Life after Facebook

It’s been about two months now since I deleted my Facebook account — not just disabled, but really and truly deleted. On my end of things, there’s nothing left for me to access. On Facebook’s side of things, it will probably be another few weeks before all of my data has been completely purged by their systems, but it’s coming. I hemmed and hawed for weeks before making the decision to do this; now that it’s done, I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s affected my life. What have I gained? And what have I lost?

Because there have been both: some clear gains, and some clear losses. First and foremost, getting rid of Facebook has drastically opened up my time. When I turn my computer on or pick up my phone during the day, I check my email and a few other things, and then… I’m done. There’s nothing else to do, so I put it away. It’s amazing how much of your day opens up when there isn’t an infinite scroll available. Now, could I have achieved the same effect by being more disciplined with my online habits? Theoretically, yes. Experientially? No.

Another gain is that I feel much less mentally… buffeted, I guess you could call it. There’s no predicting what you see when you’re scrolling through the newsfeed: it’s a mishmash of whatever your friends have posted (as curated for you by the almighty algorithm). Everything appears without context and leaves no context behind it. News is mixed with fundraisers is mixed with baby pictures is mixed with jokes and political opinions and anecdotes and rants and all the rest of it, not to mention the hoaxes and misinformation and flat-out lies, coming at you relentlessly. And everything implicitly (or explicitly) demands a response: like me! share me! respond to me! be happy with me! be angry with me! agree with me! correct me! Frankly, it’s exhausting. Leaving all of that behind has been refreshing. When I want to read the news, I open up a news app. If I want to respond to something, or to learn more about it, it’s easier (and, now, more natural) to take the time to find the context, digest what’s happening, and formulate a response that’s not just off the cuff.

But there’s a price to this temporal and mental freedom, isn’t there? Leaving Facebook has meant reconciling myself (well… sort of) to being out of the loop. I don’t know what’s going on with my friends, not the way I used to. I’m not seeing pictures of their kids — and I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoys seeing pictures of other people’s kids. For some of my friends, Facebook was really the only connection point we had, and when I think about some of those connections I feel a real sense of loss.

But it’s a strange thing: what I’m grieving is maybe not the loss of those relationships, but the loss of the illusion that they still existed. As long as our profiles were linked, there was hope: “Sure, we haven’t talked in ten years — but we could!” And to be completely fair, sometimes this did happen, we did reconnect. I got in touch with a friend from undergrad to return a book I borrowed from her about twelve years ago. I was able to apologize to someone from my past for something that happened when we were young adolescents. But those moments, if I’m honest, were few and far between. I wasn’t using Facebook to connect with people; I was using Facebook to feel as if I were connecting with people. Those are, in the end, very different things.

And so this last comes from a loss but is really a gain: ditching Facebook has reinforced for me the fact that friendship is an active pursuit. There was no real friendship behind most of my connections; there was, at best, a passive acknowledgement of a shared past. But that’s not a friendship, or enough to sustain one. I do miss being in the know. I do miss the ease of the connection that I did have with the people with whom I am really friends. In that case, though, what have I really lost? Just the ease; not the thing itself. In the weeks since quitting Facebook I have been sending and receiving more emails than I have in years. And I’ve been picking up my phone not to scroll through a feed but to actually, you know, call people. It’s been a good change. Yes, I could have done all of this without needing to delete my account — well, maybe. But if that’s what it took to remind me of the work and worth of actively pursuing friendship, then it’s a price I am willing to pay.

Babes in the Digital Woods

I’m a millennial — and older one, not quite a “digital native”, but close. We got the internet at home when I was eleven or twelve, and I got my first email address (hotmail, of course) shortly thereafter. My friend Fiona made the address for me since I didn’t know how to do it yet, and our class set off exploring the wonderful world of email, learning lessons as we went, like “anything you put in an email can be forwarded to anyone else” and “you really should change your password if your friends know it.” We discovered chat rooms (a/s/l?). We discovered Napster, and then Limewire, and debated the ethics of downloading music in our high school philosophy class. We discovered how easy it was to sign up our peers for spam email lists (sorry, Geoff). This was before Google Search had really taken off, so we Asked Jeeves — or just typed in URLs at random and hoped we landed somewhere interesting and not pornographic. We played Neopets. We forwarded chain emails that promised us an unexpected windfall or to reveal the name of our crush. In short, we were early adopters of the internet and all its wonders.

