Leaving Facebook (part 2)

September 2020

Knowing the problems of corporate social media, and Facebook in particular, is one thing, but the practical process of leaving it is a whole other topic in itself. That’s what I’l try to expand upon here. Or in other words: what’s the actual plan? I’ll make a guess at the costs and benefits of leaving Facebook and I’ll look into some constructive steps I (and others too of course!) can take to transition to a post-Facebook lifestyle.

Costs & benefits

What will I lose?

Let’s face it: I will lose something substantial here. A service and tool1 that I’ve used to maintain contact and regulate my own (social) life this last decade. But let’s go into a little bit more detail and make a list; lists are fun, aren’t they?

  • Faraway friends will become more difficult to follow
  • I will be less likely to have (semi-)spontaneous online conversations
  • I’ll have to actively look for events
  • I’ll miss out on a lot of awesome artists and their work
  • I will lose an easy way to organize and coordinate through shared group pages
  • Important (and semi-important) life-events of people will elude me

After writing this remarkebly short list, it dawned on me how little Facebook does for me that is really essential. I find this very hopeful. Maybe never making a list of these things makes the task seem more daunting than it actually is. Deluding yourself as to it’s importance, like a low-key addiction.

What won’t I miss?

Let’s look at the other side: what are the things that annoy and frustrate me (besides the larger issues I’ve already touched upon in part 1)?

  • Seeing people on my feed proclaim conspiracy theories, false information or fascist talking points
  • Wishy-washy progressive and liberal minded people normalizing astrology, pseudo-science and other new-age nonsense
  • the validation loop of being curious about the response a post or comment gets
  • being confronted with idealized images of other people’s lives and feeling bad about myself because of it
  • anxiety about my own life’s course, in comparison to the projected norm (buying a house, travelling abroad,..)

What do I hope to gain?

The biggest thing, I think, will be time, both physical as mental. Physical since I will waste less time endlessly refreshing my feed to check for new updates and can spend my time on the computer in other, potentially more productive ways. Mental because even when I’m not browsing it, my mind wanders to what to post or comment, or what I saw on there. It’s exhausting. I also expect the quality of my time spent will increase: getting more work done, being less anxious and tired, appreciating social contact somewhat more maybe.

Aside: don’t blame users

Just a quick note here: what I emphatically don’t want to do is blame people that do use social media. I think leaving the platforms takes quite a bit of effort (hell, I haven’t even quit yet) and entails a certain amount of privilege to do. And even then, some people have little choice to stick to the platforms because of a multitude of reasons.

If you have a business of any kind these days, it’s unfortunately always in your (financial) advantage to have a presence on social media. And there are many others whose livelihoods depend in some way or another on those platforms. In some communities and countries, social media apps ‘(on mobile devices mostly) are practically synonymous with the internet. It can’t be expected that these people join a movement away from the big corporations until the real changes have happened.

The preparation

Since leaving Facebook is quite the undertaking, it requires a plan and some kind of preparation. There are some suggestions to be found online, such as articles in The New York Times and Lifewire; even the occasional article about failing to quit. There are also various online communities such as r/corpfree where users gather to give tips and alternatives, or maybe deride you for still using social media altogether. (I am aware of the irony of using Reddit in this instance)

Part of the plan will be the utilization of older and proven methods of communication. This wil require more work and maybe some side costs, but remember: you’ll pay for things one way or another.

Reach out

I’ll reach out, through status updates on Facebook and stories on Instagram; sharing blogposts, articles and reflections. I’m aware that some people will find this obnoxious behaviour - maybe because it is confronting and makes them uneasy? - but social media is full of it already, so that’s not a big deal. I’ll be pro-active and talk to some people directly and others can decide for themselves if they find it worthwile to have my contact info (or think that I should have theirs).

Update and maintain a comprehensive contact list

Remember a time, back in the nineties, when most families had a little booklet with contacts in them, lying besides the telephone in the hallway or living room. That idea still has its uses and has its digital implementation in the form of CardDAV (a webDAV standard): a digital contact list that bundles all kinds of useful information on people. The only thing is: you have to build the list yourself, instead of relying on social media to provide those things for you. But once collected (and maybe synched with other apps) you have a reliable list that keeps you updated on people’s birthdays just as efficiently as Facebook does. Luckily, my e-mail account also included a contact-list service (and calendar too) for me to use.

Build my own feed

One of the things I’ve used Facebook a lot for, I’m ashamed to admit, is to get news. I followed a bunch of news websites, both national and international, and my feed turned into the one place that aggregated the most important articles. But the idea of a (news)feed isn’t something that Facebook (or any other social media platform) invented. It’s a walled-off variant of the RSS-feed: a web standard for sharing updates for sites and blogs. It still exists, although support for it has been dwindling since the advent of other social media. Still, RSS readers and aggregators still exists plenty.

