Zuckerberg and I

 

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That image broke my heart.

In the previous weeks, there had been conflicting reports on whether Mark Zuckerberg would testify before the US Congress or send one of his lieutenants. He had appeared on a CNN interview to break the ominous silence after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal came out. Cambridge Analytica, a shady British psychoanalytics firm, had surreptitiously harvested personal information from over 87 million Facebook profiles over several years and used it, among other things, to influence major elections around the world including in Kenya and in the US. At CNN, Zuckerberg, characteristically, begged for forgiveness and raised doubts about appearing before Congress. Of course, the YouTube commenters and late-night TV comedians had a field day with the interview but that was child’s play compared to what would happen when the Zuck eventually showed up on Capitol Hill.

I must have seen the image first on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah last month. Here, Zuckerberg ditches his t-shirt – jeans life-uniform for a navy blue suit, a white-collar shirt and a light blue tie. He eyes his interrogators at a distance, placing his hands on a set of notes on his desk. To see the real story though, you have to look keenly at the chair he’s perched on. He sits upright atop a leather-bound chair which on closer inspection has an additional leather cushion reminiscent of children’s booster seats.  Even as it adds several inches to his frame, the additional cushion leans on the backrest of the seat at an odd angle—making it conspicuous, the one thing that whoever put it there told it not to be. This image is a sad tale: the same Zuckerberg who I deified now needs to sit on a cushion to appear larger than he really is? To me, the cushion becomes a symbol for the illusory nature of social media performances and Zuckerberg’s company’s naive understanding of their platform’s impact — which, to them, is always positive (and if it’s ever negative, it’s the rotten apples abusing the platform, never the platform itself).

***

The first time I heard of Facebook, I was in Ghana for the Global Leadership Adventures (GLA), a three-week volunteer program whose participants—about two dozen of them —were predominantly rich American teenagers making their first trip to “Africa”. It could be argued that I was also making my first trip to Africa as this was the first time I had left Kenya; I had rarely seen myself as an African before. This trip brought many firsts. It was the first time I was hearing Americanisms like “what’s up” and I remember being genuinely confused about what the phrase meant and finding these Americans strange for even suggesting that that could be a greeting. Growing up, I barely watched Western movies or read western literature; so, one would have forgiven me for pointing to the sky when my peers — who seemed much older than me judging by their beards and body sizes —asked what was up. It was also the first time I set up an email account, a story I would chronicle in painstaking detail in my Common App essay to American universities two years later.

Our host, the SOS Hermann Gmeiner International School campus in the coastal town of Tema, had a computer lab on the first floor of its student’s center. I remember this because I spent a considerable chunk of my time in Ghana in that room, partly because I was very fascinated by this unprecedented access to computers and the Internet but largely because I was an awkward black teenager with a village accent who didn’t know how to respond to “what’s up”. During my sessions in the computer lab, I often observed my American peers posting photos and waxing lyrical about something they called a Facebook. This was June 2008, 10 years ago. Back at Nakuru High, only folks doing Computer Studies (less than 10% of the school population) had access to computers and those computers did not even connect to the Net. I was not instantly charmed by this Facebook talk but as it persisted, I became curious. The blue banner ads across the Internet depicting a mesh of connections and a platform promising to connect you to the world — on sites like Daily Nation, which I read daily to cure my bout of homesickness —did not help either. I would soon give in: take my first hit of the drug, and for the next decade, I would be hooked onto Mark Zuckerberg’s cocaine.

My first months on Facebook —like most people’s —were embarrassing and slow. I would log in about twice a month and post in that pre-evolutionary language that every one of us used. Pretty sure you remember the haes, xaxa, dia, gud, ww, kul; I was not immune to that. Most of my Facebook friends in the early months were participants of the GLA program. The first time I logged into Facebook after Ghana was the day school closed for the August holidays. I remember taking a matatu from Nakuru High to Nakuru town, combing the streets for a cyber cafe. Just the previous week, I had turned 15. Logging onto Facebook, I was greeted by a plethora of happy birthday messages, mostly from my American ‘friends’, and a thunderstorm of pride washed over me. Had any of my schoolmates been there, I would’ve probably bragged to them about it but as usual, I was the awkward teen who did things alone. Nonetheless, it felt magical. My birthday had gone unnoticed in the real world as the July cold, terrible food and the end-of-term exam fever —not necessarily in that order—dominated our boarding school lives. But in the digital realm, “the world” knew who I was, knew when my birthday was, and knew never to forget it.

