Week 2: Facebook
After Facebook’s hell-year of scandal, and its unabating erosion of our privacy – a topic I’ve been covering for over 10 years – I never thought I’d miss the social network. But here I am, staring at my screen, feeling strangely alone.
In the second stage of my epic quest to thwart the world’s most powerful tech giants from getting my data, my money, and my attention, I’m taking on Big Blue. No Facebook. No Instagram. No WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Onavo, nor Oculus Rift. For one week, I’m cutting myself off from everything Facebook-related – not simply deleting apps from my phone, but using a custom tool that completely stops all my devices from communicating with Mark Zuckerberg’s enormous, needy baby.
Originally, I just planned to block myself from using Facebook the same way I’d blocked myself from using Amazon, by routing all my internet traffic through a virtual private network (VPN) controlled by the technologist Dhruv Mehrotra, who is prohibiting my devices from communicating with IP addresses controlled by Facebook. But I decide this experiment is an opportunity to do something additional, something more drastic.
Facebook’s misdeeds with our data have been news cycle fodder for at least a decade, but the past year has been particularly bad. The only explanation for why most of us are still members is Stockholm Syndrome. Like many people, I feel invested in Facebook: I’ve been building my profile since 2007. I have party and vacation photos galore there and over 1,000 connections, including dear friends, acquaintances, colleagues, loved ones, and quite a few randos whom I added for reasons that I no longer remember. I’ve written that people who aren’t on Facebook “may not actually exist” and are “suspicious”. I use Facebook to log in to other services that I use a lot such as Airbnb, Words with Friends, and Spotify.
I couldn’t quit Facebook, could I? And if I did, would I miss it? Would the world I’ve built there miss me?
Facebook has steamrolled almost the entire planet into joining its platform, so it’s amazing how damn thirsty it seems much of the time. To prepare for the Faceblock week, I sign into Facebook one last time and discover 36 notifications waiting for me.
“Damn! Must be some big things happening,” I think, but when I click on the white bell, I discover 35 notifications about one friend’s comment on a link I had shared earlier in the week. Facebook had been adding a new notification every few hours since the last time I had signed in, in what must have been a desperate attempt to get me to open its app. I’m not alone in getting countless irrelevant notifications on Facebook.
I feel about quitting Facebook the same way I feel about deleting my tweets, something I also don’t do that I probably should: I’m concerned there could be unanticipated downsides. But this is as good a time as any to find out, so I click the 'delete' button.
To my great surprise, my account is instantly gone. I thought Facebook would tempt me to stay with profile photos of friends who would be 'sad' without me, but my account just winks out of existence immediately with a message that I can have it back if I sign into Facebook within 30 days. (I put a reminder in my Google Calendar to reconsider this decision in 29 days, and hope that Google Calendar is not blocked when the time comes).
Of course, while I can 'delete' my Facebook, that doesn’t delete all my information from its servers, even after 30 days. It still knows what other people share about me, from photos of me and my family, to my contact information if others upload it.
The first thing I do after the big deletion is visit Airbnb. My biggest concern is that I’ll be locked out and lose years of building up a good reputation as a renter, but I soon discover to my vast relief that I can regain access by saying I forgot my password and supplying my email address. I still have my Airbnb account; it is just untethered from Facebook. Spotify too lets me back in, though my profile photo is gone and my name is replaced with an eight-digit string of numbers. I can also get into Words With Friends, my favourite time-wasting app. It looks like all these companies are planning for the eventual obsolescence of Facebook, thank god for me.
The Amazon block took out whole websites and services for me, but that’s not the case with Facebook because it doesn’t control the building blocks of the internet. That’s not for want of trying: Facebook has attempted to bring 'universal internet' to India and other countries with internet.org, but it has faced resistance.
Dhruv built a counter that tells me in real time how many data packets are trying to get a tech giant; it was spinning like crazy when I was blocking Amazon, but advances far more slowly with Facebook. (Over the course of the week, my devices try to communicate with Facebook over 15,000 times compared to nearly 300,000 times for Amazon the week before).
The vast majority of Facebook’s requests are likely its attempts to track my movements around the web, via Like and Share buttons, Facebook Analytics, Facebook Ads and Facebook Pixel. Facebook Pixel, if you haven’t heard of it, is a little piece of code that a company can put on its website - say, on a particular shopping page that you look at while signed into Facebook on your work computer. Once the pixel captures you looking at the shopping page, the seller company can retarget you through Facebook, so you later see an ad for the same shoe when you’re scrolling through Instagram on your personal phone.
In an email, a Facebook spokesperson just “wanted to point out” that “your experience seeing advertising across devices is common and not new to online advertising”. True, but unlike Pixel, not every web tracker is on over 2 million websites.
Cutting Facebook out of my life is easy technically; Dhruv’s IP address block works well. His only challenge is WhatsApp, which has been designed to circumvent blocks in repressive countries, and so rapidly tries to reach different servers when it detects an inability to connect. (Dhruv compares blocking that one to playing whack-a-mole).
But psychologically, it’s hard: I miss Instagram as the thing I do to waste time on my phone and to keep up with friends. I also miss, to my surprise, Facebook itself.
The first day of the Facebook block is Halloween, which is particularly hard because I can’t post cute photos of my one-year-old, Ellev, dressed up as Boo from Monsters Inc. (I ordered the costume on Amazon, of course, pre-block). And I can’t find out what my friends are dressed as unless I individually text or email them, which is weird. The only people who get to see my family as Boo, James P. Sullivan (me), and Mike Wazowski (my husband) are the members of my extended family with whom we trick-or-treat, the strangers we pass IRL, my in-laws due to a photo sent on a group text thread, and a couple of friends to whom I text photos apologising for the “bespoke sharing”. I have to admit that the enjoyment of a holiday dedicated to dressing up is somewhat degraded when not using Facebook’s apps.
