Why I left Facebook: A Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends,

When I joined Facebook about eight years ago, the more tragic consequences of social networks had not arrived yet. There were no Russian trolls, there was no US voter manipulation, rigging the system for a complete madman, no Cambridge Analytica, no support of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and no tolerating of other hate-groups since political echo chambers had not visibly arrived yet. Mark Zuckerberg never realized how he had been living in cyber-paradise for all these years until he got thrown out of it. Like us.

Facebook was, at least in its early stages, still a cosy global village, to use Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor, that kept me connected to friends from all over the world. If you ever watched an episode of ‚Friends‘, to spin a metaphor, Facebook would be the sofa arrangement in the middle of the living room. Functionally, it was my international couch. To give up these long-grown connections is a sad process, in particular since my biography has evolved in a fairly cosmopolitan manner over decades (Germany-Singapore-Shanghai-Bangkok). So why leave the comfort zone?

Facebook’s latest scandals go beyond a series of unfortunate events. For starters, Facebook is harvesting user data to generate income for advertising which, by itself, would bother me a little as advertising flyers ending up in my letterbox. A necessary inconvenience. What does bother me, however, is the use of my photos and data to e.g., create 3D videos on ‚Friends Day‘ – without my explicit consent. But I forgot… this consent was already given by me implicitly by agreeing to the Terms and Conditions. Whoever reads those? Sloppy me! Likewise, my personal data is used to create a consumer profile. Which other profiles get distilled, I wouldn’t know. In terms of available data from over two billion users, Facebook dwarfs the NSA.

The actual profiling algorithms, or an adequate explanation of how they work and what they do, remain hidden from us. They are trade secrets and company property. After all, Facebook is a private company and not responsible for public welfare or transparency. We are kept in a virtual pink bubble-world of happy friends. The mathematical truth is, similar to an ant colony, that the single user is expendable. It is the network effect of more than two billion active users that renders Facebook valuable. Similar to Gmail, it could be argued that user data for profiling gets anonymized. Still, I am not willing to give my consent to an unregulated online economy any longer.

I am not ok with an economic model built on the surveillance of consumers, to use Shoshana Zuboff’s argument. The long-term effect of online monetarization via dominating players such as Facebook and other digital overlords lead to the unregulated monopolization of capital, the convergence of trend-setting ideas and centralisation of technology in the hands of a few. And yes, Facebook, like other Silicon Valley mega-players, hardly pays taxes to contribute to society. Its do-gooder PR is all smokescreen.

The second reason for abandoning Facebook is the conditioning of social behaviour. How much time do I waste these days on Facebook or Netflix? I was talking to friends last Christmas and we realized how glad we were to have spent our childhood and youth offline. Digital media can be great, but only when balanced with productive offline life. Facebook has been designed to keep users hooked, not to encourage significant online breaks.

I doubt that I would have developed any of my knowledge, skills and competencies if I have had access to electronic drugs during adolescence. If Mozart was born today, he would have probably posted some impressive videos on YouTube, collecting more than a million likes. There would certainly be hype, but there wouldn’t be a Köchel catalogue. I much doubt the Beatles or Bowie would have succeeded either, perhaps as trendsetters in obscure Online indie-radio channels. Given today’s cultural climate, Freddie Mercury would have received a never-ending stream of homophobic hate mails. Well, long live the Bohemian Rhapsody and long live our Starman.

Developing one’s full potential requires self-discipline (the exact opposite of instant gratification) and focus (the opposite of consuming hundreds of images and snippets of information every day). To this extent, Facebook belongs to the category of distracting tech. If I was close to retirement or had all day to follow nothing but my hobbies, Facebook would be a great way to connect. If Facebook ever gets regulated, we may talk again.

The third reason is, of course, privacy. Try to google for ‘Hacking Facebook accounts’ and you get the drift. Software that offered ‘victim-management’ popped up in an instant. One does not have to dive into the depths of darknet to find a plethora of such options. I was just plain lucky to never get hacked but many close friends have. Still, I told myself ‘I never angered anybody personally in my life and I am not a person of interest, such as public figures, so why to bother?’. This was, waking myself up here, exactly the wrong assumption that gets users into trouble. In 2019, we cannot be naïve (‘This will never happen to me’). Anybody who speaks out for emancipatory values and open society, especially intellectuals, social reformers, scientists, journalists and public speakers, is already a potential target for right-wing hackers and haters. As a consequence, there is no Facebook, no Instagram or Tumblr for me. I kept Twitter to follow some News channels, although I do not use it much beyond announcing a new Blog entry.

Everything we ever post can be used against us. Snippets of text (and video, deep fakes will become more accurate fairly soon) can be easily quoted out of context to suit somebody else’s agenda. Private photographs are most easily exploited. Once we speak up openly, we become a target on troll radar or a malicious pattern-searching algorithm – if not our data, then our metadata and digital breadcrumbs. I am taking precautions to not end up like some German politicians and celebrities this week, who found their confidential data hacked and published on Twitter. Besides, why would people need to know my whereabouts in the first place? What I eat and my relationship status? Give me a break! Post-Facebook, you will meet me next, somewhere save (in Morrissey’s words) in Far Off Places.

In my Blog, I stand firmly for what I believe in and defend my principles. If I ever would enter politics, I would have no choice but to return to Facebook as a public persona in order to, how PR-experts coined the term, ‘control the narrative’. This would be a very different scenario where one has to be ready to fight online. In contemporary politics, it comes as part of the job description. Unfortunately, as numerous examples of German politicians, judges and journalists confirm, standing in the spotlight in Western countries may even entail murder threats to oneself and family. Progressive politicians such as Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and countless others handle social media fairly well. Prerequisite for a Facebook representation, however, is a public mandate of representation.

On the upside, good friends stay beyond Facebook. When we meet again in person, we will have stories to tell. There will be no more online-published previews of developments that suck the magic out of social events, allowing for genuine surprises and experience to accumulate. Offline life yields its merits. The quality of deep human connections supersedes the need for continuous online presence.         

I will dearly miss your originality, humour and wit. Stay in touch through secure channels.

Joana

(I left Facebook for good on 6.01.2019)

Postscriptum:  Efforts are under way to counter the centralisation of the web. If you are more of a geek, have a look at the latest works of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web https://www.fastcompany.com/90243936/exclusive-tim-berners-lee-tells-us-his-radical-new-plan-to-upend-the-world-wide-web

or Cambridge-based startup https://fetch.ai/