***

A year later, I joined the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa. During the orientation week, the school founders extolled virtues such as the Power of One and the Power of Youth. They described how individuals had the power to change the world. Particularly, they pointed to young people who had created things that moved the world. Naturally, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were the first examples —but an even younger prodigy, the prodigy of our time, was even more fascinating. Mark Zuckerberg, the Founder of Facebook. At 20, the story went, he had dropped out of Harvard to create the social network that individuals and businesses around the world had come to rely on. Sixteen at the time, I ‘got the call’ to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, the African Mark Zuckerberg. I had four years to catch up and now that I had a laptop of my own (well, it was a school laptop but I got to spend the entire day and night with it) and constant Internet access, nothing could stop me. It was gonna be all the way up!

Over the next two years, all I—a black teen raised by a single mother in a Kenyan village who’d only been on the Internet for the first time just over a year earlier—wanted to be was that white, awkward, t-shirt-donning geek who created the site that I often lost myself in. I became even more obsessed when I discovered the Forbes List (interestingly, from that Bruno Mars’ hit of the day about wanting to be a billionaire so freaking bad). Not only was Mark Zuckerberg popular and influential, he was rich. And he wasn’t just rich, he was stinking rich—and young to boot. Forbes had him as the youngest billionaire on their list that year at 26.

Around the same time, The Social Network came out. The portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as conniving and socially inept weathered away none of my fanaticism. If anything, he gained a mythical significance in my mind. In my room, I drowned in Internet vortexes studying how Mark built the network, refreshing Facebook’s user numbers you’d think I was an engineer at their Silicon Valley offices and imbibing on knowledge about the Silicon Valley culture. As I brushed my teeth in the mornings, I would look at myself in the mirror and see the future director of Facebook in Africa. My fanaticism peaked when I declared myself Legend Petre Muturi Njeri-Zuckerberg on my Facebook name. In retrospect, I see the marital connotations that I was sending out with the name—but this was 2010: not only had Shakira declared “this time for Africa” but also I didn’t give two fucks about anyone getting worried about me being married to Facebook and its maverick founder. When critics pummeled Mark on his weak public appearances and speeches, I felt personally insulted—partly because I was an introvert in a world of the extroversion ideal and partly because, well, I carried a Zuckerberg tag on my name.

While I knew very little about computers then, I pushed myself to take an AS Computer Science class. Most of the stuff we did was introductory but it was still hard for me. The fact that the teacher was often cancelling classes didn’t help either. We studied basic algorithms and started making little programs in Visual Basics. I wasn’t doing well in my Math classes (to put it extremely mildly) and that affected how well I understood the computational aspects of programming. I loved studying the history and development of computers as well as the hardware elements (and the parts where we needed to use a certain program). It was also a bonus that as Computer Science students, we kept our school-issued laptops after everyone else lost that privilege when we went back to ALA for the second year. I grew so confident in my Computing abilities to the point that when the Student Government elections were announced, I put my name into the IT Representative race. While folks like Mohammed put up creative posters all over campus promising change if elected President, I barely campaigned. I mean, why would I campaign yet everyone on campus naturally knew I was the next Mark Zuckerberg; heck, I even had the man’s name on my surname unlike all the other candidate who, lazily, just went by their boring names—the electorate had to put some respeck on that! I made no preparations for the speech that all candidates gave to the entire school at the auditorium on Election Day. I had never spoken in front of the whole school before but I expected that Zuckerberg would bless me with the magic to blow the audience away on my way to a guaranteed, resounding victory. The fact that that same Zuckerberg’s public speaking skills were far from first-rate never registered. So I gave my unprepared speech—if you can humor me and lower the standards of what can be called a speech—and the vote happened. The electoral officials counted the votes and, as expected, I won…dered why my Zuckerberg god had abandoned me as I placed last in a competition I had hitherto seen no competition.

***

The other reason I got so excited about Facebook was that it helped me find love—if, again, you can humor me and lower the bar of what is called love. See, I would kill to be one of those cool grandpas who brags to their grandkids that in their ‘heydays’, they got all dem girls their hearts (and bodies, mostly bodies) so desired. Like the pops in Black-ish. But if I ever told my grandkids a thing like that, I would be lying big time. While ALA had an incredible leadership program and the vision of transforming the continent, we must never forget that at the very basic, instinctual level, it was a high school with mid to late teens frolicking across its circular “quad”. The movies might blow it out of proportion but the high school experience is hugely about popularity, identity crises and boys and girls. It’s out of the way that I had an identity crisis and I was not popular and so it stands to reason that I was (to put it mildly) bad at girls. But you know who else was bad at girls? Geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. Wasn’t the primal reason Facebook—or was it called the FaceMash then?—was founded in a Harvard dorm room Tinder-esque: to rate who was hot or not and hopefully quench some thirsty folks’ desires?

