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.