This Party Sucks, Why Haven't We Left
What keeps people on Facebook?
Do you read this newsletter every week? Do you value the labor that goes into it? Have you become a paid subscriber? Think about it! Many of the people who read this newsletter the most are people who haven’t gone over to paid — and I get it, I really do, I’m constantly saying I’m going to pay for things and take weeks to actually do it. Maybe today is your day.
The summer of 2008, I was living in a sweltering triplex in Austin, Texas, just north of the university. I had moved my old kitchen table into the tiny living space and turned it into a command center for the task at hand: studying for my PhD comprehensive exams. The room was filled with neatly organized piles of books and notecards with various themes and dates and connections lining the walls — like Carrie’s apartment in Homeland, only with the history of celebrity gossip. All of my note taking was useful, I’m sure, but the thing that really helped solidify ideas and concepts and timelines lived online: my dorky Wordpress blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.
When people ask how I started writing this newsletter — or how I learned to write for online audiences, just generally — I find myself telling the story of that blog, which provided a space to write broadly about celebrity and the ways image production has and has not changed. The blog’s audience was relatively small, but even that size of an audience felt (and honestly still feels!) energizing, clarifying, gratifying. I think a lot of bloggers and Livejournal people would tell you something similar.
When Facebook started offering “Pages,” I made one for the blog, thinking it might be a good way for people who didn’t use Google Reader (obligatory RIP) to keep track of new posts. And for awhile, that’s all it was: a feed. But gradually, the conversations that once germinated at the bottom of blog posts began to migrate to the Facebook page. (I watched this happen in a slightly different way with Twitter, as the academic blogs that energized me during that time gradually just became academic twitter feeds).
On the Facebook page, I started posting other pieces of celebrity analysis, celebrity profiles that interested me, and, well, pictures of Paul Newman. In 2011, I started writing for The Hairpin, and people shared links to the FB page there; it slowly grew from a few hundred members to a few thousand. Facebook periodically juiced its algorithm for some reason in my direction, and membership exploded to over 40,000 members. That’s the number I remember from the summer of 2016.
Somehow, the page demanded little to no moderation. If you know anything about how Facebook surfaces content, you know that the page wasn’t coming up for the vast majority of those 40,000 “members.” But the people it attracted — who clicked on links, liked, and commented — were all broadly invested in the same posture towards thinking about celebrity and culture. It was right there in the name: celebrity gossip, academic style. Occasionally, I’d ban a true asshole, but it was only necessary every few months. I began posting what I was reading even when it had nothing to do with celebrity (like a proto “Things I’ve Read and Loved” here on the newsletter) and asked open-ended questions (like proto Culture Study Tuesday/Friday threads).
Running the page was low-effort, high-reward. It was a fantastic way to get people to book events, and I adored meeting group members in the book signing line and feeling like part of a very loose-ties sort of community. But at some point after the 2016 election, I realized that I had essentially ceased to use Facebook for much else other than running the page. I began seeing a similar sentiment echoed in reactions on posts: “This is the only reason I’m still on Facebook.”
At the same time, I saw other groups — particularly those associated with podcasts, like Forever35 and Who Weekly? — thriving as well. Pages and groups, I thought, were the future of Facebook, and I wrote a short piece about it, which, in hindsight, was probably one of the wrongest takes I’ve ever had. I liked what groups offered me, mostly because those groups were sheltering me from the bombast awfulness of the rest of Facebook. I failed to understand that the fact that Facebook was facilitating this experience for me — and my page and other groups — also meant it was facilitating a similar experience for hundreds of thousands of other groups, many of them peddling hot internet garbage. Some of that garbage was banal and benign, basically their version of shirtless pics of Paul Newman. But much of it was racist, xenophobic, transphobic, and/or conspiracy-minded.
Facebook had already figured out that people were increasingly on the site for the groups. And to keep people coming back to those groups — and joining more — it began juicing engagement for those groups. A post in a group, for example, would supersede a post from pretty much anyone in your feed, unless they were announcing a baby or an engagement.
The Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style page wasn’t a group, per se — although there is one, run and moderated by other members, that spun off around that time. But I did notice that posts were increasingly shared into other large groups, which would then bring non-page-followers (particularly TERFs, who were booted immediately) onto the page, or people who would leave comments like “why do you care about celebrities” before someone responded “I think you’re in the wrong place, buddy.” Nothing catastrophic, by any means; it’s actually very easy to uphold a zero-tolerance TERF policy, the same way I do here.
I also observed something curious: after hitting a high of 44,000, sometimes around 2017, the number of members…..never increased. I don’t think it was because people were quitting the group, although some certainly were. I think it was because (some, more) people were quitting Facebook. Or, if they weren’t quitting Facebook, the demographic the page’s content appealed to — women between the ages of 20 and 50 — were no longer engaging with the site in a way that would encourage page growth. Significant swaths of my original audience had decamped, even if they hadn’t deleted their accounts entirely.