On campus, in actual reality, the Don Quixote in me could only crush on girls he liked (and probably write them, especially that one Nigerian, love letters he never sent on his school laptop). On Facebook, in virtual reality, he could try and throw a line or two at girls he’d never met before in Kenya. And because back then all of us either used cartoons or extremely-low def profile photos, you never knew what your interlocutor on the other end of the line really looked like. In the year of our Lord 2010, it so happened that our crestfallen Casanova found love in the inbox of Mr. Mark Zuckerberg with a Kenyan girl we shall call E for the purposes of this tale.  E had just completed her high school back in the days when one had to spend a year at home before joining uni in Kenya. She’d told him she was doing ICDL and when he looked the initials up on the Net, they stood for International Computer Driving License. ICDL wasn’t the most rigorous program, I suppose, as E had time aplenty; she chatted up our Casanova incessantly until it got to the point where XOXO’s were a-exchanged before they both retired to bed late at night. When Valentine’s Day came, our Casanova told his beloved E that he wished he was home with her —and of course sent virtual flowers and maybe Farmville coins—and promised they would postpone the celebrations till later in the year when he flew back to Kenya. He did not care that he could not identify her in a police lineup—he believed they would one day get married. And yet till the year of our Good Lord 2018, as I write this, he still cannot identify E from a police lineup because he never set his eyes on her.

One evening, a Facebook recruitment manager came to speak to us as part of the Guest Speaker Series at ALA. I was getting an emotional hard-on as she spoke about Facebook’s workplace culture. If at the end of her presentation she’d pulled one of those preacher-men’s moves and called those who wished to drop out of school and give their souls to the Zuck, I would have happily neared that throne of grace.  She talked about how on the walls of the Facebook HQ, you would find signs proclaiming: “Done is Better than Perfect”, “Move Fast and Break Things” or “What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?” That last one really spoke to me because I was almost always afraid of something. Maybe if I wasn’t so afraid I would have done more than timidly smile at my Nigerian crush. But back to the story: the FB manager’s visit doubled my desire to work for the Zuck. In the following years, I kept my eyes glued to Facebook’s race towards the one-billion-users milestone. As a Facebook user, I added as many ‘friends’ as possible as if to make up for the low count in real life. When folks complained about the timeline and profile redesign, I would chide them, reckoning that the Zuck knew best.

***

My first major instance of disenchantment with Facebook hit in my freshman year at Colgate. Granted, that first year in Upstate New York came with a dozen other depression-inducing crises, but one evening I found myself surveying my list of friends on Facebook. I realized I had never met over half of the people on the list that ran into the thousands. Most of them were not people I admired or really wanted to hear from about what they had had for dinner on a random Wednesday evening or who they thought should win the Presidency in the upcoming elections so I started unfriending them one by one. Quickly, it became clear that I would need days to scour the list and unfriend all the people I would not say hi to if I met on a street, the arbitrary standard I used for who qualified as a friend or an acquaintance. The fact that I had been spending way too much time on the platform (which had affected my ability to focus on saving my tanking grades) compounded my frustrations. Earlier, I had found a Web plugin to monitor and block my Facebook use after about an hour-a-day but I found myself deleting the plugin several times in a typical week. So, I requested an archive of my Facebook data for posterity and permanently shut down my account.

Then, because I was an addict, and knew no better, I opened another Facebook account. Almost instantly.

And so the addiction cycle continued. Spend hours on Facebook, procrastinate on my schoolwork, feel guilty about it, find a web plugin to limit my Facebook use, delete the plugin when it limited my Facebook use, get back on Facebook, feel guilty for wasting away my life, read articles on procrastination, deactivate my Facebook account, discover I cannot log into another service outside Facebook without it and reactivate it in the process, go back on Facebook and procrastinate on my school work again, feel guilty about it, reinstall the plugin to control my out-of-hand Facebook use, use Facebook on my iPod when the plug-in blocked it on my web browser, feel guilty about using Facebook on my iPod, put my iPod on airplane mode for a few hours…and on and on and on.

