Why I’m Leaving Facebook (Sort of)

European Straits #50

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

I’ve long been an enthusiastic user of Facebook (the product). But for the past several weeks I’ve stopped using it and I think it’s for the best. Since the coming year looks like it’ll be a turning point for Facebook (the company), I thought I’d use the opportunity to explain in more detail.

My friend Elise Colette first told me about Facebook around 2008, along the lines of “it’s designed to help you get news from your friends without the need to exchange emails”. I’ve used it a lot ever since, both personally and professionally, climbing up to 3k+ ‘friends’ and sharing with them things as diverse as political thoughts, business articles, and pictures of my kids. I would add that I’m a great admirer of Facebook’s leadership and achievements over the years and I’m in awe of Facebook’s corporate culture because it’s so focused on hacking and design. I also enjoyed The Social Network by David Fincher, one of the best and most enlightening films on entrepreneurship.

The main motive for leaving Facebook was that I felt constrained by my legacy social graph. Many people I’ve known for years nourish conversations about topics that I hate or am not interested in anymore—most linked to French politics and the heated debates they keep having about Islam and laïcité. I can’t stand it anymore so I’ve unfollowed many of those friends from the past. My affection for them is intact, but I don’t want to partake in the conversations they’re having on Facebook.

As a result of having unfollowed my ‘real’ friends, my feed is now populated with people I don’t know. The reason is that I’ve been very liberal in welcoming new ‘friends’ throughout the past 2-3 years (working in technology brings many, many new friends on Facebook, because the tech industry is the most connected circle there is). The problem with those new friends whom I’ve never met is that I can’t relate to their content: I don’t really know them, so their personal content is mostly irrelevant; as for the more professional content, it’s simply too focused on France.

Indeed as I started using Facebook while living in France, I now find it very hard to expand my social graph beyond a franco-français circle—even though my firm The Family is expanding in Europe and as Facebook has clearly become a professional tool in addition to a personal one. I have non-French friends, but the engagement with them is low as we’re not involved in controversy-triggering topics such as politics. Thus interactions with those foreign friends don’t in turn bring more friends from the UK, the US or Germany (without even mentioning China).

Finally, and maybe it’s correlated to all of the above, whenever I share content that I really care about—mostly articles in English about technology, US politics, and more recently China—the level of engagement is very, very low. Because they’re written in English, cover business topics more than politics, and focus on other parts of the world, the articles I share are of little interest to the people I’m friends with on Facebook (and, again, I have 3k+ of them).

So considering all those frustrating trends (most of them not related to Donald Trump and the post-2016 election controversies), I finally decided to remove Facebook (the product) from my smartphone and only go there occasionally using my computer. Based on this personal experience, here are a few takeaways when it comes to Facebook (the company):

  • It’s not the first time that I’ve lost my appetite for the content selected for me by Facebook. I remember once telling myself that I only saw politics-related content at the expense of business-related content, which is usually more interesting but much less prone to debate (and thus it is downgraded by Facebook’s algorithm). How can I filter out all the topics I’m not interested in, even though it’s all my ‘friends’ want to talk about? I can’t, and that’s a big problem. To me Facebook will become relevant again only when it’s not dominated by things that I don’t care about, such as sports, famous people that I don’t like or know, or the latest political controversy in France (to say nothing of ugly ads).

  • Maybe Facebook is falling victim to the curse of broadcasting. Most of us grew up in the 20th century, so we know how it goes: once broadcasting companies compete for a larger audience, they tend to distribute similar content targeted at larger segments of the market so as to maximize their performance. The losers are all those who have more specific and exclusive expectations when it comes to content. Most of us were led to believe that the Facebook social graph was the key to customizing premium content feed for our personal needs. I’m afraid that’s not the case anymore—partly because I’ve welcomed too many friends that really aren’t, but also because the Facebook feed and its underlying algorithms are simply broken.

  • Indeed I think there’s something wrong with Facebook’s design. The symmetric nature of relationships (being ‘friends’ goes both ways) makes it a social networking platform focused on the past: it’s about connecting with people I already know, not people I’d like to know as I’m moving to the next stages of my life. If I want to expand my social graph, I need to welcome as friends people that I’m not friends with: somehow, it doesn’t work. I know that you can now follow people on Facebook without becoming ‘friends’. But the coexistence of those two features, being friends and following, makes it very hard to manage. It’s actually poor product design to provide your users with two very similar features that confuse them.

  • For what it’s worth, I’ve stopped using Facebook, but I’m still using Facebook. Instagram (a Facebook product) is what I use to enjoy beautiful content unsullied by politics, waves of hyped emotion, or unsolicited invitations to obscure events. Messenger (another Facebook product) is what I use to communicate with close people outside my firm (in which we use Slack). WhatsApp I don’t really use, but I’m already guessing that it’s the future because it resembles China’s WeChat—and social networking in China is about participating in WeChat groups with people, whether friends or not, who share the same interests. So all in all, Facebook the company seems to endure even if Facebook the product is nearing exhaustion.

Finally, may I mention that while Facebook is exiting the stage, we may be witnessing the rebirth of Twitter? As this Twitter thread points out, Twitter’s feed has been improved a great deal by the use of algorithms to select relevant content for each user. Additions such as the 280 characters and the embedded tweetstorm feature are making it easier to use as a platform for sharing thoughts. Finally, I’ve found that only Twitter has made it possible for me to escape the trap of a franco-français audience. So I don’t have many predictions for 2018, except that you will see me more on Twitter than Facebook!

Warm regards (from London, UK),

Nicolas