I integrated an RSS feed into my startpage, so that every time I launch my browser or a new tab (which is quite frequently of course) I see an up-to-date newsfeed. That way I both have control over what I see, in what context and I don’t need to go to Facebook to see it.

One thing I still need to choose and learn to use is an RSS aggregator: a tool or service where I can subscribe to mulitple RSS feeds that are then combined, filtered, and easy to read. There are quite a few possibilities, from something self-hosted such as Tiny Tiny RSS to web-based aggregators such as Feedly and Inoreader.

Supply alternatives

Some alternatives are obvious: e-mail and messaging. I’m still as easily reachable through these media as ever. Although keeping up mail conversations is a bit of a chore and relies on the conscious decision to actually write each other, there’s little spontaneity involved. E-mail is also, coincidentally, the only mass-adopted, open, federated system that people use. I think that it deserves more appreciation, and maybe revaluation, than we give it. Messaging can be though, but still leaves something to be desired of. Sharing updates with the broader world isn’t part of that.2 I hope more people will switch to more privacy oriented centralized apps like Signal, decentralized systems such as Element.io, or even to peer-to-peer apps such as Briar.

There’s also this blog, where I plan to keep posting texts and photographs that I’d like to be accessible. Since I don’t have any tracking built in - on purpose - I have no way to know what my ‘reach’ is, how many people actually visit, let alone read my site. I don’t care that much, at least the possibility is there. And it’s always possible to reach out to me through e-mail.

And then there are the alternatives to the social media, and Facebook in particular, themselves. Since there are no architectural elements of profile, identity, planning or data-control built in the internet itself - a gross oversight by its developers - the most promising thing, right now, are the decentralized and federated services. These are social media services that anyone can host individually, but are still able to communicate with others if they so choose. It functions a bit like e-mail does: you connect to @username@domain and you get access to their profile (if they let you) as well as to the rest of the domain. This has multiple advantages: the user gets a choice where their data is stored (including on a self-hosted instance); moderation can be done per instance,3 leaving room for different approaches in a larger network; through the use of shared protocols, different systems can still communicate with eachother; this also means that there’s always an alternative to corporate control over the network. There are downsides too of course: the network effect keeps a lot of people from hopping to another platform; the network is more difficult to navigate (because of the extra layer of the federated network); and lastly these alternatives usually don’t offer as smooth and integrated an experience as the corporate platforms can build. Some interesting alternatives are Mastodon or Diaspora*, both of which I have a profile on.4

The deletion

Optional: disable Facebook feed

As a first (or partial) step towards removing Facebook, there’s the example of a friend of mine who shut down his feed and only uses it to interact with certain groups he’s part of and to chat. This can be done with the help of a plugin called News Feed Eradicator, available both in Firefox and Chrome.

Download your data

Important, so as to not lose any of the data you’ve generated for Big-Tech over the years: download your data. You can do so for Facebook here and you have a right to do so.

Remove Instagram

Instagram is part of the Facebook ecosystem. Even though there’s arguably a somewhat more accepting and positive atmosphere in my own personal experience, there’s still a lot wrong with it: extensive censorship, puritanism, advertisement, lack of privacy. The only feature I’ll really miss are the ‘stories’. So away it goes!

Remove Facebook

Deleting Facebook takes a whopping 30 days, in which you can always log back in to restore the account. This is to make sure you get ample time to develop some remorse or be tempted back in. The difficulty will be in the initial internalized temptation and the encouragement of other people. I realize it will take some time for the routines to fade away, but it’s not the first social network I’ve left so I know I can do it.

Endgoal: peace of mind

That’s endgoal here. I hope to have more mental space, less distraction and more control on what information I get to see. This won’t be an immediate transition and I’ll probably experience a period of anxiety, probably loneliness and maybe even depression. But there’s light at the other side of the corporate tunnel and I’m sure I can count on the help and support of my friends. It’s a small step for humankind, but a big step for me personally.

I hope to write a part 3 where I describe my experiences and a look back at the process somewhere early next year.

  1. In the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ Tristan Harris posits that tools are ‘patient’ objects, waiting for you to use them, while social media demands your attention and input. “[W]e’ve moved away from having a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based technology environment.” [return]
  2. Does anyone remember MSN Messenger, where you put these cryptic messages in your chat-name that, in essence, functioned as some sort of status update avant-la-lettre? [return]
  3. There is a case to be made that decentralized social media are better capable of moderation with the added benefit of having more nuance and space for more permissive servers. See this video for more info. [return]
  4. Other possibilities exist. There are peer-to-peer networks, but those are less promising right now, I think. Another is blockchain-based, which I consider an overly complex solution to a non-existant problem. That’s why I left those out of my commentary. [return]