June 2nd 2020
Founder of The Vivid Minds. I interview leaders about their challenges and provide media consulting.
A week ago, I experienced virtual death.
I’ve had a Facebook profile for about ten years, ever since I became a journalist in Russia. Access to LinkedIn is blocked there, so Facebook is how I’ve maintained all my crucial contacts. To give you an example: when I moved to New York, a Wall Street Journal reporter reached out to me and asked if I could help with a story about hackers in Russia. I was a tech journalist then, but I had no leads on this story, so I connected him with a few other folks. Long story short, he messaged me on Telegram saying he found relevant connections on my Facebook feed, and that he thought I might actually have been a hacker myself.
The truth is, I had three thousand friends and slightly more than two thousand subscribers on Facebook—I knew about half of them. The key word is “had,” because while taking a walk in my Upper West Side neighborhood today and planning to meet a friend in Columbus Circle, I got cut off from my account and was asked to verify it.
I responded instantly to the verification message and uploaded a picture of myself. But I still couldn’t access my account; it was blocked pending verification. No reason, no warning, nothing. Just a blank page that said: “You can’t use Facebook at the moment.”
Here I am, cut off, and I’m supposed to meet someone that day, even though we never agreed on a time. Meanwhile, clients are potentially messaging me, and a guy I almost fell in love with who always likes my posts was probably liking them now, and I couldn’t see!
All the posts I’d been doing in my first year since moving to New York (people said I should gather them and publish a book) flashed before my eyes, along with all the memories and pictures I was so careless to upload from Facebook.
The friend I was supposed to meet messaged me on LinkedIn (friends never do that, right?), giving me his number and arranging to meet in two hours. He said my Facebook account seemed to have been deleted. It felt like virtual death.
Some may be critical that my life was so dependent on Facebook. But I actually loved it; it’s how I stayed in touch with friends and clients, and felt validated (though also criticized whenever I got into debates—which was cool, too). I was the one listening to all the congressional hearings when they grilled Zuckerberg, and publicly defended him.
I realize that pressure from the government is a big reason why Facebook has to practice censorship. But it’s really too much. A friend texted me saying that he saw a blank account in his Messenger and thought it was spam. He wanted to delete it, but then realized it was me. He then messaged me to see if I was OK. I’m glad it was him and not my mom who saw that!
I’ve heard people saying that Facebook assumes too much control in censoring messages and blocking ads. When I wasn’t able to share the stories I’ve been collecting on The Vivid Minds, a storytelling project focused on social and personal change, like the one about an ultra-Orthodox Jew who gave up religion and moved to New York from Israel to become a musician, I didn’t say a word.
Facebook said that one of my posts didn’t align with their guidelines—the only one I could think of was something about seeding hate, which is the antithesis of my mission.The fact is that almost all of my stories are controversial, otherwise why bother spending so many hours on them? Anyway, I let it go.
But I’m not going to leave my virtual death unchallenged, not after it came so abruptly and nearly frightened my friends and family. Here we are, confined in our homes, barred from physical interaction, using social media to connect with others. That virtual world is the only one where we can stay in touch. What if you suddenly disappeared from it? Imagine the alarm it would cause in your friend group. It’s pretty irresponsible of Facebook to let that happen, especially during this crisis.