Thoughts Around Leaving Facebook

About a week ago, I deleted my facebook profile. I imagine that this doesn’t really come as much surprise if you’re keeping up with the news. For those out of the loop, or perhaps reading this in the distant future, Facebook has had a recent sprinkling of bad press regarding improper enforcement of their privacy policy. This news focused on President Trump’s campaign making use of 50 million (illicitly gathered) user profiles as a tool for targeting ads to specific demographics. That initial news broke the dam on a whole flood of leaks regarding Facebook’s disrespect of user privacy, and their lackluster show of remorse to the world’s outrage.

To be clear, this news was not surprising nor particularly enlightening to me. As a software engineer who has worked for both a social company and a data company, I have been under no deception that Facebook would properly protect my personal data, nor that it would hold strong to its privacy policy in the face of great monetization opportunities. I also had no silly notion that ill-motivated people would respect my privacy and avoid Facebook’s data. I knew what sort of data Facebook collected, how it collected it, and the ease by which any sort of person could get at that data - I also was quite confident that people were already actively abusing that data.

I was, however, ignorant to how grave the possibilities for utilizing mass personal data may have been. I kick myself now for being so naive, but I had simply never followed the thought experiment far enough to consider how things could go terribly wrong. Since the dawn of GMail, I have been a proponent of the fair trade I make with social services - I trade a bit of my personal privacy for a piece of software that was useful. I have considered this trade before signing up for many things. If the value I received from the software was worth the cost of my privacy - which I considered to be a better ability to market products to me - then I would sign up; sometimes I took the trade, sometimes I didn’t. I have previously taken that trade with Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. I have not taken it with Instagram, Snapchat, and probably countless other startup social sites that have offered little value.

The Value of Personal Data

My “facebook enlightenment” came in the form of realizing how grossly I had undervalued my personal data. In the general sense, while I don’t consider myself or anyone immune to marketing campaigns, I believe that I am not easily swayed and usually make research-based buying decisions. I certainly believe I have been influenced by facebook/google/etc ads, but in such a small amount that I didn’t consider it to be a high cost. If the wealth of data Google and Facebook collected on me just meant I spent a few more dollars on socks each year, I would say that I had paid a fair price for their services. If only that data was reserved for sock companies.

The idea of a political campaign using that data, however, is far beyond anything I had considered. It was a whole new concept for me that I might be fed ads with the intent to change my beliefs. As I traveled down the implications of this idea, I found myself terrified.

I don’t don my tinfoil hat very often, but I want to paint a picture of what I’m imagining. I believe we currently live in a world where extremely sophisticated groups (everything from the Christian Church to Al-Qaeda, from the Trump administration to Disney) have massive incentives to manipulate my thinking towards their cause, or away from their opponent’s cause. I also believe we live in a world where people make it their profession to manipulate others in one direction or another - this is, in an extreme sense, what all marketing teams do.

The terrifying thing about Facebook’s data, though, is how insanely targeted it allows you to make your ads. For instance, some research was done on how this specific leak of data was used to target users - it’s impossible to verify exact usage, but the understanding is that a very specific demographic like “less educated older Republican men” could be targeted with 90% accuracy.

This creates, in my head, a perfect storm for mass manipulation. Reliable microdemographic targeting, highly sophisticated and incentivized “marketing” teams, and seamless ad experiences give all of the power to those that want to change our minds. Facebook has previously proven via their own research that they can change our moods via their news feed without us knowing it. There is no reason to doubt that a political campaign would be able to silently have the same effect on our beliefs on a campaign issue.

The cost of personal data is way higher than I had ever imagined - it sounds extreme, but by supporting companies like Facebook and Google via my privacy, I am selling the ability to manipulate my beliefs. I, and I believe many others, need to spend time reevaluating the decision to make this trade.

Painful to Leave

As I was thinking over all of this and considering whether or not I would actually delete my Facebook account, I kept running into a surprising mental wall - I was not sure if I was even allowed to delete my account. Facebook has become such a core part of my wife’s and my social life that I wasn’t sure if Erica would be OK with me completely removing that facet of our persona. I literally had to ask for my wife’s permission before deleting Facebook.

There is a lot of important communication that happens via Facebook these days. I use it far less than most, but even I had tangible losses by disassociating with Facebook: church communication, sharing my kids cuteness, planning friend events, knowing where my family reunion is this year, getting in contact with old friends, etc. I also, admittedly, just straight up enjoyed the dopamine hit of getting a like or comment on a post, and the mindless scrolling I could do while bored. These are things I can’t easily replace anywhere, due to the network effect.

I miss Facebook. I’m a week in, and I still occasionally pull out my phone when bored, before realizing there’s no feed to scroll. When my son says something appalling, I am still mentally writing a witty Facebook post about it.

I am taken aback that we have all let an internet website become such an important thing in our lives. I won’t go so far as to say that this is unhealthy or undeniably evil - I don’t think it’s as clear as that - but I have been really shocked that so much of my personal self was wrapped up in a single domain on the internet. I am no internet purist, but I do hold my view of the web as a network of many great things, all of which I can poke my head in and out of on a whim. The fact that removing myself from Facebook required such effort and agony was very jarring.

Keeping in Touch

I want to be clear here - I don’t believe Facebook is totally bad. Facebook does some really great things, and enables exceptional communication among people. Of course, I sometimes found the news feed lame, but other times it was excellent - often times I would know a tidbit of someone’s life that I probably would not have heard without Facebook. I certainly would not have informed so many people of how hilarious my sons are, without Facebook. The ability to keep in touch with people via a tool like Facebook is very valuable, and I count it as a large loss not to have it.

I also think that Facebook had the opportunity to make me a better person. I live in a bubble - I won’t even attempt to deny that. I suppose technically I am in two bubbles - one is my personal Christian bubble which contains pretty much only church-going evangelical Christians, mostly younger with children. The other is my professional technical bubble - largely progressive, liberal, and very internet savvy. Facebook had the unique ability to connect me with more distant acquaintances, and highlight their personal beliefs in a way I would probably never hear in real life. I would estimate 75% of my Facebook friends were people I would only see a handful of times for the rest of my life, and in that handful I would never expect a deep belief-level conversation. Facebook broke my bubbles, and allowed unfamiliar beliefs for me to consider and dissect.

I don’t have a good way to replace this connectedness that Facebook allowed. I would love to hear some suggestions in the comments. My current plan is to fall back on RSS for most things - I intend to subscribe to the feeds for all acquaintances I can find. I know most people don’t write on a blog, but I’m hoping that there will be a large enough sample of my extended network to keep a pulse on things.

I also have some aspirations of working on some small software tool that will help remove this barrier around Facebook. Not a full-fledged network like Diaspora, but a smaller, more distributed thing that makes it easy to post things in a place you own, that doesn’t cost your privacy. I’d also love to hear feedback from people, especially if they know something like this that already exists.

I’m hoping that the combination of these two things will allow me to keep updated with my network, and allow me to update them similarly. I don’t expect them to have the same reach potential as Facebook since I’m a lone soldier in this field, but I hope they help a bit. The rest of my “replacements” are considerably less exciting, and much lower tech. Messaging is moving to Signal/SMS, event planning moving to email (or letting my wife do it?), social signin has largely moved to Email/Password where available with a fallback to Google Auth when necessary. I think this covers the major parts of Facebook that most people use.

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