Facebook’s latest public-relations nightmare increasingly looks likely (and finally) to be the proximate cause of regulation or, at least, interrogation of the company for its business practices. Already, the Federal Trade Commission has signaled that it plans to investigate the company over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Congress appears to be growing restive. Even if nothing else happens, the company’s stock has tanked and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally has lost billions of dollars.
On the one hand, this is good news. Facebook has become a dangerous Panopticon, easily exploited by advertisers, intelligence services, and Facebook staff themselves. It richly deserves the scrutiny it is receiving, and likely will receive for some time to come.
But there is another hand: Facebook’s sins do not absolve our own. The fact is, the tendency of Americans to live their lives almost entirely online would have found some outlet ready to abuse their trust. It just so happened to be this one.
What’s more, that same tendency to live our lives online has given rise to the very monopoly powers and dangerous, unaccountable surveillance that render strict regulation of tech giants a political, social, and moral necessity. So at the same time Washington finally starts to dig into the guts of Facebook and its peers, I would like to propose a complementary solution more radical, and also simpler, for everyday Americans.
Just log off.
This is a tonic that has been badly forgotten. Some have come close to it, with injunctions like #deletefacebook. I suggested something similar about Twitter in an early essay for American Greatness. I have since followed that advice, maintaining a Twitter account in name only.
While one could go on at great length about the evils of Facebook in a companion piece—and there are evils to spare—the truth is that cataloguing the evils of any one company misses the point. The point is we have made the internet into a home, when previously it was only a very weird, psychedelic place to visit. This is not how it should work.
Granted, I’m old enough to remember when “just log off” was common sense. In fact, it was practically a mantra of the 4chan imageboard back when I first encountered it in college. The implicit assumption behind the trolling and playfulness that 4chan and other sites like Something Awful pioneered was simple: if people attacked you on the internet, it wasn’t real life. It was the internet, and “The Internet Is Serious Business” (which, in ironic 4chan speak, translated roughly to “the internet is not serious at all, you f—king idiot”).
In a world where we had to physically be near a computer to check our emails, or to use any web-based form of communication, this was a thoroughly plausible way of doing things. After all, the physical world was where our lives happened. The internet was just where we went for certain minor forms of convenience. One irreverent ditty from the early 2000s summed up this breezy attitude perfectly: Right from your own desktop,/You can research, browse and shop,/Until you’ve had enough, and you’re ready to stop . . . for porn.
Then came smartphones, and suddenly the internet was in our pocket. And so were our emails, and our online friends, and our social media. Then came Twitter, and the hashtag, and thinking in 140 characters, and then clickbait, and so on and so on until suddenly, the idea that the internet didn’t matter was completely reversed. Now, something that happened on the internet could ruin our actual, real, in-person lives. Now, real life is where we go to meet people from the internet, but the internet is where we really live.
Those genies probably can’t be put back in the bottle. But just because something can’t be ended is no reason to invite it into your house.
Which is why I am proposing that we should all remember a lesson that has gone forgotten for arguably over a decade now and Just. Log. Off.
Maybe not forever. Maybe only for small doses at a time. But try it.
It may be harder than you think, but try it. Heaven knows, it was hard for me to even figure out where to start—I had to actively look up where the “Log Out” button was on Facebook, so used to being permanently there was I.
For every person who refuses to engage with the internet as a master and landlord, rather than as a distraction, a small revolution will take place. In a world where we don’t live on the internet, what power does clickbait have? Who will read the listicles and/or hit pieces based solely on performing colonoscopies on someone’s Twitter feed? At what price an end to the “This Celebrity Did X and the Internet is Furious” headlines? Or the endless quest for the most visceral reaction perpetuated by Facebook’s pitiless algorithms, or Twitter’s asinine trending hashtags? What price a world where we live as people, rather than as profiles and data?
I know, I know, shut up grandpa. But seriously, think about it. The fact is that you can try to give us that world, at very little cost to yourself. It won’t take a massive rejiggering of your life, fleeing off the grid, or trading in your iPhone for a flip phone (though I am seriously considering that, myself). All it will take is a simple resolution . . . now and then, when you think the internet is starting to consume your life, take a deep breath, rebel against the dopamine-driven tyrants of social media, reject the siren song of mental junk food from YouTube or Twitter or anywhere else. Do yourself that favor, and once in a while…
Just. Log. Off.
Photo credit: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images