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AOC Quit Facebook. The Media Bungled the Story.

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Over the weekend, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced on a podcast that she was quitting Facebook as part of her efforts to cut back on her social media use more generally.

This was big news because the 29-year-old AOC is famous for her skilled leverage of these platforms to connect with her constituents and drive the national conversation on issues she cares about.

What captured my attention more recently, however, is the apparent disconnect between the way AOC explained her social media moderation and the way the national media reported the story.

My hometown paper, The Washington Post, for example, lumped AOC in with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and Steve Wozniak, noting:

“Both technologists parted ways with the social network amid a user boycott and as the company faced a congressional inquiry over the Cambridge Analytica controversy, when it was revealed that the political firm had improperly obtained personal information from millions of Facebook users.”

The same article then elaborated:

“After a rolling series of scandals involving the misuse of personal data, hateful content and misinformation, many Facebook users have also changed the way they use the platform”

Here’s the thing: misuse of personal data and hateful content were not the reasons emphasized by AOC for why she quit Facebook. She instead called social media a “public health risk” that too often leads to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.”

I keep encountering this same mismatch between real social media users and the press coverage of these services when I’m out promoting Digital Minimalism.

The press coverage of our culture’s growing disillusionment with social media tends to focus — like the article cited above — on policy issues such as data privacy, or political issues such as the definition of hate speech.

By contrast, when you talk to actual users about their concerns with these services, they tend, like AOC, to instead talk about their addictive nature, and how this compulsive use keeps them away from activities they know are more meaningful.

When AOC mentions isolation, anxiety, addiction, and escapism, most heavy social media users know exactly what she’s talking about.

On the other hand, when the press reports on this issue, they’re more likely to turn their attention back to Cambridge Analytica — a phrase I almost never hear mentioned by the students, parents, teenagers, retirees, artists, coders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and athletes I’ve been talking to about digital minimalism over the past three months.

Putting politics aside for the moment, we should applaud AOC for being so forthright about the complicated tensions generated by social media. These tools played a big role in her rise to national prominence, but they’re also diminishing the quality of her life (not to mention the quality of life of hundreds of millions of other users obsessively entangled with these apps). The issue here is not clear cut, but it also can’t be ignored.

To me, this is the real story about how the social media juggernaut is currently renegotiating its place in our culture.

I think we’ll all be better served once the national press recognizes this reality, and turns more of its attention from the spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg testifying about data privacy and AI-driven content review, and toward the more nuanced and more human issues encapsulated by the surprising story of a 29-year-old social media rockstar who finds it necessary to escape the very techno-world that made her.

In other words, the important story is not the fear that social media companies will improperly use our data; it’s instead the fear that they’ll subvert our primal drive to cultivate a meaningful life.

30 thoughts on “AOC Quit Facebook. The Media Bungled the Story.”

  1. Perhaps as a result of compulsive reading of social media posts, the attention span of the journalists is now so short that they didn’t get to the end of Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, and therefore lumped the information that she was quitting FB with something they learned in the past. Or, they may well be cognizant of the fact that their own writings contribute to the psychological demise of their readers, and they avoid addressing this issue…..

  2. “It’s instead the fear that they’ll subvert our primal drive to cultivate a meaningful life.”

    With Millennial culture so obsessed, and I think justifiably so, with what a meaningful life is and how to build one. The considerations of how social media impacts that are profound to the generation. I see more and more of my friends making strong habitual changes to how they communicate with each other, whether it be simply switching from messaging apps/content sharing apps to direct texts emails and calls. It the difference of putting up an advertisement vs a direct sales call. The difference is the quality of the communication and the signal of increased commitment to that communication, it generates a deeper connection and therefore greater meaning.

    • Yes, only the entire generation of millennials is like this, not other generations at all. I’m generation x and see my generation and baby boomers doing the things millennials are blamed for. Stop stereotyping an entire generation. It weakens whatever you say.

      • Mallory,

        While I agree with you that many people from previous generations bash on the millennial generation a little too eagerly, I don’t see this comment by Devin as an example of that. At all actually. The majority of his comment merely stated that our generation, like others, are searching for meaning in life and then listed examples of how the millennial (and other generations) are taking intentional steps to do so.

        As a fellow millennial, I am very confused why you took offense to Devin’s comment.

  3. I devote no more than approximately three minutes per month to FB, and then only to announce new content on the websites I manage. I had no interest in FB after a friend, who hoped to engage me with the platform, confirmed my suspicion that it was essentially a scrolling notepad for ephemeral and thoroughly superficial content. No, thanks, I decided. Do not need.

