Why I left Facebook

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 factors—my waning usage of the service for example—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 Facebook—which recently hit the 2 billion user mark—we’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 doesn’t already know about you from data brokers. Even if you aren’t a Facebook user, they likely still keep a record of you in the form of shadow profiles.

You’ve seen those Facebook like buttons and “Sign-in with Facebook” buttons on other websites? Yeah, that’s Facebook tracking you around the internet. Their privacy policy says clearly:

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 “Send”—Facebook collects that.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball writes:

Sending form data surreptitiously is morally wrong, and everyone knows it.

This might sound hyperbolic, but I mean it: I think we’d be better off if JavaScript had never been added to web browsers.

As a person who writes a lot of JavaScript and (mostly) enjoys it, this makes me sad because while I enjoy the interactivity it provides, I must concede that big data companies and advertisers have weaponized it against us.

In addition to the information Facebook collects about you, there are the entities that your data gets shared with—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 they’re tracking me. So is Google and every other website. Who cares?

It’s a valid question. All of this tracking might not personally, directly affect you in a bad way now—aside from a lot of creepy advertisements—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 you’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 country’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 you’re giving them more power and more chance of error. You’re loading the gun, pointing it at your head, and handing it to every trigger-happy “enforcer” who’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, we’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 Facebook—after I had largely stopped posting and reading the News Feed—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 that’s not real happiness. It’s an unhealthy addiction.

Julian Morgans of Vice writes:

Former Google designer and ethicist Tristan Harris lays out the most common ways we’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 you’ve won. Or you swipe right on Tinder to see if you’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 paper’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, it’s a sick concoction of friends’ posts and advertisements, strategically and algorithmically generated to manipulate you for the purpose of keeping you interacting with Facebook’s real customers—its advertisers.

Even if you know about all this stuff—or at least have a vague idea—you’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

Here’s the thing. You won’t be as outcast and lonely as you think. Your friends—and I know this is hard to believe—are still your friends in real life. You just won’t get notifications of what they ate on their lunch break. Unless, you know, you follow them in the myriad other ways it’s possible to do so online. Look, I’m not saying we have a mass exodus from the interwebs. I’m talking about one website.

Not that they make it easy. Don’t be fooled into merely “deactivating” your account—something that people often do because they need a break from Facebook[1]. Deactivation means you artificially disappear from Facebook until you get ready to come back. Then it’s all waiting for you right where you left off. To delete your account fully, you will need to jump through the following hoops.

  1. Dig into the support section to find this page that tells you how to delete your account.
  2. Optionally, you can download your data from Facebook. I didn’t find this to be very useful and I’m pretty sure there’s some stuff missing. But that said, it helps ease the fear of loss that accompanies this process.
  3. Finally—and this is the hardest part—you must pass Facebook’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.

It’s difficult to know how much of your information will be truly deleted. You have to go into this process with the assumption that it’s none. I personally hold on to a hope that some of the basic stuff is deleted (e.g., my posts) but I realize that’s naive. Think of it more in terms of not providing them any more information than what they already have.

Replacing Facebook

This is going to look differently for everyone, depending on their preferences and their friends’ 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[2].

I’m hoping that it will mean more time making content like this for my website—yes, it turns out there’s already a built-in way to have your own “profile” where you can post things and people can “follow” you, and it’s called Your Own Website™—but I know better than to promise content.

If you are interested in short form posting, check out the recently Kickstarted Micro.blog platform. Not sure if I will be using it much but I like the idea.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that you can simply call your friends and talk to them—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 doesn’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 blockers—which I highly recommend—and I also use a browser extension called Ghostery that blocks all the various trackers you find all over the web[3].

Lastly, if you are interested in reading more, here are a few articles that I found invaluable while putting this article together.

Get your loved ones off Facebook.

What should you think about when using Facebook?

  1. The fact that this feature exists tells you it’s a potentially harmful thing to have in your life. ↩︎

  2. Yes, I’m ignoring the fact that some people prefer private Twitter accounts. ↩︎

  3. It blocks a lot of third-party JavaScript that you might want to allow. Personally, I start off by blocking everything but then I allow services like Gravatar that I don’t mind running. It’s worth mentioning that Ghostery has an opt-in setting for gathering data about the trackers you encounter (tracking the trackers). Personally, I recommend not opting in as it’s unclear exactly what’s being tracked and how that data’s being used. ↩︎