing and we were all discovering people we hadn’t seen in years. People we thought we might never see again, like high school friends, neighborhood kids from way back, semi-distant family, even former teachers. And yeah—exes, flings, and near-misses. They all appeared from the mist. Admit it. It was exciting to log in and see who might be a recent arrival. Welcome aboard! It was a dopamine shot every time.

My first recollection of seeing what was under the rock was during the lead-up to the 2008 election. It was the first Facebook election, really, and people had Very Strong Feelings about it. But even then, as I recall it, the discourse was mostly respectful and the drama seemed to fade after the inauguration. We quickly got back about the business of curating our lives, documenting our massive successes and glorious travel experiences, while maybe eliding some of the less spectacular moments. Unless we were chasing the red light, that is. That first post with ten likes? Fifty? A hundred? Chase that dragon. Vaguebook. Overshare if that’s what it takes.

From then, though, it was the slow-boiled frog thing, the steam rising slowly and steadily around us until some time in about 2014/2015, when it got way too hot altogether. Which is not to say that they hadn’t figured out how to keep delivering that dopamine blast to keep you coming back during that era, either. Far from it. They’d perfected the art and science of it. Remember when the News Feed was chronological, and everyone got mad when they altered it not to be? Their story was that they changed it to show you more engaging content, and for one of the last times in history, they were telling the whole truth. It just depends on the definition of “engaging.” You weren’t pushing buttons there, anymore. They were pushing yours. And since any emotion would do, whatever it took to get that click was fair game. As it turns out, getting us pissed off was just as productive from their advertisers’ points of view as were those early days of trying to figure out what kind of loser your college girlfriend married. Better, really. How many hours were lost to rage scrolling, or fighting in the comments sections of local TV stations? An endless stream of outrage, there to “engage” with, all under the delighted gaze of the world’s biggest ad vendor.

I remember one moment very clearly, and in retrospect if I’d shut the thing down that day, I’d be in a better place today, mentally. The day after the 2016 election, a former coworker of mine, one of those guys who never posted anything, shared a Pepe the Frog meme along with a comment that soon it’d be “time to start killing these fucking people.” It was probably a full minute before I started breathing again. Of course I unfriended and blocked him, as did several other mutuals who saw it. There was no doubt what he was talking about. It wasn’t a policy disagreement.

That was the inflection point. From that juncture, managing my time there was more about limiting whom I was subjected to than it was about whom I was connecting with. A progressing war of attrition, complete with a whole new set of battle verbs. Snooze, unfollow, unfriend, block, report.

Ultimately, I did finally hammer the thing into such a shape where I could click in and not stroke out within fourteen seconds of exposure. I’d built a walled garden that was, within its confines, lovely. And I want to emphasize that for a bit. I really feel like I’d managed to build a little community there. Allow me to brag: the comment threads on my posts were some of the best anywhere. I’d eliminated the bigots, morons, and trolls, and those left behind comprised an amazing little slice of life. Intelligent, witty, sincere, insightful people. I have the best circle. Easily the hardest thing about leaving is leaving that. Is leaving them. The Internet is made of people, after all. I am still trying to figure out how to recreate that magic here, on this platform. Feels nearly impossible at the moment, but I’m going to keep chewing on it.

The thing is, I could have stayed. I could have enjoyed that garden I so carefully cultivated and weeded over nearly a decade and a half, well over a quarter of my life, for as long as I wanted. To do so would be to ignore the larger costs, though. Just outside those garden walls lurks the absolute worst facets of humanity. Genocide, authoritarianism, racism, and hatred of every flavor—often heavily armed—all arrayed in fierce opposition to everything I cherish. Those monsters all thrive in those untended jungles. It’s easy to say they don’t care, or are trying to stop it, but that’s giving them credit they didn’t earn. The company doesn’t just tolerate that darkness; it’s the oil in the gearbox. There’s so much profit to reap there. That teeming horde is online a lot, and there are uncountable impressions and clicks to harvest in support of the fiduciary duty to shareholders. Feature, not bug.

And it’s why I had to go. My conscience left me no alternative. There’s no force on this planet more dutifully (and successfully) engaged in taking apart everything the decent among us have been trying to build since the Enlightenment than Facebook is. To continue to show my face there, literally and through participation, was, to me, to support the encroaching darkness. I don’t know that I can do anything to fight it, and I certainly have no grand dreams of building any kind of alternative. But I do have feet, and I can vote with them.

There’s dopamine to mine elsewhere. Let’s go find it.