Why I Will Never Delete my Facebook Account.
An open letter.
I have been using facebook for almost 10 years now. I have posted an enormous amount of pictures, memories, and jokes. I have discovered new things, befriended hundreds of people and became a part of dozens of communities.
Like most people in the western world, I personally know many people who have built great facebook communities, and some who even managed to make a living from creating real-life experiences on the platform.
There are countless people who have landed their dream job through browsing their facebook startup communities, and plenty of migrants (including myself) that have a way of finding context and support in their new country, not to mention the platform’s positive impact to global events such as the Arab Spring.
It’s easy to list ways in which facebook made the world a better place, but there are a number of hidden costs that clearly outweigh their counterpart.
I have been using facebook for almost 10 years now. I have scrolled up and down my own timeline and that of others for hundreds of hours and created a ton of memes, none of which survived in my memory. I have been outraged by many posts, I have created outrage in others and I have given my attention to at least 18,250 notifications¹.
Everyday when I ride the bus back home I purposely stand up and — yes, creepily — look at what people do on their phones. Five times out of ten, the little blue letter “ f ” dominates on top of the screens, while the users thumbs swipe up and down in search of a dopamine boost² (three times out of ten I see the instagram layout, the remaining two are “other apps”). Not to mention the platform’s negative impact on global events such as the latest US election, and the spread of fake news. The latest Cambridge Analytica scandal only adds to this list.
We live in an attention economy, where the currency is our time. As former Google employee Tristan Harris puts it in his conversation with Sam Harris, tech companies fight for our time. If a strategy becomes a winner for grasping more of your attention, you can be assured other companies will follow³.
What resonates the most in my head is the research by the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. In her TED talk she explains how the facebook algorithm maximises for clicks, but it doesn’t take into account who is going to be clicking and why: “What if the system that we do not understand was picking up that it’s easier to sell Vegas tickets to people who are bipolar and about to enter the manic phase”.
Last but not least — yes, paranoidly — I am creeped out by what would happen if I died today, leaving behind a virtual place where my dear ones would hold onto an image of me that is nothing but a collection of signals, transforming me into a true digital ghost.
So, why not?
As I realised all this, for the past 12 months I have rarely logged into facebook and if I did it was only to check whether friends or family wrote to me or to check for updates in two of the communities that I can’t reach otherwise.
So why, you’d ask yourself, am I not going to delete my facebook account? Well, because if the goal of doing so is to protest and create awareness, simply deleting myself would be parochial⁴.
What hurts me the most about this whole thing is how few people are aware about the issue out of this echo chamber. It hurts to see my family and friends scrolling up and down for that dopamine hit. It hurts to know that the same happens to the majority of the people I know. Simply deleting my account would only benefit me. Creating awareness will hopefully do more good than solely deleting my account.
Not deleting the account is also a sign of hope. Hope that creating awareness will push for better systems and that one day in the near future, I will be able to log back into facebook to find a platform that will empower rather than enslave. Until that day comes, here is what I am going to do.
3 steps action plan.
- By my birthday (being the most likely day people will visit my profile) I will have deleted my pictures and content.
- On my birthday, I will post a link to this open letter, together with my email to keep in touch.
- I will automate this article to be published monthly.
Facebook is not alone, as many other businesses are broken. As mentioned, youtube’s autoplay button will not give you a break and suck up your time like nothing else and it will radicalise your taste. Some associations such as the Center for Humane technology have started taking action to fix this, and the wave of dis-adopters leaves me hopeful to see future platforms getting fixed.
¹ At a conservative rate of 5 notifications per day for 10 years.
² Dopamine is the hormone involved, amongst other things, in seeking short term pleasure. A brief summary can be found in Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s lectures, for a deeper understanding I recommend his great read Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers.
³ For example, if youtube discovers that by autoplaying the next video it’s going to double the time spent on the platform, copycats will spread.
⁴ By this I don’t mean to criticise whoever has deleted their profile. My wife (an early dis-adopter) has deleted her account months back — with some unbelievable reactions of some her “friends” who ended up trolling her for the announcement.