One evening in early December, when I logged on to Facebook to see what sort of shenanigans my friends were up to, I was smacked in the face with startling news. One of my good friends had died the previous day after a long battle with cancer. It was shocking, especially since he kept his illness hidden from so many people.
I was confused, and the grief was instant.
But as I sat in my apartment, my eyes welling with tears, Facebook helped me not feel so alone. Many of my friends learned of Steve's passing through the social network, and soon, the tributes, stories, and photos started filling my feed. While all of us were scattered across the country, we were together on Facebook to remember our friend. I found some comfort in those digital connections.
Isn't this what Facebook is supposed to be about? The social network's mission statement is to "give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family ... and to share and express what matters to them." And that's exactly what happened the night I learned of Steve's death. Even though my friends and I couldn't be together in that moment, I was connected with them, and in that moment, I was grateful for Facebook's very existence.
But lately, so many people have expressed frustration with the network. Its privacy problems, coupled with its sheer size and daunting global influence, has many users pledging to delete Facebook. Articles about how to close your account have flooded both my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Perhaps the height of irony for me was seeing sponsored Facebook posts for articles detailing how to delete your account.
I'm concerned about Facebook's business practices, too. But I haven't been able to bring myself to actually delete my account or even use Facebook less. Some of that is a function of my job; I work in social media news. But perhaps more importantly, Facebook is how I keep in touch with all of my friends and family. I'm connected to people in Connecticut, Florida, New Orleans, California, Missouri, and beyond. My friends share photos of their children and, inevitably, their pets. When I see pictures of one adorable bunny named Dusty, I can't help but smile, especially when I'm having a bad day. We all can share our news across distances, whether it's something great like buying a new house, or a setback like losing a job, or even just the mundane, like how we're finally going to solve that mouse problem in our apartments.
Cutting ties with Facebook would mean consciously cutting ties with my own community, and I can't bring myself to do it.
When I asked my connections on Facebook why they were staying, their answers were very similar to mine: Their friends and family are scattered across the world, and Facebook lets them stay connected.
One friend, a work-at-home mom who lives far from friends, said Facebook is her one social outlet that doesn't center around her child. My cousin said she doesn't like talking on the phone, so Facebook gives her a phone-free alternative to socializing with people from afar. Another friend said she found a menopause support group through Facebook and can stay in touch with those who she can't call as frequently. And many of my friends said they use Facebook to find nearby events.
But didn't anyone have privacy concerns, I wondered?
"I figure FB already has everything on me, so I might as well roll with it," one of my friends posted. But, to be honest, most of the people I talked to didn't seem all that worried.
My friend Michele actually did deactivate her account a few months ago. She was sick of the amount of politics in her feed, and angry about an article investigating how Facebook had overstated its video stats, causing a number of writers to lose their jobs as their organizations "pivoted" to video. That article actually brought me close to abandoning Facebook, too.
But two weeks after deleting her account, Michele realized there was more to Facebook than politics. She was missing things: photos of her goddaughter's baby, friends who weren't on Twitter, a weekly music thread, updates on her favorite social groups. "Mostly I missed it being part of my morning routine," she told me.
She reactivated her account and decided that instead of leaving Facebook completely, she would change her settings. She unfriended a handful of people and muted others prone to waxing about politics. But she admits she still ponders abandoning the network thanks to its "evil" reputation. She said she'd seriously consider moving to a new platform if it had the same features as Facebook but without the moral implications. "Lots of people would leave," she said. "They're just waiting for a reason."
So the real issue seems to be that there isn't a good competitor to Facebook. The network has amassed a huge user base — virtually everyone is on it. No other social networking site can say the same. "I truly appreciate this platform and would not delete it until everyone moves to another platform," one of my friends posted.
Until that new platform comes along — and I'm sure it will — I'll stick with Facebook.