There is a sort of millennial proverb that nothing really happens unless you post about it on social media. I lived by that philosophy for the best part of a decade with compulsive fervour: every sleepover, every party, every holiday photographed and uploaded to Facebook. I shared, apparently unconcerned by my lack of wit, the fleeting and inane details of teenage life: maths homework, the latest Strictly results, spending the weekend at my dad’s. (Looking back now there’s a sort of reassuring unselfconsciousness to it; the perfection-hungry social media beast was only just beginning to stir.)
I stopped actively posting to Facebook in 2016. Even the value of its event invites has been swept away by the pandemic. Today I use it only for voyeurism – playing out the alternate paths I could have taken through the husbands and houses and 2.4 children of others from school – or as a guaranteed nostalgia trip.
There are photographs, thousands of them, of snow days, Halloween parties (it didn’t matter what you were supposed to be, your costume had to involve inappropriately little clothing and a lot of back-combed hair) and birthdays at Pizza Express. Lambrini, face masks from Lush and ill-advised fringes. To look at them now you’d think I’ve aged poorly, but in reality there was simply a point at which I stopped detagging the pictures I considered unflattering.
There are photographs of things I remember fondly. The fireworks night on which we lit what we thought were sparklers but turned out to be incense sticks. Reading Festival, 2009, at which we cheated by sneaking off to my grandmother’s house nearby for hot showers, and returned clutching parcels of smoked salmon sandwiches. My first experience of backpacking, in Austria, with a friend who has since passed away. But there are photographs, too, of things long since forgotten: fancy dress parties whose themes I struggle to discern, grotty suburban nightclubs, boys at parties – often inexplicably shirtless – whose faces I don’t recognise.
For years my Facebook profile stood as a monument to a life that now feels like it belongs to someone else. It is gone now, my account deleted – or at least it will be, once the 30-day cooling-off period has passed. I spent hours dredging through my profile in preparation, downloading a copy of every photograph I wanted to preserve.
The spur was a Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma – not because it contained anything particularly revelatory, but precisely because it didn’t. The only industries that refer to their customers as “users”, we are reminded, are tech and illegal drugs. “Two billion people will have thoughts they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said this is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to in the morning,” said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, reminding me of George Orwell: “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
How grim, we conferred, before picking up our mobile phones and beginning to scroll once again. There was nothing The Social Dilemma told us that we didn’t already know. We know that the hollow positive reinforcement and the self-medication of constant distraction are bad for us. We know about the privacy missteps, the data mishandling, our minds for sale. And yet we do nothing. There is something unavoidably dystopian about consciously letting it happen to us simply because apathy and laziness tug us down.
Of course, I cannot pretend that deleting Facebook wasn’t the convenient option; the time I stopped posting on it coincides rather neatly with when I joined Instagram, and I won’t be giving up that so easily. But for too long I have treated like a harmless, inanimate photo album a data store that is neither passive nor neutral. Deleting my profile felt like a loss because it kept the intimate details of a life I no longer remember. But therein lies the horror: Facebook knows more about me than I do. Some things are better left private, enjoyed and, with time, forgotten.
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic