Last month, I made the decision to quit Facebook. Permanently. As in, the Facebook account that I created eight years ago as a college freshman no longer exists, unless Facebook continues to store and monetize data from its ex-users long after they’ve quit the service. Which wouldn’t surprise me at all, since Facebook is in the data business, which makes its users its product, not its consumer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’ve thought about quitting Facebook for some time. Some of the reasons that have moved me in that direction have been that it’s a waste of time, that it’s the high fructose corn syrup of the internet, that it violates my privacy in creepy ways, that it cheapens my interactions with my friends … the list goes on. However, these reasons alone were never enough to convince me to quit. They got me to scale back my usage and cull my friends list, but never delete my profile outright.
Last month, though, Facebook revealed a new ad program where it downloads its users’ browser histories. With this program, Facebook now collects data straight from your browser–data from your internet activity outside of Facebook’s service–and sells that along with the personal data that you share on their site.
Facebook has always had major privacy issues, with the FTC stepping in in 2010 to force them to change their policies. However, until now, the argument was always that if you didn’t want your personal information to be shared, you shouldn’t put it on Facebook. Now, however, Facebook is collecting information that you don’t share with Facebook–information that they gather straight from your computer–without any reliable way to opt-out.
Facebook claims that this program is mainly for advertisers, but what’s to stop them from sharing this data with the NSA? With the Snowden revelations, we already know that there are entities within the US government that are working to create a surveillance state. Facebook is already practically in bed with these people, who have gathered personal information about Facebook users in the past. And since Facebook already has a dismal history of abusing privacy rights, changing its TOS without notice, and undermining its user privacy settings with unannounced updates, I fully expect them to gather that information and share it whether I want them to or not.
This may not be a huge change from the way Facebook used to do business, but it was a huge wake-up call for me. Since I’m not a huge fan of Facebook to begin with, this was the final straw that pushed me away.
I joined Facebook in 2006 when I was 21. I was just getting ready to head out to college, and at that point only college kids were on the site. It was a cool new thing and seemed like a great way to make and keep in touch with friends. Since I was moving away from home and starting a new phase of life, that was important to me.
My first year, I searched out and friended all of the people in my freshman ward at BYU and posted tons of pictures and other updates. It made me feel like I was very close to them! But the next year, I moved and made a new group of friends, and stayed in touch with only one of them. All those other friends just gradually drifted off into other things.
I posted a few more pictures, but mostly just profile pictures because anything else didn’t seem like it was worth the work. Facebook added groups, and I joined a bunch of silly ones just for laughs, but not any serious ones. Friends kept inviting me out to events, and my default answer was “maybe” because it didn’t make me look like as much of a jerk when I just didn’t want to go.
Then I got into a huge political debate with an old friend from high school, and it got insanely ugly. It was weird, because we always seemed to get along so well in person, but online we were just slugging it out at each other. It was very strange. I tried to get him to agree to disagree, but by this point his friends were posting to his wall and goading him on, so he refused. Then he attacked my religion, and the only way I could end the debate was to block him. I haven’t seen or talked with him since.
Facebook changed a lot over the next few years. The biggest change was probably the newsfeed, which replaced the wall. At first, I thought it was a great idea, because I could get all the updates on my friends in one place. Then the feed got swamped with updates from all the friends I’d added over the years. Most of them were people I’d drifted away from–people I’d seen a lot for a semester or two, but hadn’t bothered to keep the friendship up after we’d moved on.
Facebook became a fire-hose, and it started to eat up a disturbing amount of my time. I stayed away from all the obvious distractions, like Farmville and those other games, but it wasn’t enough. The information was just too dense, and though it gave me the illusion that I was staying close to my friends, in reality my interactions weren’t that meaningful.
Facebook developed algorithms to filter the newsfeed, but all that really did was make me use the site more. It didn’t help me to keep in touch with the people who mattered the most to me, since those weren’t the people who were posting the most. Instead, it resurrected a bunch of friendships that had long since faded in the real world and turned them into these weird zombified online relationships where we shared stupid memes, argued politics, and discussed random articles–all without ever seeing each other in person.