The pattern continued, of course. My generation used MySpace, Xanga, Livejournal, and other relics of the early digital age. I’ve been blogging off and on since 2003 — that’s a long time in internet terms. We sent gmail invitations to our friends, back when you needed one to sign up for an email address. And in the early 2000s, we got to college and university, received an official school email, and promptly signed up for Facebook. I started using Facebook in late 2005, about a year and a half after it launched. That was back when you needed an official school or work email address, or a personal invitation if you were still in high school. Our parents weren’t using it yet, and neither were our younger siblings. This was back before timeline, when users had “walls” where we could post. It was back before you could comment on posts, so if you wanted to follow a conversation you would have to flip back and forth between the walls of the people in question. Back then, every status you wrote had to begin with “[Name] is” and so we would write convoluted sentences to get around it: “Christine is saying ‘Good morning! to all of you!”

Gradually, all of these things changed. Facebook eventually opened itself up to any user over the age of 13 (or willing to input a fake birthday saying that’s what they were). Facebook finally got rid of the static “is” in our posts, and made it easier to comment on what other people had written. They launched timeline, which meant that you could find someone’s profile and very easily see all of their activity in one place, going back years, just by using your scroll-wheel (back then we were using wired mice, of course). The site went through the usual redesigns of its user interface, all of which were met with grumbling… but we still kept using it.

It was so easy, so friendly, so benign. We could tell our friends what we were thinking and doing, “check in” with Facebook so that they knew where on the earth we were, list our favourite media, “like” our favourite artists, look through each other’s vacation pictures, and on it went. We got older; we shared engagement and wedding pictures, pregnancy announcements, birth stories, baby pictures. We discovered memes. The rule of thumb for using the internet gradually morphed from “always stay anonymous” to “always use your real name”. We told Facebook when we started dating, and when we broke up. Our list of friends expanded wildly, starting with our university classmates and moving backwards in time to pick up our elementary school classmates, childhood friends we had lost track of, people with whom we used to share some aspect of a common life. We added our relatives and told Facebook exactly how we were related. We added our current and former coworkers, our coreligionists, members of our academic and social clubs. We shared posts, liked pages, sent messages.

We thought we were participating in a vast social network, but we were wrong. This wasn’t a social network. This was a social experiment, and we have been its unwitting subjects.

While we were using Facebook we were creating a free, immense dossier on ourselves, ripe for harvesting: our real names, our relationships and connections, our likes and dislikes, our real birth dates, our geographic locations, our political and religious affiliations, our purchases, the causes we supported, our hashtagged thoughts on a thousand different things, our social activities, our hobbies, our jobs, our milestone celebrations, our children. We became complicit in our own surveillance. And all of this data was being collected, collated, analysed, sold to advertisers, used to program powerful algorithms that increasingly controlled what we saw and not only how we used it, but how we felt about it all. It was designed to be addictive, to seduce us with those precious dopamine hits of likes and shares, to get us to give up all of this information without a second thought. We started receiving attention-eroding notifications whenever something happened — our phones dinging and urgent red icons popping up with every comment and tag — to get us to check, and check, and check the website throughout the course of our days. It’s not a coincidence that so many Silicon Valley insiders have backgrounds in behaviourism.

About a week ago I wrote a post about my growing discomfort with social media in general, and Facebook in particular. Since then I’ve been reading more, and I’ve decided to take the plunge. I’m deleting my Facebook account. Maybe you should think about deleting yours.

