in Opinion, Ramblings

Why I Quit Facebook and Why I’m Back On

So, almost three years ago (November 2010) something momentous happened in the world of social networking: I deleted my Facebook account. Now, no doubt unless you live in a cave you would remember this, after all it was reported all over the news.

Okay, nobody really took notice except for the eight people on my friends list and those children in Africa I was saving by clicking ‘like’.

But I wanted to say a little bit about why I decided to quit, and why I’ve decided to re-join. The reason I decided to write something is because people seem absolutely mystified about why I had decided to take what seemed to have been such a drastic action. To give you an illustration of how the conversation normally goes:

Me: “There’s life on the moon”

People: “cool’

Me: “I don’t have a Facebook account”

People: “WHY?!! Are you crazy? What are you doing with your life?”

Encouraging Narcissism

This was potentially one of the biggest reasons I decided to quit the Facebooks.

You see, Facebook is about creating an unrealistic image of yourself by projecting to others how exciting your life is. Don’t deny it. Facebook is far from honest. This is also not limited to editing photos and information for the benefit of the image you want your friends to see, but also your vague acquaintances and even enemies.

What I mean by this is that most people don’t have a very ‘pure’ friends list. That is, we’ll let people slip through who aren’t really people we want to maintain genuine relationships with. Remember those people you reluctantly accepted as a friend? Those are exactly the people I’m talking about, the social equivalent of ‘white noise’.

However, an important result of this begrudging acceptance is that we are no longer just selecting photos and stories for our friends but also our enemies.

Now whether subconsciously or consciously, this means I’m communicating to a very different audience when on Facebook. This is what I mean about it encouraging narcissism. By providing a system which allows you to strategically mold and project an image of yourself to what is a microcosm of society, you are practicing how to be narcissistic.

Here’s the problem too, your brain remembers this. That’s how it works. If you practice thinking a certain way you get better at it. This means you will tend to naturally fall back on this way of thinking. This is why people talk about ‘thinking positive’ and not ‘practicing narcissism’.

I’m also not saying that Facebook creates these character traits, rather that the system is naturally set up to make this easier to practice it.

It also doesn’t end there, because everybody else is doing the same bloody thing. So it ends up as a game of social one-up-man ship. Kind of like a social arms race (or mutually assured destruction).

So this is the first reason I quit. I’m already convinced of my own awesomeness, but I don’t want to over convince myself. There is an optimal level of arrogance.

Discouraging genuine relationships

This one probably doesn’t require much explanation. But essentially in a world of scripted birthday messages and being able to feign interest in others by commenting or ‘liking’ their statuses you’re fooling yourself into thinking you are forming a genuine relationship with people.

This is obvious. Nobody in their right mind ‘likes’ a status and thinks for a second this can replace actually spending time with people, but having to both keep people happy on Facebook and in the real world takes effort. In fact Facebook, by allowing you to maintain relationships with every second person you meet encourages you to spread yourself too thin socially. I at least in theory had wanted to stop doing this, and to concentrate building deeper relationships with people.

Sullying the internet with my bad judgement

This was actually a big one. Have you ever google-stalked somebody? Guess what, so have recruiters.

And here was a big problem for me, I’d had a Facebook account for a long time. Much longer than I had a sufficient level of self-awareness to realize that joining the ‘please help club the baby seals’ group for a joke wasn’t a good idea.

Consequently the internet was covered with my grubby fingerprints, such that any person who Google-stalked me would have no problems digging up every offensive group I was a member of.

In fact, this is a big reason I have a website with my name as the title, to completely overwhelm any traces of my seal-clubbing days.

They knew I was pregnant before I did

Did you know why companies provide apps on Facebook for free? Your data.

Each time you like something, check in or install an app somebody is profiting. Ever hear about Facebook’s facial recognition software? Well if you haven’t the basic idea is that as soon as you upload a picture Facebook can make a pretty good guess (based on past photo tags) who is who.

Add to this that many photos have geo-tagging information in them which allows Facebook (and anyone else) to know exactly where on the earth it was taken. So Facebook has information about what you like, who your friends are, where you live and where you were at most points throughout your day.

So what?

Well, besides the fact that people are making money from all this information the kind of things they’re able to do with it is scary, including predicting whether you’re pregnant.

I mean this literally. Target have managed to use customer purchasing patterns to successfully identify a person’s pregnancy before they do. Now imagine what Facebook (with its very intimate data set) can do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not hostile to companies doing this, after all it allows them to better target their products/services to you. That’s pretty cool. You have the ultimate choice after all whether you buy something. It’s also one of the reasons Facebook remains free as they can make their money this way as opposed to charging users, and let’s face it Facebook is a great product.

This isn’t really my concern. My concern is it’s uncertain as an individual what pieces of information are sold to whom and how they’re used it.

And even though we’re assured that the data doesn’t identify individuals, I’m not sure when a person can really be confident of this. Specifically, data of sufficient detail can be used to narrow down the possible person it belongs to. I know this, because I’ve been able to do this with apparently anonymous data before.

For instance, knowing that you like Nirvana, checked into a local Starbucks yesterday and went to a Sandstone University in Middlesex can narrow down the number of people you might be. The point is, people (and companies) are clever, and it’s unclear whether you can ever be confident that data won’t point directly to you.

Now at this point, I’m not claiming that the users of the information ARE doing this, only that it’s possible. In addition whilst it’s not likely to be too big a risk having Coca Cola hold my data, what about unspecified government departments who are subject to frequent data breaches?

Being poked with a stick

A final point I’d make about the privacy issue is that when I quit, Facebook had begun rolling out a number of changes to the privacy settings which you were opted-into by default.

Importantly, if you’ve read ‘Nudge‘ you’ll know that people don’t behave symmetrically to the ‘opt-in/opt-out’ choice. That is, many of the people who have been ‘opted-in’ to the more invasive Facebook settings by default probably would have preferred not to be.

This made me a lose a fair chunk of trust for Facebook to say the least, which when combined with my slow transformation into some type of obsessive-compulsive-Facebook-wolf-man, was enough to make me take the plunge and delete my account.

Why I’m back

But, having said all of this, a consequence of my three year Facebook black-out is that I’ve lost touch with a lot of people and I was faced with the prospect of this happening again. In fact, having just returned from Nepal and finishing my Masters it was the only means available for keeping in touch with alumni: I seriously, asked the University for an alternative with no luck.

So whilst I’m confident that all my reasons for not being a member of Facebook are still there, they’re not good enough for me to continue to live in blissful ignorance of what’s happening in the lives of those who are important to me. Particularly not given there is every likelihood that I will become even less connected with the modern world in the next 12 months.

Now, no doubt much of this seems like ‘post-hoc’ rationalization. Well, it is. But I did engage in a fair bit of rationalization beforehand too. What I mean by this is that many of my reasons for not liking Facebook still remain. But, as begrudging as I was to re-join, I’m back.

Hopefully the difference is this time that with a little bit more wisdom I’ll think twice before joining a group dedicated to the mistreatment of innocent animals. But who can tell, after all who doesn’t like to club a good seal?

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