Where we trick-or-treat, kids get candy and parents get wine. Photo: Trevor Timm
The week of the block also includes the run-up to Election Day. One morning, as I talk to my husband, Trevor, about filling in our mail-in ballots, I ask how he is going to vote on the proposition to end daylight saving time in California. He says his cousin wrote a convincing post about it on Facebook (we talk in links even IRL!) and I say I’ll check it out before I remember I can’t. Trevor summarises it for me: the time change sucks for parents who have to force their kids to wake up an hour earlier. This is a point I wouldn’t have thought of and a conversation we might not have had without Facebook, and it helps swing my vote.
I know. It’s crazy, right? Even with all the news about how terrible information is around elections on Facebook, I still want it as a resource! This is a shocking discovery for me. Did I turn off Facebook during the one week it actually matters to me, or do I use Facebook more than I realise?
I try to fill the social media hole in my life by joining Mastodon, an open-source, decentralised Twitter-like social network. (You 'toot' instead of 'tweet', a term chosen by someone who either doesn’t know the standard definition or who believes most of what people write online is noxious hot air). I try a toot or two but, honestly, I find the idea of building yet another online social network exhausting. So after signing in a couple of times, I abandon it. Network effects are real and powerful.
Sarah Jeong summed up the problem well in Vice soon after Mastodon’s October 2016 launch:
You aren’t on Mastodon because your friends aren’t on Mastodon. Your friends aren’t on Mastodon because you’re not on Mastodon. And I wouldn’t be on Mastodon, either, if I hadn’t promised my editor to write an article about it.
This is the hold Facebook has on us: we built our networks there, and we are loathed to leave them or to start again.
With the purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook has a stranglehold on social news and photo-sharing. By blocking them, I lose the ability to mass communicate with my social circle; I can’t brag that I won a journalism award on Facebook or post a video of Ellev feeding a giraffe at the zoo on Instagram.
I also lose my ability to receive news from my social circle. Spoiler: when I give in and re-enable my Facebook account weeks later, I see at the top of my Newsfeed that one of my closest friends recently gave birth. I call her to congratulate her and tell her I wouldn’t have found out if I hadn’t re-joined the social network. “I just assume that if I post something on Facebook, everyone will know about it,” she tells me.
If you give up Facebook and all the companies it owns then you’re cut off from participating in your community, whatever your community may be.
“Facebook has too much market power,” Sarah Miller tells me. “It should never have been allowed to acquire Instagram in the first place”.
Miller is the deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, which has spent the last year loudly calling for the tech giants to be heavily regulated if not broken up. Miller is also the spokesperson for Freedom From Facebook, an advocacy group composed of members of other advocacy groups, like an activist three-bird-roast, that has done cute stunts like fly a plane over Facebook’s shareholder meeting with the sign: “You broke democracy.”
Miller thinks the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Facebook’s notable missteps around disinformation and genocide, are symptomatic of a company run amok without serious competitors to force it to be a better gatekeeper of people’s information.
Freedom From Facebook has been pushing the Federal Trade Commission to treat Facebook like a monopoly and break it up. On that count they scored a meeting with an FTC commissioner, Joe Simons, and have filed a complaint with the agency, though it’s unclear how serious the FTC is about investigating Facebook. A top official there who would otherwise be in charge of such an investigation is conflicted out, but the Washington Post reports that the agency is currently considering hitting the company with a “record-setting fine”(paywall). That is, if the US government shutdown ever ends.
Though Miller doesn’t think a fine is enough, even a historic one; she argues that the FTC should force Facebook to spin off WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger into their own companies, because together Facebook’s companies account for “77 percent of mobile social networking traffic in America”.
“If a company doesn’t have competitors, it’s not incentivised to protect consumers,” Miller tells me during a phone call. “It’s more than just privacy violations. We’re trying to tie everything together. Will our democratic institutions stand up to these companies or let themselves be corrupted?”
Facebook, of course, disputes any notion that it’s a monopoly. “We operate in a fiercely competitive market for services which help people connect, discover, communicate and share,” a Facebook spokesperson told me. “For every service offered on Facebook and our family of apps, you can find at least three or four competing services with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of users”.
Late in the week, Instagram notices I haven’t opened the app in a while and sends me an email prompting me to see what my friends are up to. And I realise I don’t really know what people are up to. My friends now largely expect that I’ll see their broadcasts on various social networks, which means they don’t tell me things individually anymore unless I see them in person.
Or the alternative happens: I assume I know everything that’s going on with someone because I’ve been following their feed. I recently went to visit a friend from university who lives across the country. We text each other every weekend with our favorite photos from the week and I felt like we were in relatively good touch, but once I’d spent a few days with her, I discovered there was ground-shaking stuff happening in her life about which I’d had no clue. It made me realise just how limited many of my digital communication channels are.
It’s the proverbial double-edged sword: I feel both out of touch when not on these channels, but like I’m worse at being in touch because they exist.
Funnily enough, reading a draft of this story convinces one of my editors, who has never had Facebook or Instagram, to join the latter because he realises he doesn’t have a way to show cool things “to a bunch of people I know at the same time without texting them [when] they’re not really worth texting over”.
So I don’t know if this series will convince anyone to quit these tech giants, but it has convinced at least one person to join them.
Next up: Google.
This series was supported by a grant to Dhruv Mehrotra from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.