Refugee from Facebook questions the social media life


Katherine Losse, former Facebook employee and author of new book, "The Boy Kings," is pictured near downtown Marfa, Texas. (Erin Trieb/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Not long after Katherine Losse left her Silicon Valley career and moved to this West Texas town for its artsy vibe and crisp desert air, she decided to make friends the old-fashioned way, in person. So she went to her Facebook page and, with a series of keystrokes, shut it off.

The move carried extra import because Losse had been the social network’s 51st employee and rose to become founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal ghostwriter. But Losse gradually soured on the revolution in human relations she witnessed from within.

The explosion of social media, she believed, left hundreds of millions of users with connections that were more plentiful but also narrower and less satisfying, with intimacy losing out to efficiency. It was time, Losse thought, for people to renegotiate their relationships with technology.

“It’s okay to feel weird about this because I feel weird about this, and I was in the center of it,” said Losse, 36, who has long, dark hair and sky-blue eyes. “We all know there is an anxiety, there’s an unease, there’s a worry that our lives are changing.”

Her response was to quit her job — something made easier by the vested stock she cashed in — and to embrace the ancient toil of writing something in her own words, at book length, about her experiences and the philosophical questions they inspired.

That brought her to Marfa, a town of 2,000 people in an area so remote that astronomers long have come here for its famously dark night sky, beyond the light pollution that’s a byproduct of modern life.

Losse’s mission was oddly parallel. She wanted to live, at least for a time, as far as practical from the world’s relentless digital glow.

Losse was a graduate student in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2004 when Facebook began its spread, first at Harvard, then other elite schools and beyond. It provided a digital commons, a way of sharing personal lives that to her felt safer than the rest of the Internet.

The mix has proved powerful. More than 900 million people have joined; if they were citizens of a single country, Facebook Nation would be the world’s third largest.

Despite a messy initial stock offering in May that left investors feeling bruised, Facebook has become one of the most potent and pervasive technology companies in the world, with a massive potential revenue stream from targeting ads to its users. (Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., is a Facebook board member.)

As it has grown, Facebook has increasingly drawn scrutiny from American and European regulators while provoking debate over the consequences of digital socializing — especially when it’s happening on platform built by a profit-seeking company.

At first, Losse was among those smitten. In 2005, after moving to Northern California in search of work, she responded to a query on the Facebook home page seeking résumés. Losse soon became one of the company’s first customer-service reps, replying to questions from users and helping to police abuses.

She was firmly on the wrong side of the Silicon Valley divide, which prizes the (mostly male) engineers over those, like Losse, with liberal arts degrees. Yet she had the sense of being on the ground floor of something exciting that might also yield a life-altering financial jackpot.

In her first days, she was given a master password that she said allowed her to see any information users typed into their Facebook pages. She could go into pages to fix technical problems and police content. Losse recounted sparring with a user who created a succession of pages devoted to anti-gay messages and imagery. In one exchange, she noticed the man’s password, “Ilovejason,” and was startled by the painful irony.

Another time, Losse cringed when she learned that a team of Facebook engineers was developing what they called “dark profiles” — pages for people who had not signed up for the service but who had been identified in posts by Facebook users. The dark profiles were not to be visible to ordinary users, Losse said, but if the person eventually signed up, Facebook would activate those latent links to other users.

(A Facebook spokesman declined to comment on Losse or her book, “The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network,” published in June by Free Press.)

All the world a stage

Losse’s unease sharpened when a celebrated Facebook engineer was developing the capacity for users to upload video to their pages. He started videotaping friends, including Losse, almost compulsively. On one road trip together, the engineer made a video of her napping in a car and uploaded it remotely to an internal Facebook page. Comments noting her siesta soon began appearing — only moments after it happened.

“The day before, I could just be in a car being in a car. Now my being in a car is a performance that is visible to everyone,” Losse said, exasperation creeping into her voice. “It’s almost like there is no middle of nowhere anymore.”

Losse began comparing Facebook to the iconic 1976 Eagles song “Hotel California,” with its haunting coda, “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” She put a copy of the record jacket on prominent display in a house she and several other employees shared not far from the headquarters (then in Palo Alto., Calif.; it’s now in Menlo Park).

As Facebook grew, Losse’s career blossomed. She helped introduce Facebook to new countries, pushing for quick, clean translations into new languages. Later, she moved to the heart of the company as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter, mimicking his upbeat yet efficient style of communicating in blog posts he issued.

But her concerns continue to grow. When Zuckerberg, apparently sensing this, said to Losse, “I don’t know if I trust you,” she decided she needed to either be entirely committed to Facebook or leave. She soon sold some of her vested stock. She won’t say how much; they provided enough of a financial boon for her to go a couple of years without a salary, though not enough to stop working altogether, as some former colleagues have.