By the time I went overseas to teach English, Facebook had become a huge timesuck, and I wanted to break free of it. The first semester, I lived in a large town where I had constant internet access. The center of social life for us expats was a Facebook group called “Georgian Wanderers.” It felt good in some ways to be part of a community where people actually spoke English, but there was a lot of drama and ugliness in that group too. In my second semester, I lived in a tiny village where internet access was spotty, and I didn’t miss much while I was out there.
In fact, living without regular internet access was exactly what I needed. It gave me the chance to step back from my life and see how it had become cluttered. Before going back to the States, I decided to clean things up so as to keep myself from falling into the same rut. A major part of that online decluttering was to go through my 700+ friends list and delete all the people I didn’t want to stay in face-to-face contact with.
I cannot tell you how refreshing that was. At first, it felt like cutting off an arm or something, since I’d been “friends” with these people for so long and how was I going to keep in touch with them? But then, I realized that I didn’t really want to keep in touch with most of them, and besides, dropping them from my friends list wasn’t like disowning them in real life. We could still get in touch with each other in real life and strike up those friendships again.
My newsfeed was decluttered and those zombie friendships had (mostly) been neutralized, but even after all that, it didn’t seem like enough. I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of Facebook. Every once and a while, I’d have a genuine exchange with someone, but most of the time it was just memes and random articles. I found myself slipping back into useless distractions and frustrating political debates, punctuated only occasionally by major life events from people I cared about.
Over the next year (2013), I found myself using Facebook less and less. Then the Snowden revelations came out, and Facebook seemed creepier and creepier. I’d learned from Douglas Rushkoff that Facebook’s business depended on milking its users for data, and the fact that the government was so intent on the mass collection of data profoundly disturbed me. From then, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Facebook crossed a line where I wasn’t willing to go.
Here’s the thing about Facebook: when you’re using it, it doesn’t feel like a network or a service. It feels like it’s an integral component of your closest friendships. Phrases like “Facebook official” and “pics or it didn’t happen” evince this. We become so entrenched in Facebook that permanently quitting it feels like betraying our friends.
But Facebook’s business doesn’t depend on strengthening our friendships, it depends on monetizing them–on collecting and extracting data to sell to the highest bidder. And since there’s nothing that most of us wouldn’t do for our friends, we grin and bear whatever terms Facebook feels like offering us. We tolerate the most egregious violations of our privacy because we want to keep our friendships, even as the quality of our interactions gets worse and worse.
Not only does this give Facebook incredible license to take liberty with our personal data, it gives them the power to shape and mold our interactions with each other. Just after I deleted my Facebook account, news came out that sociologists had engaged in a massive experiment to see if they could manipulate the mood of its users. The experiment confirmed that yes, Facebook most certainly can manipulate the emotional state of its users. Does this also mean that they can manipulate friendships? That over time, they can make you draw closer to some people and further from others? I’d be willing to bet that they can.
Instead of merely reflecting our relationships, giving an online dimension to friendships that exist in real life, Facebook is increasingly manipulating and constructing them. This in turn makes us more dependent on Facebook as a medium of social exchange. And the tighter we latch on to the network, the more they milk us for everything they can get.
The fundamental problem with Facebook is a misalignment of incentives. In order to make money, Facebook either has to get really creepy about the data it collects and what it does about it, or it has to control what we see on the site in order to create an artificial scarcity. Because it’s a publicly traded company now, it has to do both, because Wall Street is pressuring them to make more money.
When I was a user of Facebook, I felt like I was constantly being used. But now that I’ve quit, it feels much better. I haven’t noticed any sort of deterioration in my friendships, and I’m keeping in touch with my more distant friends just fine. Because that’s the thing about a truly close friendship: it doesn’t matter how much time goes by or how much distance comes between you–when you finally meet up again, it’s like you were never apart at all.
I don’t need Facebook to help me maintain my friendships, and I certainly don’t need it to help me make new ones. It’s one way to keep in touch, sure, but at this point, the benefits just aren’t worth the costs. And so, after eight years of being on Facebook, I deleted my profile and left for good. I doubt I’ll regret it.