Who still uses Facebook today? Millions and millions of people. In the United States, at least, it’s largely: moms, rural people whose news sources have atrophied or disappeared altogether, people with niche interests (like my Peloton Power Zone group), people doing political organizing, people who struggle to find support for health conditions in their offline communities, Buy and Sell Nothing Groups, and people using Facebook Marketplace. Some of those needs are slowly migrating elsewhere (community stuff to NextDoor or Reddit, political organizing to Slack or Discord) and some of those needs now seem like they’ll stay on Facebook for the foreseeable future (see especially: Marketplace).
The vast majority of these groups are on Facebook because it’s become the path of least resistance: the way to reach the most people over the age of, say, 30, with the easiest buy-in, and the least amount of effort. These groups don’t necessarily want to be there, in other words, but how do you shift course now? If a podcast starts a community today, they most likely do it on Discord. But if you’ve been on Facebook for years, you need a huge push to get people to move over to another medium. Facebook, like so many forms of capitalism, thrives on this sort of complacency. The party sucks, sure, but how else are you going to get dinner?
But the party has seeped into the dinner! The dinner is NOT THAT GOOD! I hated how Facebook would take a post to something that was less immediately engaging (a link to a long essay that was difficult to describe) and, if it didn’t reach a certain threshold of click-throughs in the first few minutes, effectively hide it. I hated the way posts about HAES and anti-diet culture would intermingle with ads for Noom, because the platform farms my data with blunt and broken tools. I hated Facebook’s abject refusal to seriously grapple with its own power, often to disastrous and deadly effect — again and again and fucking again. (Most recently: its role in the astroturfing of the Canadian “Freedom Convey.”)
Did I still like the people and the conversations we were having on the page? Yes. But I also realized we could (and were already having them) elsewhere.
And so, earlier this week, twelve years after I first started the page, I announced its sunset. The page is still up, at least for now, because even a post announcing a departure only reaches a sliver of the people who are part of the page. I’ve stopped using my personal page for everything other than a few groups, and am weaning myself off them as well. Writers are told (by editors, by publications, by agents) that they should cling to any platform where they have a following. But I’m still interrogating why it took me as long as it did to to make this decision.
Are the other places where I hang out online — including Facebook-owned Instagram, the illogically sorted, ad-ridden, vigilante racist mess that is NextDoor, the hostile landscape of Twitter, the both-sides PR hand-waving of Substack, the significant learning curve of Discord — any better? I dunno, it depends. They have many of the same flaws. I am not blind to any of them. I am increasingly disinterested and taking long breaks from many of them. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and disentanglement takes time.
It’s a privilege to not have to rely on a space you abhor for the community you crave. I recognize that — that it’s a lot easier, for example, to find people to talk about PowerZone off-Facebook than, say, parents of kids with a rare genetic disorder. It takes energy and stamina and tolerance for new ways of engaging to find or even start those communities in other spaces, and I don’t have any judgment for people who don’t have those qualities in stock right now.
But it’s worth remembering that people can and do learn new things when compelled — just like we previously learned how to create accounts on Facebook, how to adapt to the changes in the feed, how to join groups and use the Like button. And as much as we joke about how all of us are still bad at Zoom, millions of people have familiarized themselves with new technologies over the last two years. We aren’t dogs but we do learn new tricks.
We can figure out new ways of being together, online and off, that rely far less — or not at all — on the sly extraction of our personal information and spread of deeply harmful misinformation. Sometimes, those spaces might require a sliding scale of dues for the upkeep of the infrastructure, the same way people contributed to the upkeep and programming of their local Grange, or Elks Club, or religious space. And being in these spaces also means continually asking ourselves: what does the infrastructure extract from both us and society? Are they ultimately hurting us more than helping?
Does my small page going dormant doom Facebook? Of course not. There’s a reason the company has rebranded itself, and I don’t think this stock dip, brought on by the announcement of a first-time decline in global users, will keep it from applying its particular recipe for engagement and profit on whatever online space people find themselves gathering. It just felt like I had been equivocating on this particular point for too long. I’m not brave, or on the vanguard, or better than anyone who’s still there. But I couldn’t stand that my page was the reason anyone — including myself — kept opening the site.
What community is keeping you tethered to a space, online or off, that you otherwise dislike or outright despise? What are the barriers — and, perhaps more importantly, the bonuses — of starting somewhere new? Does everywhere just feel equally bad but equally necessary?
(Yes, comments are limited to subscribers, because I’m not Facebook and I don’t sell your information to advertisers and content must make money somehow; yes, there is a sliding scale for subscriptions, see below) I don’t have the answers, but I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments, with my usual attempt at hands-off content moderation: Don’t be butts to one another, and let’s keep this a good place on the internet.
Also, as a total side note: I’m trying to sketch out an outline for a potential podcast on work. If you have a workplace conundrum you’d like addressed, I’d love to hear about it. The form is quick and very open-ended — but let’s figure out the sort of content that you’d like to see covered.
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