  4. This reflects my reasons for quitting the platform for 2 years after the last election. While I am concerned about privacy and the misuse of data, what changed my behavior was recognizing how much Facebook had hijacked my time and emotions leaving me feeling more negatively about everything in my already stressful life at the time. The benefits of quitting (along with installing a time blocking browser extension to help eliminate some other bad browsing habits) was so great that I spent several days agonizing over a decision to resume regular usage as part of a private writing support group last year. Fortunately, by bookmarking directly to the closed group I have avoided the other sections of the site while maintaining the benefits of the group. However, if the group moved to another platform I’d be just as happy.

  5. Thanks for making this important distinction about the categorical issues with social media in general and not just Facebook (but especially Facebook). It helps me think better about my own usage and consideration for minimizing – read: deleting twitter and facebook. Keep up the good work Cal!

  6. I quit social media almost 5 years ago and I couldn’t be happier. Recently, I am back to use Instagram where I follow 10 accounts at Max, and Reddit to join some thoughtful discussions.

    I deleted these apps from my phone and I browse Instagram <5 and Reddit for =< 20 mins from web and I have seen tremendous effects.

    I couldn't admit that the issue is not social media but it's how it's designed and presented. It's designed to be addictive and catchy and get people to stay connected and online all the time. "Attention engineers" are thriving at this game as we all probably know.

    A huge topic to be discussed in a comment.

  7. The media relates everything about social media these days to privacy issues and data leaks. This is primarily because media houses know users pretty much live on social media. So there’s an incentive to paint it as the worst thing ever. Really wish journalists would do their jobs better.

  8. This is unrelated, but BIG props to you Cal for appearing on the Breakfast Club this week. It felt like two of my worlds were colliding, as I’ve been a fan of the Breakfast Club for over 8 years. Thank you for not ignoring the urban community. I believe your message rung true for many people and I hope it continues to spread.

    • I second CC’s comment. I just learned about Cal thanks to his appearance on The Breakfast Club. Another big thanks for going on the show. You certainly reached someone who wasn’t familiar with your writings before. Your body of work is right in line with the way of living and type of thinking I’m implementing with my family. It’s a journey that’s easier with a supportive community. Glad I could connect with yours.

  9. I also think it’s worth noting that the national press doesn’t like to report on the increased anxiety of social media, because more and more, anxiety is the product that they are selling.

    The research on what media people consume seems to indicate that we share and read polarizing news much more than good news. But we also know that consuming that news is increasing our anxiety levels as a society. And given the death of print media, what’s left is sensationalism and click-bait. (I don’t blame the media entirely for this–like any other business, they have to be able to make money and sensationalism is what sells.)

    But at this point, social media is a defining part of their business model. There’s no incentive for them to say anything bad about it, because it’s how they sell their product.

  10. Well now I finally deleted my Facebook account today. Still have Twitter though…

    There’s been so much bad news about Facebook and Zuckerberg lately…

    Anyways, I am still open to deleting Twitter…

  11. Her FB is still up and I’ll applaud when she quits Twitter…she’s popular BECAUSE of her SM presence. If she’s really concerned make a grand statement and quit Twitter. She’s playing lip service and I’m shocked Cal bought it. False prophets make things worse.

    • This is exactly what I was going to say. If the whole idea is to quit social media or at least roll back time spent on it, then we should not applaud AOC because she hasn’t done that at all. She still posts on Instagram and Twitter all the time. She doesn’t do a lot of Facebook because she’s a millennial and they don’t use Facebook.

      This was the only blog post that I really felt was off base. If you spent 5 minutes looking at her social media you will see she spends an inordinate amount of time on it. There’s nothing to applaud there.

      She is a horrible example of Digital minimalism.

  12. Hey Cal,

    I’m glad to hear that this kind of thinking (managing our addictions to social media) is spreading.

    This post, though, sounds like it has some confirmation bias built-in. When you’re doing a book tour about the addictive nature of social media, everyone who you meet is going to be interested specifically in the addictive nature of social media.

    From other areas (primarily research departments at these companies), I’m hearing directly that events like Cambridge Analytica and topics like data sharing ARE a concern to the general public.

  13. Depends on how you use FB. I have a FB that I don’t add any friends. I just use it as a blog. I don’t follow anyone on it either.

  14. I couldnt agree with you more. I quit Facebook back in 2010 and have no plans on going back. I was interested in photography so ended up on Instagram but soon found out what it really was – just another platform to keep me hooked. I quit that as well. As for photography, I found other websites where real photographers were genuinely ready to share their techniques and give constructive feedback on my work. I also, around the same time, came across “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google”, written by Scott Galloway. It was an eye opener.

  15. I think that the biggest problem isnt time that we use there but the fustration. I get angry almoust every time when I read what people write on facebook. It is just not good for me.

  16. Quitting Facebook was one of the best decisions of my life. My life turned way positive than I thought. I was even able to make a deeper and better bond with the people around me. Also, my life became 100 times more positive.


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