I understand the services offered by the internet. I am obligated to understand them, because the net has taken over my life and all our lives. In terms of benefits, the internet lets me learn about people, places, and things I might not otherwise hear about. It slakes my intense thirst and need for information. It connects me (virtually) with many human communities. It allows me to peddle my books and workshops, sometimes without charge.
However, there are two great disservices of the Internet. One is the disrupting of human community at real scale; and two is the ravaging of a place-based life, which is what I want to talk about.
Where You Live
A few years ago Facebook removed a feature that allowed its users to be place-based. A user could name the place they lived: San Francisco, CA or Surrency, GA. (And you still can—the feature is under the “About” section, and it allows you to list your current city and also your hometown. You can choose whether this information is public or private.)
In the old days, however, when you made a post, a dropdown menu would let you decide to whom the post was directed. You could direct a communication to a certain audience.
If I listed my current city as Reidsville, Georgia, then an option on an actual post would let me limit the post to folks near Reidsville. Or close friends. Or friends only. Friends of friends. Or everyone.
The feature would not let you choose any city, but you could send a post to Facebook users in your current city.
This was very helpful. If I had extra tomato seedlings to share, I could send out a post that went only to people in my general vicinity.
Right now, for example, I am in need of an administrative assistant a few hours a week. I pay well, and I’m sure someone in my community can organize my studio beautifully. I am looking for that person. Were I able, I would create a Facebook post “Assistant Needed” and direct it to Facebook users in my current city, since a post like this doesn’t need to go out to “everyone.” I cannot use an assistant who lives in St. Louis, sadly.
How I Used “Where I Live”
I learned in the old days that if I changed the city “where I live,” the audience options allowed for a given post would also change.
I took full advantage of that. For example, if I were giving a reading in Chicago, I would lie to the FB app and say that I lived in Chicago. Then I would return to my feed and create a post regarding my in-person event. I sent it out to “Friends in Chicago” to target my Facebook friends in those environs.
That is no longer possible.
In May 2022, writer Laurent Giret, in an article on thurrott.com called “Facebook is Killing Nearby Friends and other Location-Based Features,” wrote that “Facebook has started warning users that it’s about to sunset various location-based features at the end of the month.”
The list of discontinued features included
Giret adds that it’s unclear why Facebook was doing this.
I love to read the comments on a post like this, because the perspectives are wide. One person wrote that they wanted to believe that FB was doing a good deed—“Over the last few years, mobile apps have increasingly been a tool for Coercive Control in domestic violence situations. It is possible to covertly install apps on a victim’s device to allow them to be tracked. Apple and Google are cracking down on this by limiting access to location data.”
I’m less ready to swallow the Koolaid, like the person who wrote, “My guess is that once users became more aware that Facebook was tracking their locations all the time, they turned off those permissions, and now Facebook has no reason to keep investing the time and resources without reaping that information.”
It’s a fine line. FB wants to be a key local, mobile-oriented, advertising hub, but it also needs to keep people safe. Over the years it has rolled out then rolled in many “location-based services.”
Ads Allow Location Targeting
Facebook has pulled location-based features available to the average non-commercial user not because it no longer uses locations. It does. Anyone can buy ads targeting FB users in a certain area: pay to play.
But you can’t target those users without paying.
Not long ago I was listening to a podcast produced by two women, and they were interviewing a third woman. The guest had a mind for geography—she obviously understood that places matter—and she asked the hosts where they were from. She was from Brattleboro, Vermont, she said. One of the hosts said she was from a small place about an hour outside New Orleans, and the other was also from a small place, although she never named it.
I am not the man without a country. None of us are.
What the internet has been telling us is: it doesn’t matter where you’re from.
Place does matter. In future newsletters I’ll talk more about this.
Democratization of Access
Once I heard Sheryl Sandberg, fourteen years the COO of Facebook (now Meta), being interviewed. I was fascinated by how she spun the services of FB and IG. She said she had “real belief in our product.”
She said that FB gives us voice, and that the world is better for that voice.
She talked about how businesses not only survived but thrived during the COVID pandemic because of the “democratization of access” through tools such as Facebook and Meta. “You started a business,” she said to the host. “Our free tools were a part of that.”
The free tools do not consist of us being better connected to place and to the communities, both human and wild, in those places.
One More Example
Recently I needed a sound designer. I went to fiverr, and right away I found a guy offering exactly the services I needed. He was writing in English. Turns out, he was from Denmark. (Also, turns out, he did a terrible job.)
Most of us practice a certain looseness of place. We bounce about the world for university studies, internships, jobs, and marriages. We bounce because we can.
I have data on this one. For 25 years I have kept addresses of folks who hand me a business card or who write me a letter. When a new book comes out, because I want to alert my oldest friends to the new work, I will design and mail a postcard about it. I mailed postcards in October 2021 when Wild Spectacle came out and again in September 2022 when The Woods of Fannin County published. Each time, a mailing service sorts the addresses and removes the folks “no longer at this address” because of whatever reason—sometimes because of death, but mostly because of relocation.
Less than a year separated the last two mailings, and yet a stack of postcards six inches high waits on my desk waiting for me (or an assistant, if I can find one) to remove these addresses from my mailing list.
Whether we are faithful to our places, or even pay the slightest bit of attention to them, they are faithful to us.
We ignore place at our peril.
Question for You
What’s your thinking on this? Can you think of any way that Facebook helps connect us to our local places?