Yes, We're in an Abusive Relationship With Facebook — But We'll Never Leave

Young woman on sofa using a laptop
Psychologists say Facebook's 'like' system can be as addictive as drugs. / Shutterstock

When given a choice between waking up from a computer simulation or eking out a virtual life of comfortable ignorance, the hero in "The Matrix" chooses stone-cold reality. Neo swallows a little red pillow that essentially unplugs him. And, in case you didn’t catch the movie, that decision causes all kinds of problems for him.

But would it have been better to curl up in the virtual arms of robot overlords?

These days, it seems we’re all waking up from another kind of Matrix and realizing a harsh, cold reality: We’ve been in a neglectful and abusive relationship for years.

It doesn’t matter how many times we get hurt — or how many full-page apologies run in major newspapers — Facebook is never going to be good to us.

And we’ll probably never leave.

young woman using a laptop ignors an upset man
Facebook has steadily convinced us to upload most of our daily lives to its servers. / Shutterstock

Don’t blame Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg is running a business. We’re not in a partnership. We’re not even the customers. We’re the merchandise. Our lives — our most intimate details — are the commodity.

And Facebook bought it all on the cheap. Just a bunch of emojis, "Friendiversaries," cat memes, and of course those everlastingly addictive Facebook ‘likes’ — a virtual currency that psychologists say works the brain into a narcotic-like cycle of need and supply.

"It’s a reward cycle, you get a squirt of dopamine every time you get a like or a positive response on social media," psychologist Emma Kenny told Cosmopolitan last year.

Yes, that was last year. If we knew that we were being virtually drugged back then, why didn’t we quit his relationship? The fact is we’ve pretty much swallowed the whole bottle of little red reality pills — and still haven’t packed our bags.

There’s the report in Ars Technica about Facebook secretly scraping call details from millions of Android phones. Then there’s the biggest red pill to date — a maximum-strength reality capsule — suggesting Facebook profile data was harvested from 50 million people to influence the U.S. presidential election.

Who knows? Maybe our likes and emojis and animated gifs even help swung the Brexit vote.

No turning back now

To be fair, Zuckerberg has taken out those big newspaper ads, apologizing for data falling into the wrong hands. A "breach of trust," he called it, promising to "take steps to ensure this doesn't happen again."

So maybe this time he’s really sorry. Maybe this time he’ll change.

Does it matter? As bad as it sounds, it will take worse than that for us to turn our backs — simply because the company has leveraged so much of our lives. Since it was founded in 2004, Facebook has steadily convinced us to migrate our memories, social interactions, thoughts, and opinions to its servers. It’s coaxed us into living our lives almost exclusively in the virtual realm.

Camping trips, what your sister made for dinner last night, anniversaries, even funerals are Facebook moments first, with real-life enjoyment coming in a distant second. Often, when we sit down for dinner — and the roast potatoes do look good — we’ll upload a picture of the meal before we lift a fork.

How else are we going to get our daily "likes"?

phone on dinner plate with fork and spoon
"Our Zuckerberg, who art in California ... give us this day our daily likes ...". photobyphotoboy / Shutterstock

And when was the last time you saved pictures to a thumb drive? What if you did delete your Facebook account? Sure you’ll have some old pictures and emails and, if you’re lucky, some journal entries from pre-2004. But a big chunk of your existence would be conspicuously absent.

Who wants to lose a decade of their lives?

No, we’ll probably never leave Facebook unless someone tries to do an intervention. Maybe that will be the Federal Trade Commission, which recently announced plans to investigate Facebook’s data-gathering ways.

Or maybe we’ll need another a bright light to show us the way — a kind of anti-Zuckerberg. Maybe that’s Elon Musk.

The tech billionaire, a compassionate futurian if there ever was one, seems to be taking a page from Neo’s book. Last week, he deleted Facebook accounts for both his companies — Tesla and SpaceX — costing him countless Facebook followers and likes.

And for what?

"Just don’t like Facebook," he tweeted over the weekend. "Gives me the willies. Sorry."

They must be some willies to convince Musk that removing his companies from the biggest social media platform on the planet — and all the staggering influence it peddles — is a good idea.

Sure, we’ll probably never rise up all at once like a big dog shaking a flea from his back. But we just might make more conscious, sober decisions about how much of our lives we want to upload to the cloud. Maybe we’ll even find a moment to enjoy our dinner more often, without taking a picture of it.

Remember how good those potatoes actually taste — like a billion "likes" in your mouth good. Or how soulful and essential it can feel to actually attend a funeral. Or wish someone a happy birthday. In real life.