I deleted my Instagram accounts today. The process is needlessly obscure - the flow on the app and the web interface only exposes an option to temporarily disable your account - which is an alarming anti-pattern; it is indeed one of the walled gardens I alluded to in an earlier post.
What was the impetus for this, you might ask? There are multiple factors I took into consideration, but the final straw was watching Jeff Orlowski’s thought-provoking documentary, The Social Dilemma. It’s on Netflix right now, and is a highly recommended watch. Even as someone who has, for a while, been highly skeptical of algorithmic newsfeeds in particular, and the attention economy in general, this still sends chills down my spine. A lot of tech insiders have second thoughts about the products they built, worry about its impact on the world, and try to insulate their children from it.
Center for Humane Technology’s Tristan Harris (ex-Google ethicist) and Aza Raskin (infinite scroll inventor), Jaron Lanier (a VR luminary, author of critical books such as Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now) feature prominently in the documentary, as well as ex-Facebook personnel such as Tim Kendall and Justin Rosenstein (remember the Like button?); ex-YouTuber Guillaume Chaslot (who built AlgoTransparency1), former Twitter executives, and academics such as Shoshana Zuboff. I risk name-dropping if I continue (ok, one more - Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction). TL;DR - watch for yourself!
To get a quick peek, this might whet your appetite:
If you have read this far, I’m assuming some of the material above resonated, or you at least want to find out more. What I’ll do next is break down that ineffable “something is wrong” dissastisfaction I have into several aspects, and suggest ways to address, or at least mitigate, that particular aspect.
Too Big To Fail
You might have noticed that I deleted my Instagram accounts, but did not delete my Facebook account. There are work reasons I can’t get into for why I am not doing that, but many of you might not be able to quit for other reasons: Metcalf’s Law means it’s hard to replace a network once it has achieved critical mass, and Facebook (and other Facebook-owned properties - especially WhatsApp) might be the only way you have of keeping in touch with some of your personal and work contacts – or even accessing local government services!
Quitting cold turkey might not be an option, but - even if you’re otherwise happy with Facebook (or any other proprietary social network you can name) - is this dependence healthy? What if:
- there is a technical glitch and Facebook is down
- … and some of your content is lost
- for political reasons access to Facebook is shut down
- your account, rightly or wrongly, is considered in violation and get suspended
So make sure you have alternate means of reaching your contacts. Keep your own address book (Facebook is an incomplete replacement anyway; you don’t use it to store your friends' and colleagues' addresses there, do you?). Keep track of your friends' birthdays there rather than relying on Facebook notifications. I would advise not using Google Contacts or Apple’s, but that’s a topic for another article, and anyway, most address books including those two tech giants' are reasonably compliant with the CardDAV spec that getting your contacts' data out is not as painful as getting it out from Facebook.
Make sure you have your contacts' email addresses and/or phone numbers. Some messaging systems will auto-detect your contacts once you have their phone numbers (e.g. Signal, Telegram, and yes, WhatsApp); some others (IRC, Matrix) won’t so be sure to check if someone is reachable on some other networks and make note of it in your contacts database.
That algorithmic news feed
Many are increasingly worn out6 by political posts in their news feeds. The news feed might be intrinsically polarizing7. Facebook won’t let you turn it off though - likewise with People You May Know8. One draws engagement, the other drives growth – even though it can sometimes be a privacy nightmare - think sex workers being outed to their johns, or patients being recommended to one another.
There are alternatives, though.
- on the web, bookmark the parts of Facebook you want to visit and don’t visit www.facebook.com since that takes you to the News Feed. e.g. visit your groups directly
- on mobile, you can do the same by using your web browser instead of the Facebook app
- if you need an Android app, Frost for Facebook is great. It’s open source - so if you use the F-Droid build, you can inspect the code and be sure that what you are running corresponds to the published source. It lets you customize what parts of Facebook you have quick access to, and… has dark mode long before the official app
- there are similar apps for iOS but I can’t vouch for them
If You’re Not Paying, Your Attention Is The Product
Why does News Feed try so hard to keep you engaged? Think about how Facebook makes money - Senator, we run ads. More eyes on the app or site, more opportunities to show ads. If the most engaging content is polarizing and divisive, and advertisers can target those users who respond well to extreme fringe content… well, it’s not intentional, but … because it’s at the intersection of the business model and deep-rooted psychology it’s extremely hard to fix.
In an ideal world Facebook would give users the option to pay for the service - as Reddit already does. Sure, the most lucrative users are probably worth more as ad targets than as paying members, and many people in poorer countries might not be able to afford to pay. It’s questionable if Facebook is serving the latter well though9. As for the former – weaning the company off ads is probably a worthy goal, even if this might be as hard as weaning a petrostate off oil revenues.
Where Should I Go?
Ideally you start migrating to federated, open protocol platforms, with sustainable business models:
- Matrix is a decentralized communication network, and Element, the company behind the main client and server implementations, sells paid hosting
- Mastodon is the most common network on the Fediverse. It’s basically a decentralized Twitter; many Mastodon instances are supported by their users via subscriptions.
My ex-collague Dmitry wrote an excellent breakout plan for switching to Mastodon.
I would otherwise recommend Signal, but (a) it is not decentralized, and (b) it has no stable business model as of now, so its long-term future is questionable.
For those contacts who insist on using Facebook or Messenger – well, Messenger Lite is still not monetized. You’re missing the ability to send or request money to your contacts, but see point 1 on too big to fail.
Back to you
This is getting overly long, and it’s late at night, so I will probably stop here for now. I might post a follow-up if there are any points I did not think of addressing – and I’ll definitely follow up with further posts on how and why you might not want to use Gmail.
Would you get in trouble for this?
Hopefully not! I’m not recommending anything that is illegal, nor am I divulging any confidential information. A Facebook that is less dependent on advertising income might be more able to address a lot of the issues it now struggles with, after all.
Needless to say, the opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent my employer’s views in any way. Nothing posted here should be considered official or sanctioned by my employer or any other organization I’m affiliated with.
This post is day 4 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Visit https://100daystooffload.com to get more info, or to get involved.
Posts are also tooted to @firstname.lastname@example.org
An ex-Google engineer is scraping YouTube to pop our filter bubbles, Technology Review ↩︎
Facebook slammed by UN for its role in Myanmar genocide, Columbia Journalism Review ↩︎