I traveled back in time to tell my 2009 self not to join Facebook

In 2009, I wrote a front page column for the Lewiston Tribune about joining Facebook, a social media site many readers at the time knew little about.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been 10 years — it seems like 20. So much has changed, and social media is one of the major reasons why.

Facebook remains the world’s largest social media platform, with more than 2 billion monthly active users. So many times, for so many reasons, I’ve wished I had never joined.

I started to wonder, what if I could go back in time and tell 2009 Jennifer what Facebook has become? Maybe she wouldn’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon.

One of the many tactics Facebook uses to capture people’s attention is to send reminders on anniversaries of past posts. It sent me one on the 10th anniversary of the day I joined. Exploiting a flaw in the feature’s design, I created a portal to travel back in time to warn my past self of what was to come.

(Cue time travel sound effects)

Jen09: Hey, wait, what happened? That’s not my profile picture.

Jen19: Hi Jen, it’s me, you, in 2019.

Jen09: What? Facebook can talk?

Jen19: It can’t, yet. I’m from the future. I’m you in 10 years. I’ve come to warn you about your decision to join Facebook.

Jen09: Wow, really? Time travel is only 10 years away?

Jen19: No, forget that part. We have more important things to talk about. You, and millions of others, are making a big mistake by joining Facebook.

Jen09: Why? I just reconnected with all these people I haven’t seen or heard from in years! My old neighbor, she lives in Oklahoma now. I know we were never really friends, and I haven’t thought about her for 20 years, but what’s the harm in getting in touch? There’s a lot of other people too, people I knew better, even people I see every day. Seems like a fun and easy way to stay in touch with a lot of people.

Jen19: Guess what? That old neighbor — I have no idea who you even are talking about now. That was a million status updates, notifications and photos ago. Facebook, and the other social media apps coming your way, are going to be a massive time suck full of unimportant information.

Jen09: Wow, future Jen. You sound like a real downer.  

Jen19: Chalk it up to a decade of watching people walk around staring at their phones instead of talking to each other. There’s even a word for it now, phubbing. It means snubbing people in favor of your phone. Social media will be one of the major reasons people are glued to their phones, because of FOMO, which means Fear of Missing Out. FOMO causes people a lot of anxiety these days, but that’s by design.

Jen09: What do you mean FOMO is by design?  

Jen19: People think social media is free, but it’s not; you pay for it with your time and attention. That’s what they sell to advertisers. To get your attention, these platforms will employ thousands of engineers whose job will be finding ways to keep you coming back. They’ll copy techniques used by the gambling industry. Notice your Facebook feed is bottomless? They’re all like that now to keep people scrolling. It’s like playing a slot machine. You never know what’s coming next. If you leave, they send you notifications to lure you back.

Jen09: This is a pretty bleak view of the future.

Jen19: Oh, there’s a lot more. I haven’t even told you about how they are selling your private information or how the Russians are using social media to destroy Americans’ faith in democracy.

Jen09: What? You’re confused, the Cold War ended years ago.

Jen19: No, listen: Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Russian troll farms will stir up racial and political firestorms on the most popular social media platforms used by all ages. They’ll target conservative voters with patriotic and anti-immigrant memes and outraged messages about liberals. They’ll target black Americans by planting the seeds of distrust in the American system of voting. People will think they are conversing with other Americans when they’re actually arguing with Russians. Their goal will be to get Donald Trump elected president. Legitimate news stories about what’s happening will be overcome by fake news stories, which will get shared more because they are more inflammatory and get more views.

Jen09: Wait, back up, the guy from the reality TV show “The Apprentice” who always ends with “you’re fired” is going to run for president?

Jen19: Yeah, he still says that a lot. I know it doesn’t make sense to you now and, I’m sorry to say, it’s not going be easier to understand in 10 years.

Jen09: This is a lot to process. There has to be something good about Facebook and the other social media platforms?

Jen19: Well, it has brought people around the world closer together. It has also helped fuel movements for social change and helped bring greater awareness to a lot of issues. There’s probably a lot of people who feel less isolated because they can connect with so many people.

Jen09: Huh. Well, I’m still going to join. I’m a journalist, and it would be wrong to bury my head in the sand when it comes to something that is going to have such a great effect on our society.

Jen19: (Sigh) I figured that would be your answer. My last word of advice to you is to spend your time wisely. You can’t miss what you don’t see. At the end of your life, I doubt you’ll wish you would have spent more time scrolling.

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