When I was a kid, maybe eight years old, a case of Diet Pepsi showed up on our front door unannounced.
To many, this might not seem like a memorable moment. But we were a Coke family in a Coke city—a city where “Coke” was the generic term, instead of soda or pop. My mom didn’t drink coffee in the morning, she drank Diet Coke. And she kept drinking Diet Coke through the day, until evening fell, when she’d switch to Caffeine-Free Diet Coke.
Diet Pepsi on our doorstep? How did that get there?
More than two decades later, I can still remember one line from the note/advertising copy that came attached: “You’re one in a million!” The note went on to explain that Pepsi had shipped a case of Diet Pepsi to each of a million households of Diet Coke drinkers, to try to convert them. In hindsight, it was a clear marketing ploy.
But then, in that moment? We were special! We were one in a million!
When I was 21 years old, I was one of five editorial/research interns at a New York-based music magazine. It was the fall of 2004, and all the other interns could talk about was a new website they had all been interacting on, some place called The Facebook. They had all become friends on there. They had been having conversations on there. And they told me I should sign up.
I had been a holdout on similar sites. I had begrudingly singed up for Friendster at the request of a classmate, and never friended anyone else. I was a conscientious objector to MySpace. But this Facebook thing they were talking about sounded different, somehow. So, I went so sign up, except, only to learn that it was only open to some colleges, and the University of Washington wasn’t one of them yet.
With no other options, I filled out the form that told them to alert me when registrations rolled out to the UW, and I waited. As soon as I got that email, I signed up.
A couple months later, Facebook hit its 1,000,000th user. And I was one of them. I was in.
In hindsight, the strangest thing about that case of soda wasn’t that it was Diet Pepsi, it’s that I have no idea how we got it. Maybe my mom entered some contest, or filled out some form at grocery store. Maybe some data-mining effort churned out our address. Or maybe Pepsi selected a million people truly at random. All these years later, there’s no way to know. A Google search turned up nothing of relevance, and I doubt my mom even remembers this story. The only reason I remember is because of how special that note made me feel, for no reason at all.
If that same thing happened today, it wouldn’t seem mysterious at all. We live in a world of data-mining, a world where Target can discover you’re pregnant before you even know it. And that’s fine, to a large degree.
I use a frequent flier miles credit card for virtually all of my purchases, which makes it easy for my data to be bought and sold. But there’s a benefit, at least: I get (roughly) one round-trip flight a year out of the deal. If I stopped using that card—if I switched to cash or my debit card—nobody would object. Nobody would care. Nobody would even notice.
A couple weeks ago, The A.V. Club broke news that, two years earlier, Facebook had deliberately attempted to manipulate its users emotions as part of a research project. And the only thing that shocked me was that it was deliberate.
After years of a kind-of-like/hate relationship with Facebook, I left the site in March of 2012, two months after that study. (Officially, my account is deactivated, not deleted, but that’s only because the idea of logging back in, even to officially delete it, remains completely unappealing to me.) My reasons for leaving were more personal: A bad breakup, where even blocking my ex and the guy for whom she left me wasn’t enough to keep them from popping up in images in my News Feed. I told myself I was going to take two weeks off from the site, and haven’t gone back.
The first week was the toughest, simply because Facebook had become a habit. Any login would reactivate my account, which meant I had to make a concerted effort to not check it from my phone at the bus stop, as I had been doing for years. But once I had broken that habit, once I was far enough removed to look at it for what it was, I realized something.
Facebook had never done anything for me. Facebook was worthless.
Somehow, my mom’s loyalty to Diet Coke earned us a case of Diet Pepsi all those years ago. Every year, my credit card gives me a plane ticket in exchange for my personal data. Every $100 I spent at the movie theater, I get $10 back.
But Facebook? The best thing Facebook ever did for me was enable me to grab drinks with an old friend in Austin years ago, an experience that only reaffirmed how different we’d become since going our separate ways.
Meanwhile, its downside was the prolonging of a post-breakup depression that led me to spend several thousand dollars on a therapist who somehow actually made things worse.
Something about that equation seems off.
These days, I have two conversations about Facebook, over and over again: People complaining about it, and people asking me why I’m not on there.
Every month, it seems, I hear some new story about someone’s Facebook implosion, or someone’s ex crossing some line on there, or the aforementioned emotional-manipulation study. People complain constantly about their cousin’s crazy political rants or their co-workers’ desperate pleas for attention. In fact, the only things I hear more complaints about than Facebook are a) local traffic, and b) the socio-political effects on the region of Amazon’s hiring policies, which are largely related.
And yet, everyone still logs in. Even after word broke that Facebook had deliberately manipulated its users emotions and churned out a research paper that showed it worked, the addiction remains.
My friend Monica recently wrote an article hypothesizing about what Facebook learned from the controversy, whiched ended thusly: “Maybe all this has taught companies like Facebook is to keep more of their findings to themselves.” (Emphasis hers.)
I don’t know anybody who quit over this story; I don’t know of any of my friends even considering it.
The way I look at it, they did this unapologetically once already. What’s to stop them from doing it again? And if they do, are you allowed to be surprised? Are you allowed to be enraged? At this point, isn’t not opting out the same as opting in?
Fortunately, that’s not my problem any more. My friends may keep calling me a Luddite for leaving the site, but given a choice between ridicule and being an unwitting lab rat, I’ll take the former. I no longer value being one in a million.