Following the certifiable shitshow at Facebook around revelations that data firm Cambridge Analytica harvested and exploited users’ data without their permission, many users declared they were through with the platform. The hashtag #deletefacebook spread rapidly on Twitter (another social network that uses targeted advertising and was exploited by Russians), with people from all sides of the political spectrum raising concerns about security, privacy, the company’s influence on democracy, and its lack of transparency. Others talked about how deleting Facebook made them happier humans.
All of these reasons are legitimate and understandable. But, for many, quitting Facebook might be a tall order—and that is perfectly understandable as well. The platform has been in many people’s lives for over a decade, becoming the one place on the internet where they can find and connect with everyone they’ve ever known. It’s a massive trove of memories, and a digital passport of sorts (not to mention its uses for work and business).
If you’re fed up with the company’s antics, but feel either tethered to its services, or genuinely enjoy some of its aspects, here we weigh the pros and cons of bidding adieu to Mark Zuckerberg’s dormroom creation:
The emotional LinkedIn
In 2013, the average Facebook user in the US had 338 friends, according to the Pew Research Center. You can’t possibly maintain relationships with that many people. If Facebook went away, you’d still (hopefully) be in touch with those who are the closest to you, and you’d focus more on worthwhile relationships rather than peripheral ones. What you would lose, arguably, is a sense of what certain communities you’re in, or have been in the past, are talking about. What is the most pressing problem to the people in your hometown, or, if you’re an immigrant, in your country? What is their interpretation of what is going on in the world these days? How are these communities changing?
As one Quartz editor said, Facebook is your “emotional LinkedIn.” Sure, you might say that you don’t care about your high school classmates’ baby pictures, that they’re overwhelming and annoying. But isn’t it kind of nice knowing who is having kids? Hasn’t Facebook offered us a great, convenient way of keeping in touch with distant relatives, however superficial that connection may be?
Sure, you might only go to events where you’re really wanted, as Sarah Todd notes at Quartz, but inviting people to events on Facebook has become so ubiquitous—and effortless—you might also miss out on parties thrown by people whom you genuinely enjoy hanging out with, but who might not remember you’re not on the platform.
For many, Facebook has also become a way of meeting people, and indeed, as Mark Zuckerberg says, “building communities.” Facebook groups can be detrimental, reinforcing people’s filter bubbles, or even dangerous, popularizing pyramid schemes. But they are also often a place where people can find “their own,” forming support groups or interest-based forums, much like early online chat groups.
The online memory lane
This might be the hardest one for many Facebook users. The platform has been a repository of memories for more than a decade. Many people—particularly millennials, who have come of age with the social network—have been using it as a picture album on steroids, a public diary of sorts. You can download the photos to salvage some of these memories, but you can’t keep comments that your friends have made on them in 2009, sometimes mystifying, sometimes cringeworthy, sometimes touching all these years later. Same goes for status updates (although these are rarely worth revisiting). These diaries are not only massive, they are interconnected. So if you decide to delete your account, your best friend might lose thousands of photos you tagged them in over the years.
Of course, everything on Facebook comes at a price. Facebook has tried to capitalize on its function as a decade-long picture album, with its “memories” feature, which, like actual memories, has brought people pain just as much as it has brought joy, reminding them of past relationships, deaths, difficult times in their lives, or Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election.
Your digital identity
Over a decade ago, Facebook created a way for people to log into any website using their Facebook profile. Others, like Google and Twitter, have since followed suit, but Facebook’s Connect function has served as a digital passport for many around the web. It’s been a form, for better or worse, of digital authenticity when logging into a new app. Many of the most popular digital services in recent years—Spotify, Netflix, Tinder, Airbnb, and the comment section of almost every news site, to name a few—have been powered by Facebook authentication. It’s made life simple for users: they’ve already given all their information to Facebook, so if they allow a new app to pull their information from Facebook, it all appears in the new app. And for many services, they’ve become inextricably linked—if you delete your Facebook account, you lose access to your Spotify or Netflix account.
Facebook has become the ID card that we carry around the web, and much like a real ID card, if you lose it, you can’t get into a lot of interesting spots. (However, if everyone was just slightly less lazy and entered the information they needed on new apps, instead of just handing over access to their Facebook accounts, we might not be contending with our relationship to Facebook and the way it handles our data.)
Nowhere else to turn
If you want to leave Facebook in protest over how little it seems to care about the privacy of its users, then you should probably also stop using all the other services Facebook owns and harvests the data on. That includes Instagram, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and any Oculus virtual reality products. Otherwise, you’d end up acting like a vegan who still snuck bacon when no one is looking. But if you cut all those products out of your life, what are you left with online? Email? Texting? MySpace?! All other efforts to create replacement services—Diaspora, ello, and Peach, to name a few—have failed miserably.
