This week marked the end of my 30 day trial period of having a deactivated Facebook account as it was upgraded to the state of “permanently deleted”.
I have in the past written of my increasingly struggling relationship with the social media site. For most of the last decade and part of this one, it had in the main been a fruitless addiction, taking me through countless troubled waters, impairing my ability to properly interact with friends, at times shattering my self-esteem and confidence. It has seen my trust in people and their intentions wane at times as I dealt with various trolls. It has made me question my worth in life and measure myself against others in a most unhealthy way. It has promoted and triggered strong opinion, where there previously was none and pitted it against those of others. It has driven me to the point of ultimate distraction, profoundly interfering with my day to day life.
For all that it allowed me to connect with many likeminded people, the friendships that have endured have been the ones pursued outside of the platform, away from the constant stream of often superficial chatter, “likes”, “laughs”, “loves” and the enduring compulsion for approval.
At the height of my time using Facebook, I had amassed over 1000 “friends”, tapering off to a mere 800. At one time I even had an app which told me who had unfriended me and each time it happened, I agonised over it and often asked those who had unfriended me the reasons why. Sleepless nights wondering what made me such a bad person. Sounds crazy now but that is how much it got under my skin.
In the last few years, recent political events have seen people more and more polarised and Facebook became increasingly unpleasant, even more so throughout the Covid pandemic. Before I even discovered the cause, it got me to thinking that something fundamentally wasn’t right.
As I wrote in this previous blog entry, I happened upon this Channel 4 interview with Silicon Valley computer scientist Jaron Lanier who wrote the book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)” in which he answers my suspicions. The Facebook AI engine is systematically engaging and addicting users to the platform through a calculated programme of behavioural manipulation, subtly choosing what the user is exposed to and when. Studies have shown that users are engaged more quickly when negatively emoted and the AI algorithm regularly exploits this. This is why when scrolling, the user might be triggered into argument by an opinion which they are diametrically opposed to. Probably an opinion which was hitherto not so prevalent before it had been enhanced by the AI.
According to Jaron, there have been studies by Facebook scientists themselves which corroborate this so there is a strong argument for believing it. Upon watching the interview, one friend immediately deleted their account and as far as I am aware, never looked back.
Following on from this interview and book, I watched the two Netflix films “The Social Dilemma (2020)” and “The Great Hack (2019)”. The former builds on Jaron’s work and presents it in a user friendly easy to follow documentary film, the latter focuses on the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. The two films complement each other perfectly and they provided the catalyst for my plan to permanently delete my account.
I revisited the pros vs cons list and convinced myself that the cons far outweighed the pros. For all that I didn’t want to sever ties with my 800+ friends on there, I realised that if they wanted to stay in touch then they are perfectly capable of using other means of communication. Facebook Messenger was not the only way to communicate contrary to what others would have you believe.
For music, other members of the bands are still Facebook users so collectively there is still access to the platform should we wish to use it. I wasn’t really feeling the value so much any more anyway. Dawn of Elysium for years had more followers on other platforms. It seemed when trying to chase bookings, promoters did not always choose to use Facebook as a primary vehicle for communication anyway.
I was also becoming increasingly aware and concerned about what was going on in the background in terms of data tracking and harvesting. Big tech companies such as Facebook and Google have trackers on the majority of websites and not only do they track your browsing habits but they build profiles for as many people as they can to sell on to advertising companies. It’s a multi billion dollar industry and it all happens without the user’s knowledge or permission and it is all unregulated. This is literally why these companies are so wealthy and powerful. Much has been and continues to be reported on this subject if you wish to look into it further, it’s enlightening reading.
For me it goes way beyond the “but I don’t mind having things advertised to me that I am interested in” argument. It’s pure and raw capitalism at work. Unsympathetic, unwavering, all consuming. Chewing you up, assimilating your information and spitting out what’s left and it doesn’t care how it does it, as it’s all automated. For all you might receive that advertisement for a pair of shoes that you might like to buy, the manipulation which has occurred in order to get that advert in front of you is ugly. The addiction to the next press of the refresh button to get your next “like” or “dopamine hit” as they call it in the industry, the heartache of arguing with loved ones because the AI has promoted disharmony in order to keep you engaged. How many people around you are glued to their devices? Even the “Off-Facebook Activity” setting is a thing where the app or browser sends information back to Facebook even when you are not using it. If you are unaware of it, then it was enable by default when they implemented it.
So, I began the journey of not only deleting Facebook but also curtailing my Google usage as much as possible, restricting it to YouTube only. My Gmail account has been emptied, replaced with a secure email platform and retained only for legacy emails. I no longer use Google as a search engine. DuckDuckGo is totally privacy conscious and is very similar in terms of results. I ditched Chrome as a browser on my Windows machines and replaced it with Brave, which blocks many trackers by default. I even replaced Safari on my Macs and mobile device with Brave too. Microsoft, although known to be complicit in these tracking activities proved to be less of a problem for me. My Hotmail account had been mothballed to a great extent anyway and with it my Skype account which I never really used. I went through and found accounts associate with the Gmail and Hotmail addresses and changed them to something more secure or deleted where necessary. I also bolstered this by changing my passwords and using a secure password manager called Bitwarden – highly recommended.
I happened upon a company called Techlore who have an online course called “Go Incognito”. Contrary to what the title implies, it’s not a tin foil hat thing, nor is it a strict anonymity thing, although that is covered. It’s a really good in depth course which educates about data privacy, security and anonymity and I would recommend any user of a computer or mobile device go and watch it. It’s not patronising or preachy but it is informative even to those of us who consider ourselves experienced IT users. I have been proficient in the use of computers for many years, I have technical qualifications and I learned a lot. There is a free version on YouTube which covers everything and it’s in bite size, easy to follow sessions. I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
I probably have some way to go but I have taken control of my digital life to a large degree. The people who have wanted to keep in touch have done and my communications have been better quality and more substantial. My head is so much more clear. I am not sure the average person has the capacity to keep in constant engagement with 800+ people in any meaningful way. I do catch wind of what’s being posted amongst friends from time to time and the nice thing is, that is from talking to people and having real conversation.
In terms of social media, I still maintain Twitter accounts for the bands and have a low key one for personal browsing and keeping in touch with a few friends on there. I don’t post that much and I definitely find it less invasive and much more benign. I do see people engaging in heated discussion and sternly putting across an opinion with the compulsion to be right but I try not to get involved. Twitter is much less personal in that regard. It’s easy to scroll on by and ignore things and the useful and fun information on the feeds I follow make it worthwhile.
So, this is my journey. I hope this post has been of some use to someone. I’m not sure how many people actually follow this blog as this will be the first time it hasn’t been directly shared with a ton of Facebook users but here it is all the same. Feel free to share it if you wish. I know I have some friends who are skeptical, think I’m mad, are steadfastly closed to different ideas or in denial themselves about various things. It’s up to the individual how they live their digital lives. All I can do is share my experiences and encourage people to at least give the information presented a chance.