An open letter to Google

To whom it may concern,

My name is Joseph Vasicek, and I have been a regular user of your company’s products since 2006 when I set up my first Gmail account. Until the events of the past week, I was also a satisfied user.

The recent firing of James Damore over the controversial internal memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” has profoundly shattered my trust in your company. I have read the memo and find it eminently moderate and well-reasoned. It is not an “anti-diversity screed,” as many in the traditional news media are calling it, and their characterization of the memo–as well as your own characterization, given by your vice president of diversity, Danielle Brown–is manifestly false to anyone who has actually read it.

Your handling of the controversy has been nothing short of Orwellian. I find this especially disturbing for the fact that your company controls almost every gateway to the internet that I use on a daily basis.

My phone is an Android device that is deeply integrated with your products. My personal and business email accounts are with your Gmail service. I use your search engine on a daily, almost hourly basis, and routinely default to the first three sites listed in the search results. Whenever I’m lost or traveling to an unfamiliar place, I use your maps and navigation service to guide me. Until this memo controversy, Chrome was my default browser. While I lived in Utah Valley, I even used your fiber network too connect to the internet.

It is abundantly clear to me now that I have been far too complacent in allowing myself to become wholly dependant on your company for almost every facet of my online connection to the world.

I cannot, at this time, fully divest myself from Google in the way that I have already divested myself from Facebook and Twitter. However, I can make gradual changes to lessen my dependence on your company’s products in the coming months and years. This principle will guide my future purchasing decisions, as well as the online products I use and the personal data I share.

In the world of tech, if you use a product or service without paying for it, then you are the product, wittingly or otherwise. This was not a problem for me when I still trusted your company. But you have profoundly violated that trust.

I won’t say that it is impossible for you to win back that trust. It would take an extraordinary act, but you are an extraordinary company. At the least, it would require an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of my concerns, and a reversal of the fascistic Orwellian turn that your company has taken. It would require, for example, changing the search results page for “Abraham Lincoln” to reflect that he was our first Republican president, not just a member of the National Union Party (which was simply the Republican Party, rebranded for the 1864 elections when Lincoln was the sitting president. He was elected in 1860 as a Republican, and calling him anything else is deliberately misleading.)

Without an extraordinary effort to win back the trust of the millions of Americans like me whose trust you have betrayed, in the coming months and years, you will see much less of me as I reduce my dependence on your products.

Sincerely,

Joe Vasicek

Why I quit Facebook

quit-facebookLast 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.

Some thoughts on internet access, self-discipline, and productivity

As many of you probably know, for the past four months I’ve been living in a small Georgian village in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.  It isn’t as remote as some places in this country (like Tusheti, where some people still practice pagan animal sacrifices), but my internet access has been limited, especially compared to the 24/7 access I had back in the States.

I knew that coming in, and was actually looking forward to it.  I had the option to buy a USB stick from the phone company that would give me service, but I wanted to experience living off the grid for a while to see if that would increase my writing productivity.  Long story short: it didn’t.

In order to use the internet, I have to take a marshrutka (small passenger bus) about half an hour to Kutaisi, where the most convenient place to get wifi is McDonalds.  I can usually go for two or three days without internet, but so many other things in my life (work, family, publishing) are tied up in it that it’s not a good idea to go much longer.

Since each trip takes a huge chunk out of my day, it’s become a lot harder to keep and maintain any sort of momentum on any of my writing projects.  Also, cutting out the internet hasn’t increased my self-discipline at all, it’s just driven me to find different ways to distract myself.

In the end, I think I actually would have been more productive if I’d ponied up the 70 GEL and bought a USB stick from the phone company.  I certainly would have saved a lot of money, considering all that I’ve spent on these trips to Kutaisi.  But at least I’ve learned a few things from the experience.

First, I’ve learned that all of the high-priority things that I absolutely must do on the internet only amount to an hour or two each week.  And even for most of those things, it isn’t a disaster if I put them off for a day or two.  It’s possible to structure your internet time around everything else in your life, rather than vice versa.  In fact, that’s almost certainly a better way to live.

Second, the enjoyment I get from recreational internet usage maxes out after about two hours.  Anything beyond that, and I become something of a zombie.  It’s a weird feeling when you run out of things to do on the internet, but when you realize that you don’t actually enjoy scrolling down an endless list of photos and status updates, it’s a lot easier to pull back and say “no.”

Third, you don’t need social media to sell books.  I made more in book sales in the first week of this month than I did in the first quarter of this year, and my Facebook and Twitter pages are a wasteland.  It might help you if you already enjoy that sort of thing, but it’s not an absolute requirement for success.  Certainly, you don’t have to open a vein and spill everything.

Fourth, exercising good self-discipline doesn’t mean cutting something completely out of your life, but learning how to properly manage it.  The internet isn’t an either/or thing, it’s a matter of finding and maintaining the proper balance.  In the future, I plan to do what Dean and Kris recommend, which is to have two computers: one for internet usage, and one for writing.

Fifth, for me personally, it’s actually healthy to have a couple of harmless distractions available while I write.  I deleted all of the games off of my computer about a month ago, and I haven’t been able to write more than a thousand words a day ever since–often, much less.  Before, whenever I hit a rough patch, I would play a quick round of super-melee in Star Control II and come back to it with fresh eyes.  Without that, I find myself taking my butt out of the proverbial chair and wandering around until I find something else to do, which inevitably takes more time and energy.  A lot of games (Tetris, Spider Solitaire) are addicting and should be nixed, but for me personally at least, opening up something that isn’t a time-sink can actually help to keep me going.

That’s just about all I can come up with now.  I’m sure there are other lessons to be had, but these are the major ones.  I’m coming back to the States on the 31st, and should be back in Utah in time for LTUE and Conduit.  It’s going to be interesting living with 24/7 internet access again; hopefully, it won’t be too hard to adapt back.