There are other messaging services out there (Telegram, Signal, and even Slack, are options), and there are internet forum sites like Reddit, where people convene to chat. And there’s always Twitter, but in terms of holistic social-gathering marketplace-of-ideas places on the web, there isn’t much else like Facebook. As we said, everyone you know is there.
But if you’re quitting for a small amount of peace of mind and you feel that cutting out Facebook (but not its other services) will solve the problem, then delete away. But be warned: You’ll still need a Facebook account to use Messenger (but not WhatsApp or Instagram), and you’ll still likely be tracked, profiled, and shown advertising in much the same way as you would if you had a Facebook account.
The heart of the current issues surrounding Facebook is the belief that the company is completely lax about how it handles the personal data of its 2.1 billion users. Facebook is a repository of information that its users have given it over the years that is cross-referenced, analyzed, and synthesized for the benefit of its advertisers to target people more effectively. Facebook can recognize your face as well as your own mother. It tracks its users around the web, across its apps, and across devices. It knows when you’re somewhere, even if you don’t tell it you’re there.
Facebook has been criticized for its data-handling in the past. In 2011, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said Facebook engaged in “unfair and deceptive practices” by publicizing data that users had thought was private. It signed a “consent decree” with the FTC, agreeing not to share users’ data without their express consent. If the FTC finds that Cambridge Analytica acquired the data of 50 million users without their consent, this would be a major breach of that decree Facebook signed, potentially resulting in massive fines for Facebook, and regulation that could affect the entire digital advertising industry. But any app or service you’ve signed into with Facebook could potentially be doing something similar.
In defense of its actions, Cambridge Analytica recently tweeted that “Advertising is not coercive.” But the entire premise of advertising on digital platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, or YouTube is that those platforms deeply know their users. They know what they watch, what they enjoy, how much they earn, their religious beliefs, where they live, what they do, when they’re online, and what they like. They can provide information to advertisers that can specifically target a person’s weak spots, when they are at their most pliable. That could be seeing a perfectly timed ad for discount on a trip to the Bahamas after a snowy commute into work; a TV show that focus groups have found is popular with shows you’ve watched before; or an ad suggesting that perhaps Hillary Clinton wouldn’t bring back jobs to your Rust Belt town that’s on the verge of bankruptcy.
People like to think that they’re smart enough to discern when they’re being sold to, but our lives are saturated with advertising, both passive and active. Sometimes the ads just being there long enough can be enough to plant the seed in a person’s mind. No service knows more about every aspect of our lives, our friends and family’s lives, and our dreams, than Facebook. And it’s generating around $13 billion a quarter in advertising revenue, so advertisers must agree.
Of course, you don’t need to advertise to feed people information you want them to absorb. Russian operatives bought ads on the platform to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election, but they were also able to harness Facebook’s powers to disseminate conspiracy theories and divisive content completely organically. Although Facebook is trying a host of ways to fight fake news, none of them are particularly effective. Users are still able to flood the platform with falsehoods at an incredibly rapid pace.
The Facebook drug
No one really needs to tell most Facebook users that the platform is addictive—we’ve all been there, wondering where the past 30 minutes have gone. Over the years, multiple studies have explored the platform’s drug-like qualities, and recently, former Facebook insiders have formed a chorus telling the public that the platform was designed to be addictive, exploiting human psychology. Former Facebook president Sean Parker said the thought process that went into designing the platform was straightforward: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”
Former executive Chamath Palihapitiya said that “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” govern our presence on Facebook, adding that “we curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals—hearts, likes, thumbs up—and we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth.” Instead, he said, it’s just brittle popularity.
Like a drug, after that rush, Facebook can make you feel depressed—about the state of the world, about other people’s lives and accomplishments compared to yours, or a myriad other things. Just as it can connect you with others, it can make you feel incredibly lonely.
And while you’re logged in, you’re also spending hours and hours passively scrolling instead of working, reading a book, calling your mom, exercising, or sleeping. Facebook’s apps—including Messenger and Instagram, but not WhatsApp—were taking up an average of 50 minutes a day per user in 2016. For the main platform, this time has fallen with Facebook’s recent algorithm changes that focus on content shared by family and friends, and reduce the number of viral videos, news articles, and brand posts. But as Paul Smalera pointed out at Quartz, this move echoes a classic drug-dealer tactic: “a cut-down dose of its drug might keep feed junkies hanging around longer, searching for that scrolling high.”
Quitting Facebook might seem like a simple act—it’s just a website, after all—but on some level, it also feels like turning your back on everyone you know, and your own past. Facebook has done such a good job of inserting itself into our lives and weaving its technology into the wider web that it’s not as simple as it seems.
Perhaps you’re not bothered by being targeted by ads for things you actually might want to buy. Or maybe you’ll quit Facebook, but hang on to Instagram, because you still need somewhere to go when you’re bored.
But now is a good time to reconsider your relationship with a company that uses you to generate billions of dollars a year. On average, Facebook users were worth about $20 each to the company in 2017. Is your privacy worth more than $20 to you?