‘Touchy, private territory’

Among Losse’s concerns were the vast amount of personal data Facebook gathers. “They are playing on very touchy, private territory. They really are,” she said. “To not be conscious of that seems really dangerous.”

It wasn’t just Facebook. Losse developed a skepticism for many social technologies and the trade-offs they require.

Facebook and some others have portrayed proliferating digital connections as inherently good, bringing a sprawling world closer together and easing personal isolation.

Moira Burke, a researcher who trained at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and has since joined Facebook’s Data Team, tracked the moods of 1,200 volunteer users. She found that simply scanning the postings of others had little effect on well-being; actively participating in exchanges with friends, however, relieved loneliness.

Summing up her findings, she wrote on Facebook’s official blog, “The more people use Facebook, the better they feel.”

But Losse’s concerns about online socializing tracks with the findings of Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist who says users of social media have little understanding of the personal information they are giving away. Nor, she said, do many understand the potentially distorting consequences when they put their lives on public display, as what amounts to an ongoing performance on social media.

“In our online lives, we edit, we retouch, we clean up,” said Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” published in 2011. “We substitute what I call ‘connection for real conversation.’ ”

Connected former cow town

After quitting in summer 2010, Losse decided to move to Austin, known for its vibrant cultural scene and lefty sensibilities. But on the way, she stopped over in Marfa, a cow-town-turned-artists-colony on an austere desert plateau three hours from the nearest city.

After Austin proved too crowded and expensive for Losse’s taste, she returned to Marfa and bought an adobe house. And she got a shiny aluminum Airstream trailer that let her get even farther away when the mood struck.

There, away from the clamor of her former life, she would write her book — something she called “an act of resistance.” She took it as an unexpected blessing that Marfa’s weak cellphone coverage could not sustain enough data flow for her to Tweet directly from her iPhone.

Marfa was just a dusty ranching town when minimalist artist Donald Judd moved here in the 1970s, drawn by the entrancing landscape and the chance to escape the hectic, claustrophobic New York art scene. Other artists gradually followed, many on fellowships from the foundations that set up here, and Marfa developed into a bustling, if unlikely, cultural center.

By the time Losse came around in January 2011, Marfa featured fine dining, its own NPR station and more than its share of digital connections.

Even as Losse deactivated her Facebook page, others were proliferating around town. Celebrities had found Marfa, too. The town’s beloved food truck, the Food Shark, has nearly 1,700 “Likes” on its Facebook page — including ones from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson.

Many here have mixed feelings about the transformation, even as they accept that rising technology has been crucial to Marfa’s growing economic health. “Most of the people who live here have very complicated relationships with all forms of media,” said Tim Johnson, 34, an artist who moved to Marfa in 2006 and now owns the bookstore here.

Ester Partegas, an artist who came to Marfa on a fellowship, often works with basic materials like plaster and paint. She uses e-mail, Facebook and text messages to keep in touch with friends in Berlin and New York, sometimes sharing images of her emerging works. It helps the creative process, she said, though she wonders how her art would be different if she had worked in a pre-digital Marfa.

“Sometimes I really miss that, not being interrupted,” Partegas said.

‘You can’t get away from it’

For Losse, writing a book in the 21st century proved technologically intense. She wrote on a Macintosh desktop. Iterations of her manuscript zipped back and forth to her editor through a speedy WiFi connection in her adobe home. When her iPhone’s coverage flagged, Losse resorted to Google Voice for calls.

Losse eventually reactivated her Facebook account. Rejecting it altogether felt, to her, extreme. But she approached it this time with a new wariness, not as a place to make and maintain friendships but one where a new author could cultivate a public image.

She carefully minded the privacy controls and signed on using a browser setting that limited the ability of Web sites to track her as she surfed the Internet. She prefers to carry out conversations on the phone, by e-mail or, when possible, in person.

“The Boy Kings,” meanwhile, has no Facebook page — a rarity in today’s book industry.

Along the way Losse has found a point of balance, a mix of technological connection and disconnection that, for now, suits her.

“You can’t get away from it. It’s everything. It’s everywhere,” Losse said. “The moment we’re in now is about trying to deal with all this technology rather than rejecting it, because obviously we can’t reject it entirely. We can avoid one site or another, but we can’t leave our phones at home anymore.”

But sometimes she does. A dusty trail leading out of town, past desert flowers blooming under the huge West Texas sky, allows her to make even Marfa disappear behind her. On these hikes, the iPhone stays in the car, giving her priceless — if all too brief — moments of perfect solitude.

Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Post.
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