Facebook Is a Freak Show Ghost Town, and I’m Loving It
Now that Elon Musk’s takeover has hastened the demise of Twitter, many are grasping for alternatives to their beloved town square. Mastodon, Cohost and Koo have all been floated as options. But I won’t bother joining any of those. Instead, you can find me on Facebook.
This probably sounds strange. Far from its origins as a hot-or-not rating system for Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmates, Facebook conquered the world — but then devolved into a cesspool of privacy violations and misinformation. Between its failure to detect election misinformation, its inability to contain hate speech and its gleeful collection of personal data without users’ full understanding, many now see Facebook not just as a graying social media site but also as the nexus of an evil empire.
Facebook, still the world’s biggest social network with over two billion active users per month, has been in slow decline for years. A forecast by eMarketer predicts a decrease of 1.4 million users this year. By next year, fewer than 15 percent of its users will be under the age of 25. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, just announced its most significant layoff ever: more than 11,000 people. But in its decline, Facebook has become one of the most absurd, uncanny and therefore enjoyable places on the internet.
A consummate millennial, I joined Facebook in 2007 — the year I graduated high school — when it was still a place to blithely make weekend plans on one another’s public “walls” and trade perplexing romantic overtures known as “pokes.” Over the past 15 years I have watched Facebook metastasize from a place that could form the basis of Sheryl Sandberg’s credibility in “Lean In” into one where the only conceivable reason people my age log in is to revisit photos from one’s indie sleaze party era or determine which high school classmates now support Donald Trump.
While Facebook is still a thriving, active social network for the over-45 set, for my cohort a mass exodus has left it the digital equivalent of an Old Western ghost town where tumbleweeds blow across an arid landscape. Formerly the apogee of my social life — from 2012 to 2014, I wouldn’t leave my house without reviewing the “attending” portion of an event’s guest list — Facebook has reverted back to the spaciousness of the early internet, where people blogged about minutiae for an audience of 12.
In the absence of peers, a thriving ecosystem still prevails. Unlike the TikTok algorithm, which is creepily accurate, Facebook is an erratic pu-pu platter of things I never knew I wanted to see.
For years, I have been unwittingly feeding it conflicting information about who I am. As a journalist, I have used Facebook casually for reporting purposes, joining divergent communities dedicated to everything from women in business to Airbnb hosts and polyamorists. After finding subjects for stories, I never bothered to leave these groups, and like creeping ivy, their posts began to overtake my feed, to delightful results.
Every time I log in, I am greeted with a wunderkammer’s worth of content that has virtually nothing to do with my day-to-day life: blackhead extraction videos that look like they were shot by Al Qaeda, influencers storing tampons in the fridge and a woman giving a foot job to a banana. Marketplace has somehow decided I am located in Lake Worth, Fla. (I live in Toronto), and serves me listings for vintage Airstream trailers and haunted-looking dolls. Posts from groups I have joined of my own accord, like Le Creuset Lovers and We Pretend It’s 1453 Internet (a treasure trove of medieval memes), mingle alongside ones from Canadian Mommies!, Amazon Warehouse Employees and American Expats in Toronto.
The reason I love Facebook is the same reason I believe “Spice World” should be added to the Criterion Collection — I find its camp value to be thrilling and irresistible. Facebook is a veritable freak show, and its appeal rests on the same “so bad it’s good” logic that informs my love of ’70s cult film and objectively terrible chain restaurants. But it’s also more than that. By joining myriad disparate groups, I’ve managed to turn a dinosaur platform into a refreshing escape hatch from the algorithm that rules over our collective digital lives.
The “algorithm” is a stifling and mysterious boogeyman that controls every aspect of modernity, from the people you match with on dating apps to the route by which you drive home from work. Of course the algorithm is not one thing but many: a series of mathematical calculations that lack sentience but in their sheer ubiquity compose what can feel like an omniscient digital overlord.
When I listen to music, it’s whatever the Spotify algorithm has determined sounds like Pavement instead of the vast library of beloved songs I collected on iTunes. When I visit Instagram, I am served reels of unqualified people giving questionable dating advice thanks to a recent breakup as opposed to welcome updates from friends and family. TikTok is dead set on its insistence I am bisexual, nonbinary and have a mental illness — and I’m starting to think it’s right.
But on Facebook, I am completely free of the assumptions these other apps have formed about me.
I lurk in the shadows, like the creepiest of voyeurs, reading passionate discussions of the flipping of meme stocks and harrowing tales of marital woe aimed toward fellow moms, or absorbing photos of sumptuous feasts prepared by outdoor cooking enthusiasts.
Facebook has become my modern-day version of a bazaar, with its rows of tiny stalls offering untold treasures. None of it was meant for me, and yet I appreciate it all, taking it in with the beauty and appreciation of a collector.
Isabel Slone is a fashion and lifestyle journalist from Toronto. She has written about the “cottagecore” aesthetic, the moral quandary of slow fashion influencers and the forgotten Hollywood starlet Vikki Dougan for The New York Times.
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