Facebook Phreaks and the Fight to Reclaim Time and Attention


Last week, I sent a note to my email list asking readers about their personal digital minimalism strategies. I’ve only just begun wading through the more than 250 responses, but I’m already noticing an interesting trend: there seems to be a non-trivial subgroup made up of individuals who use Facebook in very narrow ways, and are very worried about this service’s attempt to manipulate their time and attention to bolster profit.

To accommodate both these realities, this group deploys aggressive tactics and tools to reshape Facebook into something that provides them exactly what they need, without all the other frustrating noise.

Reshaping Facebook

Members of this group, for example, often remove the Facebook application from their smartphone. Almost no important use of this service requires that you can access it at any time or place: loading the site through a web browser is typically sufficient.

Facebook pushes the mobile application mainly because it allows them to monetize your time attention in places that advertisers previously could not reach — standing in line, bored in a meeting, waiting for the metro. This is great news for Facebook investors, but bad news for those trying to maintain some autonomy over their time and attention.

Members of this group are also quite suspicious of the Facebook news feed — a source of engineered distraction sprinkled with injections of social inadequacy and annoyance.

Some respondents explained to me how they aggressively culled their “friends” down to essentially zero to neuter the feed. A surprising number deploy custom web browser plug-ins that block the feed altogether when they load the Facebook site.

Another common observation I heard from this group is that Facebook recently unbundled its messenger application from the rest of its services — allowing those who use the service mainly for communication to avoid having to see the feed altogether.

I’ve also received multiple notes from entrepreneurs who hired people to do the types of marketing related posts that seem necessary these days, while saving the entrepreneur’s more valuable time and attention from the Facebook vortex.

So what do these people use Facebook for? There seem to be three main reasons: participating in carefully curated Facebook groups, communicating with family and friends who are on Facebook but don’t use other communication tools as much, and marketing.

They reject the notion that any one of these reasons should require them to transform into a dehumanized gadget in the Facebook profit machine.

The Facebook Phreaks

I’ve taken to calling this group the Facebook phreaks, an homage to the phone freaks (including, famously, Steve Jobs) who used to hack the telephone network to place long distance calls for free. These modern day phreaks are doing something similar to Facebook’s massive network, except instead of avoiding paying a payphone quarter, they’re preserving the value of their time and attention.

I don’t know how widespread this movement is, but it provides me some hope. Just because a small number of companies have temporarily succeeded in monopolizing much of the Internet doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to their dominance.

The phreaks are pushing back.