THE UNDERBELLY

I hope you all had a good Facebook/Instagram outage. I know I did, as I was on a very tight deadline and it maximally boosted my productivity. There’s something nice about knowing that people who want to contact you will have to do it through formal channels. With Messenger and Instagram direct messages gone, I was mercifully unbothered throughout the day.

I managed to catch Facebook just as things were coming back online again. The newsfeed could refresh, with minimal functionality elsewhere. The interesting thing about this was the ads. They were still displaying in the regular 3-posts-to-1-ad ratio, but for some reason the algorithm was no longer dialed into my browsing habits. It had instead reverted to a base state, and was showing me exclusively visually cluttered animated promos for slot machine games instead of the typical interior design advertising I am routinely served based on my browsing habits.

This implies something interesting about Facebook’s ad ecosystem. FarmVille was finally killed when Flash Player was no longer supported by the platform in 2020, and that kind of microtransaction-based minigame had already become passé post-Cambridge Analytica. Apps that were clearly intended to capitalize on user attention, such as quizzes and games, were no longer routinely trusted and thus went out of style. The app ecosystem, however, is still very much present, and in fact seems to be the backbone of Facebook’s advertising platform. Seeing those ads felt a little like looking at a massive fossil at a natural history museum and getting a fresh hit of the magnitude of linear time: don’t let your hubris get ahead of you, it seemed to say. The predatory microtransactions were here before you, and they’ll be here long after you’re gone.

There has been recent momentum, given damning media coverage, to divest from Facebook or at least make it less invasive. Declutter your newsfeed. Remove your questionable friends, leave all your groups, keep your epistemic circles tidy. Reject modernity, embrace tradition by being an anonymous mook with no profile photo. But even if Facebook knows nothing about you, if you have removed all information about your content preferences and friend networks, it still knows that you will be receptive to bright colors, flashing lights, and gambling.

You are still, in the end, a sucker, and Facebook is still just a digital casino with a cavernous gaming floor and no windows.