I joined Facebook in April 2005 shortly after it was opened up to Mississippi State students. Despite being an early Facebook supporter, I deleted my account back in May 2017. Privacy and ethical concerns rank at the top of the list, while other factorsâ€”my waning usage of the service for exampleâ€”also contribute.
The price of Facebook is privacy
Companies that do business in big data have astonishing access to information about you, much of which you provide to them yourself and the rest they collect by any number of creepy but (presumably) legal ways. In the case of Facebookâ€”which recently hit the 2 billion user markâ€”weâ€™re talking data mining on a truly massive scale. Facebook is building complex profiles on you, gathering thousands of data points, and even purchasing information it doesnâ€™t already know about you from data brokers. Even if you arenâ€™t a Facebook user, they likely still keep a record of you in the form of shadow profiles.
We collect information when you visit or use third-party websites and apps that use our Services (like when they offer our Like button or Facebook Log In or use our measurement and advertising services). This includes information about the websites and apps you visit, your use of our Services on those websites and apps, as well as information the developer or publisher of the app or website provides to you or us.
If you were tasked to write down everything you think Facebook knows about you, you probably would get a lot of it right by just thinking through it. Like, of course they have all the information I give them. And with a bit more reasoning you might realize of course they track me when I use their widgets on other websites. But they also collect information that you would likely not consider.
For example, Facebook tracks posts and comments even before you post them. That time you were about to tell somebody off for their dumb opinion but then, in a sudden rapture of empathy, decided not to hit â€œSendâ€â€”Facebook collects that.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball writes:
Sending form data surreptitiously is morally wrong, and everyone knows it.
In addition to the information Facebook collects about you, there are the entities that your data gets shared withâ€”all those silly games and quizzes people are adding to their account are making off with all sorts of information about you.
At this point, you may be thinking, So what? I know theyâ€™re tracking me. So is Google and every other website. Who cares?
Itâ€™s a valid question. All of this tracking might not personally, directly affect you in a bad way nowâ€”aside from a lot of creepy advertisementsâ€”but unfortunately, the trend is getting worse. And there are negative consequences to the pillaging of your privacy by Big Data:
Tech entrepreneur and educator, Salim Virani, writes:
If youâ€™ve ever admitted to something illegal in a private Facebook message, or even mentioned your support for a political cause, this can be used against you in the future, especially by another countryâ€™s government. You may find yourself arrested for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or just pulled aside at the airport one day, now facing jail time because you revealed you did something that government considers illegal 5 years ago. One New York comedian had a SWAT team break into his house based on a joke post. Law enforcement often acts in error, and youâ€™re giving them more power and more chance of error. Youâ€™re loading the gun, pointing it at your head, and handing it to every trigger-happy â€œenforcerâ€ whoâ€™s willing to buy your data.
If your privacy and that of your loved ones is at all important to you, now is the time to start taking steps to maintain it.
Emotional manipulation and the slot machine effect
Over time, weâ€™ve become hooked on the social validation Facebook (and other services) provide. Before I hit the delete button on my account, one of the last things that kept me on Facebookâ€”after I had largely stopped posting and reading the News Feedâ€”was simply checking my notifications. I unconsciously craved that little hit of happiness one gets when they see, So-and-so liked your post. But thatâ€™s not real happiness. Itâ€™s an unhealthy addiction.
Julian Morgans of Vice writes:
Former Google designer and ethicist Tristan Harris lays out the most common ways weâ€™re being manipulated on his blog. And as he explains, all of them use something called intermittent variable rewards.
The easiest way to understand this term is by imagining a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable meaning you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if youâ€™ve won. Or you swipe right on Tinder to see if youâ€™ve won.
Not only can Facebook use its power to manipulate our emotions, it experiments on its users without their knowledge and consent. In 2012, Facebook worked with researchers to carry out a large-scale study that manipulated the emotions of its subjects. From the paperâ€™s abstract:
In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.
When you are reading your News Feed, you might reasonably assume that it consists of posts from your network of friends, roughly ordered by date. In reality, itâ€™s a sick concoction of friendsâ€™ posts and advertisements, strategically and algorithmically generated to manipulate you for the purpose of keeping you interacting with Facebookâ€™s real customersâ€”its advertisers.
Even if you know about all this stuffâ€”or at least have a vague ideaâ€”youâ€™ll likely find it difficult to do anything about it. Because of network effects, Facebook has something of an emotional lock-in on us. The very thought of leaving Facebook can induce a serious case of FOMO in even the most anti-social INTJ.
Ripping off the band-aid
Hereâ€™s the thing. You wonâ€™t be as outcast and lonely as you think. Your friendsâ€”and I know this is hard to believeâ€”are still your friends in real life. You just wonâ€™t get notifications of what they ate on their lunch break. Unless, you know, you follow them in the myriad other ways itâ€™s possible to do so online. Look, Iâ€™m not saying we have a mass exodus from the interwebs. Iâ€™m talking about one website.
Not that they make it easy. Donâ€™t be fooled into merely â€œdeactivatingâ€ your accountâ€”something that people often do because they need a break from Facebook1. Deactivation means you artificially disappear from Facebook until you get ready to come back. Then itâ€™s all waiting for you right where you left off. To delete your account fully, you will need to jump through the following hoops.
Dig into the support section to find this page that tells you how to delete your account.
Optionally, you can download your data from Facebook. I didnâ€™t find this to be very useful and Iâ€™m pretty sure thereâ€™s some stuff missing. But that said, it helps ease the fear of loss that accompanies this process.
Finallyâ€”and this is the hardest partâ€”you must pass Facebookâ€™s test of your fortitude by not logging into your account during the 14-day grace period leading up to the deletion of your account.
Itâ€™s difficult to know how much of your information will be truly deleted. You have to go into this process with the assumption that itâ€™s none. I personally hold on to a hope that some of the basic stuff is deleted (e.g., my posts) but I realize thatâ€™s naive. Think of it more in terms of not providing them any more information than what they already have.
This is going to look differently for everyone, depending on their preferences and their friendsâ€™ preferences. For me that could mean spending more time on Twitter. Twitter is in many ways in the same boat as Facebook as far as advertising goes, but at least you know from the outset that everything is public.
Iâ€™m hoping that it will mean more time making content like this for my websiteâ€”yes, it turns out thereâ€™s already a built-in way to have your own â€œprofileâ€ where you can post things and people can â€œfollowâ€ you, and itâ€™s called Your Own Websiteâ„¢â€”but I know better than to promise content.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that you can simply call your friends and talk to themâ€”your smartphone comes with a built-in app that will let you do just that. You can even get together in the same location and hang out (novel, I know!).
The extra mile
This article is all about Facebook, but I have also scaled back my use of other big services like Google. For search, I recommend DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesnâ€™t track you. Instead of using a free email provider, I use Pobox, an independent email provider, for $50 a year.
A lot of folks use ad blockersâ€”which I highly recommendâ€”and I also use a browser extension called Ghostery that blocks all the various trackers you find all over the web3.
Lastly, if you are interested in reading more, here are a few articles that I found invaluable while putting this article together.