When I wrote an about-to-be-published book last year about problems with social media, I thought it would be cute to call it Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. And then the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, motivating a modest but notable wave of Facebook deletions in protest, including by prominent tech figures such as Elon Musk and Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp.
So much for the novelty of my book title. The biggest surprise was not the movement to delete accounts, but that the deleters have not been received well by pundits and commentators. The response has often been smug, dismissive, even scolding. Deleters are told they are abusing their privilege; that they are leaving behind the less fortunate, who cannot afford to quit. They are said to be abandoning society or distracting from the more important process of petitioning governments to regulate Facebook. They are accused of tilting at windmills.
But these deleters are indispensable. They should be celebrated. We all benefit from them.
The primary value of a boycott in this case is not mere protest to damage Facebook, but to invent what life can be like today without the social network.
A deleter must reconsider how she holds her social life together. She will therefore rethink what a social life is.
Is having a publicly broadcast number of associates a good thing, or does it foster a meaningless sense of social competition? Does Facebook’s method, which combines user tracking with stimuli calculated to foster addiction and behaviour modification, really reveal the most beneficial options for her? Does an experiential feed constructed by algorithms serve her, or other people who are paying to modify her behaviour? Are the components of the Facebook experience severable or not? Can you have a modern social and professional life without the manipulation? Is it even conceivable? Who will ask? Who will find out? The deleters will!
To suggest that everyone stays in line with the current regime is to cement Facebook’s role as sole designer of a key aspect of the digital future.
Before Facebook, there were ways to do most of the things that Facebook allows, and there still are. There are other ways to keep up with friends, be informed, discover local events, announce your own life events, publish opinions, meet new people, and so on.
While it is pervasive, Facebook has not brought as much into the world as it may seem. Facebook excels at applying addictive design techniques (according to figures such as its former president Sean Parker) more than it does in innovating value that the internet can offer.
I have no social media accounts at all, and yet I am able to maintain a career. It’s possible that Facebook’s highly crafted addictive quality is fostering the illusion that there’s gravity where there isn’t. If you let go, you might find that you’ve lost nothing.
My case is not ideally instructive because I never had social media accounts. But those who have had accounts and then deleted them are true pioneers. They will see things and learn things that are new in the world.
Quitting Facebook is a significant project, just like overcoming any addiction. The company does what it can to make the process difficult and uncertain. It also hoards data and fine-tunes options, which make it hard for people to control what happens with their data, much less leave. The site benefits from network effect, since so many people are on it.
Those who have gone through the exiting process, however, might find that in the end they have not only made a political statement, but saved time and improved their lives.
Since Facebook is designed to take up as much attention as possible, those who find alternate ways to gain the benefits of Facebook will often discover they have more free time. For instance, experimenters have reported that reading news sites directly makes one not only better informed, but less ragged with weird partisan noise, and in possession of an “embarrassing” amount of free time, according to one account.
Part of the reason Facebook has achieved a monopoly is that dealing with diverse digital services is such a tedious pain. It’s stunning how much time we spend carefully entering long strings of letters and numbers into machines. Facebook provides a single account that can attach to many other services. That might be its greatest unique practical value. Even so, everyone I have talked to who has gone to the trouble to fully leave Facebook has found that in the end time was gained.
Ultimately, Facebook deleters should not think of themselves as protesters so much as innovators. If we are to create a survivable digital society, it must be invented and that invention is unlikely to flow from a single company. We cannot create a hi-tech digital civilisation by continuing to complain to Facebook about its counterproductive design. We cannot have regulators trim a beast as if they were barbers and call that change. The act of invention must be distributed.
We must learn to be digital citizens, and we can’t do that when we are herded by a big central digital service. You cannot read well without learning to write at least a little, and in the same way you cannot live well in a digital world without having learned to design such a world at least a little.
Each Facebook deleter must invent new ways to live without Facebook; the deleters are the pioneers, the vanguard of a new kind of literate, informed, proud digital citizenry. They are inventing on behalf of all of us.