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Walking Away from Facebook

I have been watching the “Walking in Memphis” commercial from Facebook’s More Together campaign, and I think it’s an interesting case study in storytelling for better and for worse.

The people who made this spot clearly know their stuff. They embrace conflict to engage the audience, they suggest a deeper meaning that could make the communication feel relevant, and they express a purpose that I could get on board with. But ultimately, they’re not quite honest enough to make me believe that it’s the actual Facebook story I’m seeing here. It leaves me wondering, in the words of the song, “Do I really feel the way I feel?”

I know what they want me to feel because they’ve done an excellent job of laying out the clues. On the surface, the spot is moving and bittersweet, like the ache of homesickness. It’s a montage of regular folks, along with some more unusual characters, going about their lives while singing along to the 1991 Top 40 hit “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. (Here’s a link, if you haven’t seen it.) Some of the scenes tug immediately and powerfully at my heartstrings, like the father cooing the lyrics to his toddler daughter or the forlorn woman crying them in her car on a rainy night outside a 24-hour bail bonds office. But as the spot concluded, I couldn’t help feeling a different kind of pang.

Yes, Facebook does what the ad shows. It connects me and helps me share what I’m feeling with friends and loved ones, close and distant—and I’m grateful for that. But that’s not the Facebook story I’m worried about in 2019. What the ad shows is the generic promise of social media. And I suppose that Facebook, as the largest player in the category, benefits more from the expression of that promise than any of its competitors. But what’s left out is all the stuff that worries me about social media in general and Facebook in particular—the stuff about big data and privacy, about manipulation and exploitation.

Facebook has always been a misdirect, a service that only appears to be free because the actual product is us, the people using the site. Now I don’t mind that misdirect so much that it would compel me to stop using Facebook. I kind of know what they’re up to, and I’m generally willing to go along with it. I understand that the money earned by selling the aggregated data of all the users is what pays for the services that I enjoy. As long as that’s all Facebook is doing and it is not being overly greedy or evil about it, I’m okay. Sometimes, though, they make me question that bargain—like when they conduct literal experiments on me by manipulating what shows up in my feed in order to influence my emotions or when it comes to light that Facebook has been sharing the content of my private messages or when it is accused of what amounts to complicity in manipulating the outcome of an election. At this point, I feel like I’ve put up with a lot, and I’m starting to feel more than a little squeamish about the bargain I seem to have made with Facebook. That’s why I wish they would quit pretending that they are only about connecting me with my loved ones and bringing the world together. I wish they would own up to their whole story.

It’s because I know the other part of their story that my subconscious digs deeper to fathom a meaning. On the surface, this spot is all about the belief that connection brings us closer, but something much darker lurks underneath. In the spot we get to see all these powerful, touching, personal, emotional moments of vulnerability that people experience and share with their friends and loved ones. Meanwhile, Facebook is also recording, studying and using these same moments for its own purposes. I know the ones in the spot are staged, but in the end, Facebook is using these intimate moments to drive an emotional response that promotes and benefits Facebook so that it can continue to make money by selling information about me and everyone else on the platform.

The dark message of the ad is the shadow of what Facebook wants me to believe. Presumably the intention of the marketers is to persuade people that Facebook is a uniting force for good. But if you are already uneasy about Facebook, then the meaning you might take away from this communication is not that connection brings us closer but that being open, trusting and emotional makes us vulnerable to coldly rational predators who will use everything we give them to make more money.

Do I really think that’s what Facebook believes? No. I think they live in the tension between their interest and ours, between the rational and the emotional, between being open and being private. But the more often and vigorously they pretend that there is no self-interested, practical, rationally motivated shadow side to their story and the more they leave themselves out of the telling and pretend it’s all about me, the more I am inclined to suspect that it is the darker force that ultimately shapes who they are.

It’s clear Facebook wants me to walk away from their Memphis commercial feeling that connection brings us closer and that the world is a better place because they’re in it. But I don’t think Facebook is quite as good at the manipulation thing as it thinks, and if the spot has taught me anything it’s that I should probably question whether I really feel the way I feel.

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