#DeleteFacebook? It’s Not So Easy

(AP Photos)

Earlier this year I wrote about the lack of nuance on our social media feeds and why so many people were trying to step away from it.

And, taking my own good advice, I attempted to spend less time on my accounts. I used an app called Feedly to follow my favorite writers and publications via RSS instead of on Twitter or Tumblr. I limited checking my social media feeds to a few times a day and told myself that I would post links to my own writing, share links to my friends’ work, and only scan my feeds for relevant professional news — no getting caught up in arguments and threads, and definitely no replying.

The “don’t @ me” trend is, of course, a symptom of the changing nature of social media; there are plenty of call-outs and pile-ons, but trying to open a real conversation with someone who isn’t a close friend or family member has started to feel rude. Social media isn’t really about connecting with new people anymore — a Facebook friend request means “I want to watch what you’re doing” more than it means “I want to interact with you.” (It is, in many ways, antisocial.)

Then we learned that we weren’t the only ones who were closely paying attention to our social media accounts.

I’m not going to recap the Cambridge Analytica debacle, in part because the story is still in the middle of its plot twists — but, after spending the first few months of the year listening to everyone discuss why they wanted to quit Twitter, I found it very interesting that people weren’t exactly saying the same things about Facebook. They were writing #DeleteFacebook, but they weren’t taking the extra step to actually do it.

For starters, you need Facebook for plenty of things, for example, to use certain apps. To quote Vox’s Aja Romano: “The truth remains that if you delete your Facebook account, you could immediately lose access to parts of the internet.” I’ve always been the kind of person who has taken the extra step of creating an email login instead of connecting through Facebook, but there are still some apps and services that require Facebook profiles as a way to verify that you are a real person — and if you’re connected through Facebook, whether or not that’s your only option, you still lose the accounts you’ve built with those services (and your history, preferences, etc.) when you disconnect.

There’s also some evidence that our brains need Facebook, or at least that we’ve become so accustomed to social media that we’ll experience withdrawal symptoms if we go without. At The Guardian, neuroscientist Dean Burnett compared giving up Facebook to giving up sugar:

Evidence points towards a neural network that governs social interactions, and it’s heavily linked to the mesolimbic reward pathway, that part of the brain that causes us to experience pleasure. It’s far more complex and nuanced than this, but a reasonable conclusion would be that we’ve evolved to really like social interactions.

[…]

So, what if you could experience multiple social interactions, 24/7, at the touch of a button? It would be reasonable to assume our brains would gain a lot of enjoyment from such a thing.

I also suspect that we check social media for the same reason we eat sugary snacks: because we’re tired, or we’re bored, or we need a moment of respite from our jobs and our lives. The one time I found myself craving social media breaks, after my self-imposed diet, was when I was sick with a cold but still trying to push myself through the workday. I wanted rest — but since I couldn’t have it, I made do with Twitter.

Burnett suggests that one other reason we love social media is because of the way it gives us “total control over how others perceive you,” and at the Toronto Star, Vinay Menon argues that this is the one advantage we have over the companies that want our data:

What if you tinkered with your settings and monkeyed with your birthday, your sex, your city, your job, your relationship status? What if you started “Liking” stories you hated and clicked on ads for products you’d never buy? What if you fictionalized your digital existence until the Real You and the Facebook You became strangers?

If you did that, your data would be worthless.

Which would make it priceless.

This seems like a lot of effort, and the idea falls apart if you think about it critically. To quote Siva Vaidhyanathan at The New York Times: “[Facebook’s] core functions are to deploy its algorithms to amplify content that generates strong emotional responses among its users, and then convert what it learns about our interests and desires into targeted ads.” Facebook gets what it wants whether you like what you like, and a click on an ad for a product you’d never buy is still a click.

Vaidhyanathan is also one of the many writers who noted that deleting Facebook is a privilege that might need to be checked:

So go ahead and quit Facebook if it makes you feel calmer or more productive. Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy.

As Romano explains, students are often required to use Facebook. So are certain types of workers, including journalists. At Medium, Gina Helfrich argues in favor of deleting Facebook while acknowledging that not everyone may want to: “For many vulnerable and marginalized people, Facebook is one of the only ways to be in community with others who offer meaningful social and emotional support.” We use Facebook to learn about events, to share updates with distant family members, to form groups and tag ourselves as safe and send money to friends in need.

This is why it’s harder to quit Facebook than it is to quit Twitter or Tumblr or Snapchat — and quitting Snapchat is celebrity-cool right now — even if you’re like me and spend much less time on Facebook than you do on any other social network. (At this point I give Facebook a twice-a-day check to see if my family posted any new photos or my friends invited me to any events.)

Jaron Lanier, at The Guardian, urges all of us to be “pioneers” and ditch our Facebook accounts:

Before Facebook, there were ways to do most of the things that Facebook allows, and there still are. There are other ways to keep up with friends, be informed, discover local events, announce your own life events, publish opinions, meet new people, and so on.

Other people prefer to think of #DeleteFacebook as an act of activism, similar to last year’s #DeleteUber boycott — but, as Helfrich reminds us, this type of activism is more about personal ethics than anything else:

Deleting your Facebook account won’t help pass legislation protecting your personal data, won’t result in a meaningful fine against the company for their permissive privacy policies and lax enforcement, and won’t impede their ability to sell your already-collected data (in my case, 10 years’ worth of “likes,” photos, and posts) to third parties.

Deleting Facebook won’t stop Google from collecting your data, or Amazon. It won’t stop the Russian government from creating disinformation campaigns on Tumblr. At best, it’ll make you feel better about spending less time on social media — at worst, it’ll disconnect you from the people you care about. And yes, you’ll still be able to stay informed and plan events and share opinions, but you might end up sharing them in a space where no one else is watching.

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