Not that Facebook makes it easy. I started clearing my profile out even before I made the decision to leave entirely: downloading any pictures I want, un-tagging myself from posts and photos, deleting albums, deleting my own status updates and shared articles, hiding things from my timeline. It’s taken many hours to do these things, even with the help of a chrome plug-in that will do it automatically. Deleting a post or untagging a photo takes several clicks. There is no way to do batch deletions — every post must be dealt with, one at a time, by hand. Facebook doesn’t show you everything in your timeline and so I’ve had to scroll through over and over again to make sure I’ve gotten everything. Frankly, it’s a pain in the butt. And I have zero doubts that it is a pain in the butt on purpose.  But I’m still going, and I suppose you can consider this post my #deletefacebook manifesto.

I’m not going today. I will need some time to comb through my contacts, to make sure that I have people’s email addresses and that they have mine. I don’t want to lose the genuine connections that have been maintained through this site — which is exactly the fear Facebook counts on, that we won’t be able to leave because of what we think we’ll miss out on. Well, last time I checked phone numbers and email still exist. We were all able to keep in touch with each other fifteen years ago through other means. We can do it again. I’ve downloaded a few news apps to my phone so that I won’t be relying on finding articles through my newsfeed. I’m not aiming to replace Facebook with an alternative social media app or account. I’m aiming to replace it with nothing. With email, with texting and phone calls, with personal conversations. Maybe some friendships will fall by the wayside. Maybe that’s ok.

So here’s the question: what difference is this going to make? To Facebook, not much of one. The site has over two billion users, it’s not going to feel me going. But I’m not doing this to try and affect Facebook. I’m doing this because of its effect on me, on my life, on the life of my family. I’m doing this because I believe this is the right thing for me to do, whether it ripples out into something larger or not. I’ve given over a decade of my life to Facebook, and it’s time for us to break up.

For further reading:

‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (The Guardian)

Be a pioneer — delete facebook (The Guardian)

#deletefacebook (techcrunch.com)

Commentary: #DeleteFacebook Is Just the Beginning. Here’s the Movement We Could See Next (Fortune.com)

#deletefacebook (trending on Twitter)

How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist (tristanharris.com)

Tech Companies Design Your Life, Here’s Why You Should Care (tristanharris.com)

Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’ (The Guardian)

In the Depths of the Digital Age (New York Review of Books)

Slowly leaving social media

Sometimes I feel like Facebook is the terrible boyfriend I just can’t bring myself to leave. We’ve split up now and again, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, but somehow we always end up back together. I don’t even like him that much anymore, but somehow his arguments seem convincing and we give it another go despite my misgivings. It’s a problem.

This is something I’ve been broadly thinking about for a while — way back in August 2017 I posted about smartphone use and what it seems to be doing to us. The technology itself is part of that picture, but what I’m coming to see is that social media is a huge piece of the puzzle. And we know this, right? The CEO of Facebook got hauled up in front of the US Senate to be grilled on things like privacy concerns. Facebook’s algorithms are geared to showing us whatever it thinks will keep us on the site the longest, whether that’s puppy memes or outrage-inducing fake news stories. The algorithm increases the opacity of the bubbles we live in, forming everyone a nice little echo chamber. Facebook is a hotbed for scams and urban legends. It gives us unrealistic pictures of how good everyone’s lives are compared to our own (seeing their highlight reel but living our B footage, as it were). There’s so much pressure to share more and more details of our personal lives — as if we haven’t already given out enough. And of course, we must remember that Facebook’s revenue is ad-driven; if we’re not paying for it, that’s because we are in some sense the product being sold.

My concerns are piling up:

… need I go on? (Facebook: “Baby, come on. Most of that stuff was years ago. Don’t hold a grudge. I’ll do better, I swear. You need me.”)

And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? We do need social media — or at least, we feel as if we do. It’s where I learn my friends’ big news: births and deaths, moves and graduations, marriages and divorces. It’s where I can share pictures of our kids with our extended families. It’s a place where we can connect to our donors when we’re fundraising. It’s an easy way to stay at least loosely in touch with people in the three cities I’ve left behind. It’s an easy way to connect and coordinate with people who live where I live now. I enjoy seeing what’s going on in the lives of people I know. And since I’m blogging, a post shared on facebook can go a long way in terms of boosting my traffic. These are all good and useful things.

