My morning routine isn’t what it used to be. The days of silently eating cottage cheese, awaiting a scalding shower to shock me into a state of semi-consciousness, are over.
Content addiction has many downsides, you see, among them the muscle memory triggered as I silence the alarm on my phone, leading me to groggily scroll through my notifications. The overnight news alerts that pop up first are a daily jolt; “wakeup call” has taken on a whole new meaning in the Trump era. But another flick of the thumb downward brings me to what I missed from Facebook, where the “On this Day” feature leads me down a rabbit hole of old status updates, photos, and comments I typically don’t want to remember.
What is Facebook? The short answer is that no one really knows. Debates over whether it’s a tech company or media organization are endless. Facebook splices and dices its massive user base into highly targeted groups for advertisers around the world. It aims to be a platform for almost every type of human communication. It provides people in developing countries de facto internet access. It’s a photo-sharing service, a live-video service, and a messaging service. It has compounded the existential threat facing journalism, which I love, and disrupted democratic processes, which I also love. With the gradual aging of users like you and me, it’s also slowly becoming a clearinghouse for all human memory.
“On this Day” is the clearest distillation of this broader function, a daily flashback to five, seven, even 10 years ago—earlier stages of my life when I thought Facebook was fresh and cool, even essential. Combing through those archives has reminded me of showing up hungover to morning baseball practice in high school; of rap lyrics I once thought were profound; or that conspicuously nodded to how I smoked a lot of weed in college; of my poorly executed and wholly unoriginal Jersey Shore Halloween costume in 2009; of my teenage sense of entitlement, off-color jokes I wouldn’t make today, and petty arguments I had about politics when I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about the world. These memories all stem from questionable decisions to publish content that nobody had requested onto the internet. Taken together, they paint a picture of a card-carrying dipshit.
Much of it is nonsense: inside jokes, cringeworthy statuses, or unflattering party photos, like those from when I had to be carried out of a house, fireman style, in late 2010. But beneath it all lies a bottomless pit of enforced nostalgia into which Facebook pushes me every day. These aren’t just reminders of old friends and out-of-touch family members in the abstract, but specific keepsakes from relationships that have fizzled out. Few days go by without the name or face of an ex-girlfriend popping into my feed, reminding me of individual moments of genuine affection. While that certainly produces a type of engagement—Facebook’s true currency—it’s hard for me to imagine how it’s particularly healthy.
I could theoretically disable the “On this Day” feature to avoid such snapshots, or call it quits on the social network entirely. But there are two main reasons I do not, and they speak to Facebook’s cunning. The first is a human, somewhat masochistic curiosity about what I was doing in the past and how it compares to the way I see the world today. It’s an unforgiving illustration, especially in a digital culture where people often read comments without context or with the least generous interpretation possible. Reason No. 2 is a human, somewhat embarrassing desire to wipe that ugly history from the internet, to make sure no one else notices I was once a dipshit and, in turn, ponder whether I still am. Taken together, they form a clever feedback loop: Each day of memories gives a small dopamine hit; each also provides a reminder to sanitize my digital adolescence.
Maybe that latter impulse is fundamentally dishonest, a win for the cultural scourge that is personal branding. Maybe my daily reckoning with whom I used to be is what maturation feels like in Mark Zuckerberg’s vertically integrated world of unregulated information. What’s clear is that I’m currently ensnared in an ongoing experiment in which I self-consciously evaluate the granular details of everything I’ve ever said or done against my real-life growth and the constantly changing social norms that propel it. You are too.
This sprawling labyrinth of billions of interconnected biographies will only grow, with more users, more connections, more days to be reminded of, and more “features” packaging them together into neat multimedia presentations delivered straight to our phones. Against that backdrop, I can only surmise that there is no end in sight for my habitual early morning routine. I keep getting older, and the person Facebook reflects back at me stays the same age—which is to say, not old enough.
I don’t have the psychological strength to blow up this cycle of Facebook-enabled narcissism and the self-loathing it produces. A clean break—a ban on the company by the all-powerful social media gods—is in order. It might throw my entire industry into a tailspin, sure, but it would also save me from wasting my precious waking hours on uncomfortable and ultimately shallow self-reflection.
Maybe you think choosing to eradicate Facebook for this reason feels small. I can assure you there are also plenty of grander arguments for bringing it to heel. Zuckerberg’s mass manipulation and monetization of human attention need to be reined in somehow. If blatant self-interest is what it takes, then so be it.