***

At this point, my dream of becoming the next Zuckerberg was getting a fatal flogging. It seemed to me that out of his short, stout frame and his bald head, my Computer Science 101 professor spoke in an ancient, cryptic language at the rate of five hundred words-per-minute — and the university was abdicating its responsibility to us by not providing a translator or, at the very least, a rewind-your-professor-in-slow-motion option. Reading the textbook in between my 20 hours of work-study jobs per week, an almost similar number of hours on Facebook and running the African Youth Journals (a startup website bringing together dozens of young contributors to tell their stories of the continent) did little to bring up my grades. At the end of the semester, I had to keep it 100 and take Computer Science classes that I had a chance in, like, I dunno, CS100. For CS100, we had two sweet, old professors: one a Russian immigrant who spoke with a thick accent and the other a white grey-haired woman who ended up doing almost all of our Lab practice problems every damn time. While these two helped lift my grade up several rungs of the ladder, it dawned on me at the end of my freshman year that the top floor of Lathrop Hall, the home of the Computer Science department, was no home for me.

Over the remaining years, I became a mascot for the liberal artsy-ness of Colgate. In a rare nod to academic nomadism, I took classes in the English department, the Economics department, the Classics department, the Writing and Rhetoric department, the Africana and Latin American Studies department and the Psychology department. (An aside: I also became the official school mascot for one American football game coz YOLO!)  I mostly commuted between the last three departments on the list above. Eventually, I declared a major in Psychology, an official minor in African Studies and an unofficial minor in Writing and Rhetoric —the exact opposite of what Mark Zuckerberg would choose. I was breaking loose from the cult of the Zuck, becoming a person of my own. In my Public Speaking class, I even researched and presented a 15-minute speech on how social media and media-multitasking was wearing down our focus, creativity and productivity. I cited research from the likes of then-Stanford Psychologist Clifford Nass and author Nicholas Carr. This was an era of deep introspection and study — yet knowledge on the harms of social media did not save me from my addiction. I still spent huge chunks of my waking hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat; still watched Zuckerberg’s speeches and F8 conferences; still obsessed over red notification bubbles and notification bell rings. I knew that like the Pavlovian dogs I learnt about in Psych 101, they — Zuck and The Gang — had me conditioned, but there seemingly was little I could do about it. More importantly, they did nothing to make it easier for me to step out.

On the contrary, years later, I would learn from Tristan Harris (a former Google Design Ethicist), that Zuck’s Gang had members whose only job was to figure out how to keep billions of users, like me, glued (read: engaged) onto their product. They had the equivalents of Breaking Bad’s Walter White who studied our psychology at the neuronal and neurotransmitter levels and developed the perfect formula of blue crystal meth to keep us coming for more and more.  My eyeballs meant more advertising dollar bills for the company. The more hours I spent scrolling down feeds and timelines, the richer Mark Zuckerberg became. My goals and Mark Zuckerberg’s were at odds; the more he prevented me from reaching mine, the closer he came to his.

***

To see how strong Zuck and The Gang’s crystal meth is, hop onto a random matatu— if in New York, take the subway; in London, the tube — in the morning. Be the rare human and keep your phone in your pocket. Look around you. Notice the proportion of people whose eyeballs face a 3-6 inch rectangular screen, never taking a break to see the infinite world around them. Snoop, but not too much, to see if they’re either on Facebook (dark blue top), Twitter (light blue top), WhatsApp (green background) or Instagram (continuous image scrolling with intermittent double hits on the screen). If this proportion is less than 50% and you’re not in an underground tunnel with no Internet connection, then I kid you not: Italy will win the World Cup in Russia two months from now.

The modern workplace is no different: social media distraction punctuates our work hours like commas in my writing, fragmenting our focus, leaving us drained with nothing meaningful to show for it at the end of the day. I know this from personal experience, observation and research. See, I am primarily a writer and almost all of my professional endeavours have been writing-intensive. To write is to create, and to create, you have to dig deeper to find the gems that evade everyone around you and then connect them to what you already have. The greatest enemy to that quest is distraction: a fragmented mind, for a serious writer, is a frozen mind. At the beginning of his book on this subject (Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World), Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor of Computer Science, details how great writers and philosophers such as Carl Jung, JK Rowling and Mark Twain often worked in isolation in studies, hotel rooms or cabins-in-the-woods. I’ve seen the same tendencies with countless authors from reading The Paris Review interviews and memoirs of celebrated writers like Stephen King and Anne Lamott. The tranquility and focus produced hours upon hours of deep reflection, both conscious and unconscious, which in turn produced enduring works of art and ideas that will inspire millions of people around the world for millennia.

But what are the common pieces of advice for the millennial writer in the age of Facebook? Write shorter pieces with punchier headlines because attention spans are shorter; self-publish as frequently as possible; speak SEO, the language of Google; learn how to market your work and, while at it, build your fan base (read: community) on social media. Actually, the expectation is that unless I only want to write for myself, once I publish this story on my site, I must share it on Facebook and Twitter (#NewPost). But the questions we don’t, are really should, ask are: what about those times when Facebook gets in the way of the writing? What about those times when my addiction to Facebook choked away my writing ideas —  like the thorns in the Parable of the Sower — and there was nothing meaningful left to share? I have reached a point in my life where I’d rather write for three people (myself included) than not write at all. Where the act of writing itself brings more joy than praise from readers. If two people read this story from top to bottom and it changes their perspective, that’s more than enough for me. (Of course, it’d be a bonus if one of those two people is Mark Zuckerberg.)