I’m starting to ask myself, though — at what cost?

I’m concerned about the massive mine Facebook is for social engineering. If you had the patience to dig through my profile and timeline, you’d have my birthday; my mother’s maiden name; the name of my high school; the city and neighbourhood I grew up in; where I went to elementary school; when I graduated with my degrees and what they were in; my children’s full names and birthdates; my maiden name; the names of my extended family members and how we’re related; my political, religious, social, and academic interests; and probably two or three dozen other things I haven’t thought of yet. I mean, I’ve been using the site since 2005. It’s been a long time. There’s a lot on there.

I’m concerned about how very vested Facebook is in keeping me around as a product consumer. It’s notoriously difficult to permanently delete your account, especially since the words “permanent” and “delete” seem to mean different things in Facebook-land than they do to the rest of us.  Users who try to delete their profiles can accidentally re-activate/un-delete them by doing something like using their Facebook login to access another website. It can take up to three months to actually get all of your data off of Facebook’s servers.

I’m concerned about the way we — and I include myself in this, absolutely — share so freely and frequently about our children. My kids are too young to sign up for their own social media accounts, but what happens when they turn thirteen and find out that their entire lives have already been curated and displayed to their parents’ entire friends list? I try to be sensitive to what I’m putting up and not post anything that would be potentially embarrassing — and on the blog I don’t show their faces or even use their real names — but I know people who put up pictures of their kids crying, pictures of their kids doing foolish things, pictures of their kids naked. None of these children are consenting to any of this. Will they thank us for what we post? Somehow I doubt it.

Above all, I’m concerned about how reluctant I am to ditch Facebook, even considering all of the above. It’s hard. The social dimension of using or not using social media is very real, as this article from Vox points out:

This final issue with deleting Facebook is the hardest to quantify, but one that’s fundamentally true for most of us: If you delete Facebook, you lose touch in ways that have subtle but tangible emotional repercussions. Your aging Great-Aunt Sally will fret because she has one less way to keep track of you, your high school English teacher will be mad because you never write on his Facebook wall anymore, and your friend will be annoyed because you can no longer see the drama happening with his girlfriend’s ex. You’ll be annoyed because your other friend issued a general Facebook invite to her birthday party and you missed it.

And while the infuriating barrage of polarizing opinions that make Facebook so difficult for many of us to deal with will disappear, so will connections to people you didn’t realize you wanted to keep in touch with until you moved on.

For many, this complicated web of emotional stakes only exists on Facebook, because Facebook is the only social platform on the web where who we are now, in adulthood, converges with the past life we had as a teen or a college student. On Facebook, the many friend networks we’ve made along our paths through life converge and create a unique kind of emotional infrastructure that’s impossible for some people to fully separate from, because it means cutting off the only remaining ties to parts of their pasts, or to previous places they have lived, and even to some family members and friends. To many of the Facebook users you leave behind, walking away from Facebook will send a message that you don’t want to cultivate ties with them — because for many people, Facebook is the only place those ties can be cultivated.

Like it or not, this platform is how I connect with a lot of people. I want to leave… but also, I don’t. I resent its hold on me but I’m not ready to quit (even though anecdotal evidence suggests it would be a positive step and I wouldn’t really miss it). So I’m working on slowly decoupling myself. I installed a browser extension that blocks my newsfeed, so that I’ll have to check peoples’ individual profiles if I want to know what’s going on with them. I’ve been going back and deleting my posts, untagging myself in things, and hiding items on my timeline — all the way back to 2005. Facebook doesn’t make it any easier to delete individual content than it does your account: it all has to be done one at a time and if I sort my timeline by year it still takes up to four or five passes before I’ve seen all of the content that should be there. It’s taken hours so far and it will take more before I’m done. But… baby steps. Baby steps. We’ll see what happens.