February 13, 2019

Letting Go of Facebook

On distancing myself from predatory technology.

As my close friends know, I’ve spent the beginning of this year grappling with grief. It bears little resemblance to what I thought grief meant—despair, anger, regret.

Grief is not malicious but it is insidious. It permeates.

An unexpected consequence of this immersion in grief has been a sort of detachment from the day-to-day. I’m watching my life from the outside as my body continues to go through the motions. I’m seeing some things I don’t like, and if there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that I’m finding myself able to direct more attention to addressing those problems.

One such problem is that I’ve been falling victim to a set of false expectations and misplaced idealism when it comes to online platforms.

It can be unsettling to put deliberate distance between yourself and the technology of the day, but I believe the time for boundless optimism has passed. This is a difficult admission to make as a technologist and early adopter. It’s time to be more critical of the technology we invite into our lives and our homes. The love of technology is an unrequited one, after all.

As Jesse Weaver recently put it:

Today, each new device we purchase is a conscious decision to share an intimate piece of ourselves with a company whose goals may not align with our own. This exchange represents a fundamental shift in our relationship with technology and the companies that produce it. Adoption is no longer an ephemeral transaction of money for goods. It’s a permanent choice of personal exposure for convenience.

I’m making some changes to my online footprint, but I believe my role remains the same: to help others navigate the reality of modern technology and find healthy ways to include or exclude it from daily life.

It starts with Facebook, a company whose ongoing actions make very clear that their goals do not align with my own.

I’m Leaving Facebook—All Of It—Behind

For a long time now, my relationship with Facebook has been an unhappy one. I don’t use its feed, I prefer not to use its Messenger, and I feel like its Groups and Events provide too little value for the cost in privacy that a presence on their platform demands.

In truth, I could have given those up more easily had Facebook not also become the steward of Instagram. But leaving one without leaving the other isn’t just pointless from a privacy perspective, it also feels like delaying the inevitable drop of the other shoe. The ghosts that haunt Facebook have already possessed Instagram too, and they’ll leech its lifeblood just as readily.

A couple of years ago, I would have argued that Instagram is among the last bastions of pleasantness in social media. In many ways, it remains so today—the atmosphere is still mostly enjoyable. A focus on visuals makes it easier to maintain a sunny disposition, I suppose.

But over the past few months, I’ve had a more and more difficult time posting on Instagram. I keep ignoring my reminder to put something up. It’s taken me a while, but I think it’s time to admit that the experience isn’t what it used to be. Recent reflection has helped me understand the hidden costs of participation that were contributing to my subconscious hesitation.

There’s a different sort of toxicity there, and it has to do with the increasing theatricality of the feed.

Aspirational artifice is the name of the game on the Instagram of 2019. Scrolling the feed is like wandering through a maze of motivational posters, humblebrags, and weirdly distorted perspectives on the people we choose to follow.

Authenticity is a personal choice, but you can’t escape the fact that the product itself is built around encouraging and monetizing the small dopamine cascade of engagement”. I fell for this, tagging and building up a decent audience on Instagram over the last few years.

I’ve now stopped and asked myself why.

Engagement feels nice, sure, but if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit I gain nothing from it; the collection of internet points is a surprisingly hollow affair. It hasn’t brought me more work, or friends, or even conversations. The only Instagram DMs I get are from spam accounts.

And what if I succeed? Really make it on the platform? I’ve been reviewing products for a long time, but I make a terrible capital-I Influencer. I refuse many partnerships” and only recommend products I use and like over time. My loyalty is to you, not the goblins of consumerist modernity.

Instagram’s feed is morphing, slowly but deliberately, into another mood manipulating platform for advertisers rather than users. You can tell it’s not for us because we aren’t asked to pay for it…except in data. Making that choice deliberately is fine, especially if you do get something positive out of it, but I don’t.

And I’m beginning to worry very deeply about transacting in data. There are no refunds for that particular currency.

Still, leaving Instagram hurts. I see a lot of beautiful images, particularly from my close friends and photographers whose work I admire.

That’s why I think my account will remain active, just non-participatory for now. One step at a time.

But my Facebook account will be deactivated very shortly.

No More

There’s a bigger discussion here, one that transcends a single social media empire.

Jesse again:

Today, the digital products we use demand so much of us, and intrude so deeply into our daily existence that they undermine our confidence and make it harder and harder for us to control our lives. Our data and activity are mined and used with no compensation or transparency. Our focus is crippled by constant notifications. Our choices are actively reduced by algorithms that decide what we should see. In the worst of it, we can’t even set our devices down because we’ve lost our ability to resist them.

I recognize myself in too many of these descriptions, and I’d like to be more active about managing the impact of technology on my attention, productivity, and wellbeing by not taking for granted the usual assumptions.

Working in marketing will make it clear very quickly how often product design is about inventing problems so you can sell a solution to them.

Legitimate problems exist, and technology remains equipped to solve them in remarkable and exciting ways (I’m eager to write about my new Casper Glow lights soon), but not always and not with such urgency that we should trust new solutions uncritically.

I will remain excited by and deeply involved in technology, but I intend to be more careful about which companies I trust and how I spend my time online.

I have more to say about all this, but this is already a long post and I need to go outside to enjoy the snowstorm blowing through the city.

digital lifestyle

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