A little more than two years ago, the summer of 2016, I deactivated my Facebook account. I had been planning to leave Facebook for some time then, but due to one thing or the other I had hesitated from making the decision. I did not delete my account right away - just deactivated it - so that I could just log back in if something came up and I needed it. But after that, I never felt a need to get back on Facebook. It felt kind of freeing, to tell the truth. After that one story after another broke about Facebook’s data scandals, and they strengthened my resolve to not go back. Pretty soon, Facebook changed from being siginificant part of my day-to-day thoughts to something stored in drawer at the corner of my mind and forgotten about.
All this time, I constantly put off actually deleting my account. A little less than two weeks ago, I opened Facebook to get in touch with one of my professors at Pulchowk after attempts to contact him by email, text and phone had failed. I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally delete my account. (Unsurprisingly, he did not respond on Facebook too, but I later reached him through phone). And today I downloaded my personal data and permanently deleted my account, ten years after first creating it.
There are a bazillion articles in the Internet telling you why you should quit Facebook, but here I want to discuss something broader than that. Are social networks good for the world? Do we need them at all? Of course, we do not need them in the way we need hospitals or electricity. What I mean here is do we need them badly enough to justify all of their failures and dangers? First, lets start with Facebook itself. I don’t know whether it is a net positive or a net negative for society and for the world, but it definitely was a net negative for me. The costs clearly outweighed the benefits. I found myself spending lots of time scrolling through the feed and ending up unhappy about something, usually myself. More than half of my Facebook ‘friends’ were people I barely knew. And in that feed were all of their political opinions and depressingly cringey memes. And posts from the other half, the people I knew, usually upset me for a different reason. All these people were doing cool things with their life, traveling, accomplishing, sharing their shiny lives. And I was sitting and scrolling, not sure about a whole lot of things in my life. These were what one could call selfish reasons, but I had philosophical objections too. I hold dear freedom, transparency and privacy, and Facebook seemed to be the antithesis of these concepts.
Since I have quit Facebook, I feel that I have not missed out on much, and that whatever I missed was not important. Almost everybody now uses one messaging app or the other besides Facebook messenger, so texting and VoIP calls are not a problem. You would survive just fine, probably even improve your well-being not looking at all their vacation photos and political opinions. While we are on well-being, let me remind you that Facebook once ran a secret experiment on its users in which it tried to control their moods by manipulating the feed shown to them.
One thing that made quitting Facebook a lot easier for me was Instagram. Most of my contacts who I didn’t mind getting updates about were on Instagram, and Instagram was a lot more bearable and less addictive then. One of my friends, in good humor, called me out on the hypocrisy of quitting Facebook for apparently philosophical reasons but continuing to use Instagram. That was a time when the two were very much different, but now it is as though a certain Facebook-ness is slowly creeping up on Instagram and transforming it. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it feels as though Instagram’s addictiveness has steadily increased in the past three or four years. I’m beginning to severely limit my time on the app and have started thinking about whether I should entirely quit it.
It seems to be the case that as social networks grow and need to chase ever higher advertisement revenues, it becomes really lucrative to compromise the users’ freedoms. All the data we unthinkingly submit to them reveals a lot about us, and that can be, and has been, used to influence us so that we keep coming back. It is immensely profitable to make the apps as addictive as possible, to the point that we become dependent. Even when we realize all of this, the same network effect that made the social network huge prevents us from outright quitting. All of our friends are there, so the FOMO is really strong. It can be difficult to sever all ties to a social network that has been practically the center of our digital lives for so long.
Come to think about it, among the social networks I have used, the only one I find to be a clear net positive is Twitter. Perhaps we don’t need it, but at the moment it’s not the worst thing to have. I have moments when I get disappointed at all the noise - the crassness, adults I know tweeting like edgy teens, and the occaisonal bit of extremist politics. But there a lot of nice moments as well - stimulating conversations with people with keen viewpoints, genuinely good memes, amazing twitter threads that people use as a substitute medium for long-form writing. One thing that helps is that I have far lesser people that I follow, compared to Instagram or Facebook friends. And when Twitter started showing me tweets that people I follow liked, I use the mute button liberally. But of course the biggest force at work is Twitter’s fundamentally different mechanics that sets it apart from Facebook. If Twitter does not suffer many more events of Facebook creep like the discontinuation of chronological timelines, I think it will remain bearable.
So I think with the current state of affairs, we’d be better off staying away from most social networks or at least limiting our time on them and how much we share our data. Social networks are better when you have a circle of closely-knit connections and the network does not shove endlessly addictive content down your throat. Your online existence is entirely in the form of data, and companies who don’t treat your data with respect and care don’t deserve it. A massive social network run by a single profit-seeking corporation is probably not a good idea, because they have ample incentives to exploit you and zero incentives to respect your privacy. A federated social network backed by open source software and open protocols would solve some problems but at the moment options like Mastodon/ActivityPub have difficult problems of their own. Whatever the future holds, I think it is wise to remain skeptical and maintain the distance.