***

Now, I can already hear the common counter-arguments forming in your mind: but technology itself is neutral, how good or bad it is depends on the user; what about all the benefits of these new media; but you could just control the impulse to compulsively use social media; or, oh please, just stop being a Luddite already people had the same fears when Henry Ford kicked out the horses! First, that technology is neutral is a myth debunked in detail by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows. Usually, technology takes on the biases of its own creators, especially in the absence of oversight and ethical grounding. Also remember, the designers of these systems are in a constant race for your attention because more eyeballs = more advertising money = a thicker bottom line. When YouTube decides to autoplay the next video, Netflix autoplays the next episode and Facebook autoplays all videos on your timeline as a default setting — which is one of the most ridiculous and patronizing ideas I’ve seen: the assumption that I have all day to watch all videos on my timeline and good ol Facebook doesn’t want me wasting my precious calories lifting a finger to click play on a video. It might seem trite, but on Facebook’s part, it is very strategic. They want more views from you — they want to raise their numbers, to beat YouTube at their own game—whether you like it or not, whether data bundles are expensive for you or not. Of course they’ll tell you that you have the agency to stop playing the videos (or subsidize your data charges in places like Kenya and India because they’re good ol Facebook), but why start at that point? Why not give you the agency to start the videos you want to see? It’s like tossing cake into the mouth of an overweight kid trying to trim down and saying, “if you don’t like it, spit it out.”

Tristan Harris, who spent three years at Google, has a chillingly powerful TED Talk on how a handful of tech giants walk the fine line between ethically influencing minds and behaviours of billions of people and downright manipulating them. He explains how just a few men and women, who are not accountable to us and who’ve studied human persuasion techniques, control what billions of us around the world think and feel from their lofty perches in Silicon Valley. These are the people who decide to autoplay all the videos on your timeline as if you have nothing better to do with your time and attention — then hide the option to stop autoplay in a haystack of settings. These are the people who’ve built never-ending timelines with the ever-present allure to scroll down infinitely looking for more juice or hit refresh looking for fresher juice. These are the people whose missions are to keep you longer on their site (quantity over quality), to prolong your watching sessions, to make you click on tantalizing headlines, to make you view as many photos as possible…all without adding a single second to your day.

Suddenly, it makes sense why my past heroes in Silicon Valley won’t admit that their platforms are responsible for fracturing not just our focus but the very backbone of our society — yet tons of evidence shows that their algorithms create debate-choking echo chambers, inadequate teens and grown-ups constantly comparing their lives to the performances of others, armies of abusive trolls, and millions of addicts thoughtlessly trafficking their meth. Instead, they’d rather mouth lofty phrases about connecting the world and bringing the other half the world online so they can autoplay more videos for them and sell them more ads.

***

So, then what? Do we go on Twitter and make #DeleteFacebook trend like Twitter isn’t built on similar premises? Do we all take social media sabbaticals or Sabbath Days like the pioneers of these technologies are fond of doing? Do we all grow the willpower to not compare our lives to the performances we see online? Do we all take classes on how to stay mindful and control our impulses to click “play next” on YouTube? Do we all analyze the pros and cons of social media “tools”, as Cal Newport suggests, and jettison them if they detract us from our purpose?

Honestly, I do not have more questions than answers. At the very minimum, the Cambridge Analytica data breach should serve as a wakeup call to both us, the users, and the designers of these products. And while privacy and security are the red flags — there are way more problems with these platforms that we need to talk about and figure out how to fix. I can recommend a lot of individual initiatives that one can take to rid themselves of addictive tendencies online, but that would only be a band-aid solution. The problem is systemic and Mark Zuckerberg and The Gang need to understand that. Those of us who know better can mute all our notifications, put our phones on airplane mode, meditate and stay more mindful, take days or months off social media, figure out how to stop video autoplay, discern fake news from actual reporting, keep ourselves away from third-party apps that misuse our data — but all this with no systemic and attitudinal change from Silicon Valley will be merely postponing the crises. Do Zuck and the Gang need a crisis bigger than 87 million compromised accounts — including mine and Zuckerberg’s — to build more humane technologies that helps us use our time and attention more wisely in service of our true purpose and communities?

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