Pragmatically Quitting Facebook (or, How to Constrain The Facebook Sugar Beast)

CC BY-NC 2.0 Image Credit: Sam Michel / Flickr.com

I’m Andre Vrignaud, a Seattleite who, perhaps like you, has had concerns about being a user of Facebook. I find myself addicted to the product, itching to tap that little white “F” in the pretty blue box over and over again during the day. I want to… and I don’t. I don’t because I am completely fed up with the company.

There are many reasons to be fed up with Facebook. Here’s one summary, from an end-of-year article by Brian X. Chen of the New York Times:
 “The social network admitted that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, had improperly gained access to the data of millions. Later, the company confessed that a security breach had exposed the data of 30 million accounts. This month, a New York Times investigation revealed that Facebook gave tech giants like Netflix and Spotify special access to user data, including private messages.

Am I one of the 30 million? Are you? Is some account manager at Netflix or Spotify reading my private messages to my friends and family? Who knows… or can tell? But sadly, it goes much deeper than this… like omnipresent tracking and collection of your personal information. Deliberate design decisions that make it effectively impossible to understand or manage your privacy (or even easily log out!) Massive investments in improving “engagement,” making Facebook a literal addiction machine (a key driver of surveillance capitalism.) Enabling the spread of “fake news” and likely having an influence on voters. And to wrap it up with a bow, a continued pattern of Facebook executives denying, delaying, and obfuscating (AKA lying about) the negative impacts of their product.

But quitting isn’t all that simple. I can’t forget all those great features I’ve found valuable in the past, like surfacing an old photo of a beloved pet, or keeping up to date on the occasional event of interest. The lack of any viable competitor with parallel features has kept me on the service for years. But the recent events above finally tipped the scale, and I decided to do something about it. Specifically, I wanted to explore what features of Facebook were truly important to my life, and whether I could find pragmatic ways to constrain and control Facebook and make it work for me (and not vice versa.)

To start, I quit Facebook for a month (December 2018). Here is what I found, as a mixture of “good and bad features” and technical implementations that annoyed me.

The Good (or what I missed):

  • Content Feed with friends. Facebook does offer a platform (for better or worse) to see content updates about things your friends value — and depending on how well you manage your own personal definition of “friends,” that content can be enjoyable.
  • Serendipitous memories. The occasional picture or video of a fond memory being resurfaced after a few years — as well as (re)sharing that with friends.
  • Facebook Groups. A forum for diverse interest groups to engage with each other.
  • Surfacing events of interest. Occasional events of interest are surfaced that I might not have seen otherwise.

The Bad:

  • Shallow “social” engagement. Birthday reminders and +1 Thumbs ups on random posts do not social discourse (or meaningful engagement) make.
  • Creepily Targeted ads. Omnipresent stalker ads, improved by sharing personal details between corporations of course.
  • Almost impossible to log out. Facebook is deliberately designed get you to log in using Facebook accounts across as many devices and sites as possible, and then keep you logged in so as to collect your personal data and activities. The rabbit hole goes deep here, but elements of this can be seen in efforts to get users to sign in to non-Facebook sites using Facebook accounts as well as how difficult it is to find where to “Sign Out” of Facebook (especially on mobile apps).
  • Facebook is not just Facebook. Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and built Messenger. Being logged into any of these apps (as well as other websites using a Facebook account) means Facebook can continue to track and surveille you — especially on mobile devices.
  • Facebook does not respect the average Internet user. By this I mean that Facebook locks features behind its walls, and requires you to have an account to use. Who else has missed an event because it was sent out via a Facebook calendar invite? Or wished that they could add a Facebook Calendar event to their “real” calendar easily? Or has been blocked from viewing an article link because the share was via Facebook? These are features deliberately and cynically not offered by Facebook in order to try and drive growth and engagement on the platform.
  • Quitting Facebook involves unwinding many, deep, and irritating tendrils.

These include:

  • Logging out from all Facebook websites and mobile applications.
  • Deleting all Facebook apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. The last one is pretty critical, as even if you’re completely logged out of Facebook you’ll suddenly find “helpful” reminders in your email when people message you in Messenger.
  • Unlinking Facebook accounts from your mobile device OS settings.
  • Logging out from non-Facebook websites where you might have used a Facebook account for easy login (and resetting your login to personal ID or email).
  • Unsubscribing from Facebook “reminder” mails about “things you might have missed.”

Ugh.

A purist view might be to completely delete Facebook, and throw out the good with the bad. As of the beginning of 2019, I’m not quite there yet. I can squint and still see some value in what Facebook offers, not to mention the fact that I still have many friends on the network. So… what’s the pragmatic path forward? Is there a way to enjoy the benefits — while minimizing the risks — of using Facebook?

After much thought and research, I believe there is a path. Below is a guide to using Facebook on your terms, not theirs. These steps enable the positive features of the network, while also implementing privacy-centric elements that the company certainly dislikes. So bonus there.

The Pragmatic Facebook User Guide (bullet point edition):

  • Delete all of your Facebook or Facebook-owned applications from your mobile devices. This includes Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. It is basically impossible to use Facebook (or Facebook-owned applications) on mobile without your usage and personal data being tracked and collected. This also helps with countering the “I have a minute let me check Facebook” addiction. Also unlink your Facebook account from your mobile OS device linking settings.
  • Go through your friends, and delete anyone you haven’t had a meaningful relationship with in the last year. Yes, that means delete ex-girlfriends, old co-workers from two jobs ago, the random high school acquaintance who connected after a reunion. Anyone who posts random nonsense clutter that you quickly scroll by anyway. Get your list down to people you actually care about, so the signal to noise ratio improves when you do log in (see next point). A good rule of thumb I use is that I stay connected with people who I can imagine having to my house for dinner.
  • Set a weekly or monthly check in schedule. One of the key reasons to go through your existing friends and limit to people of actual importance to you is that your feed will also have far less junk content on it — the sorts of things you just scroll by today. That in turn makes it easy to set a Facebook check-in schedule (perhaps even set a recurring calendar event to remind you!) And since you don’t have the mobile app installed, you also remove the “fear of missing out” urge to just jump onto Facebook during random down times during the day.
  • Only use Facebook from a desktop computer or laptop, and never mobile devices. Facebook is incredibly good at tracking your activities across all of your devices. It is basically impossible for the average user to block tracking via native mobile applications. However, you do have some protections available when using a PC (see next point.)
  • When using Facebook from your PC or laptop, use browser add-ons that block Facebook from tracking you. Mozilla’s Firefox has an extension called Facebook Containers that makes it much harder for Facebook to track you across the web when outside of Facebook; sadly Google’s Chrome browser does not offer a similar solution, but you can approximate it with the uBlock Origin add-on, using Fanboy’s Anti-Thirdparty Social list. (Note: will break Facebook comments on some sites, as well as some Facebook apps or games.)
  • Never use Facebook login on any third-party websites. Facebook asks companies to offer Facebook login as an option to make it easier for Facebook to be better able to track and correlate your usage data across non-Facebook websites. Every one of these companies offers the ability to create a personal (usually email-based) login. So pragmatically, as you continue your day-to-day use of the web, be sure to log out of sites that you might have used Facebook accounts to log into, and create replacement personal logins for those.
  • Clear your browser cache and cookies on every PC you use. This removes any tracking cookies Facebook might have placed by your use of their or other third-party sites earlier.
  • Refuse Facebook Calendar invites. Ask people to email you a traditional calendar invite, or use a third-party service such as Evite (which offers calendar sync options).
  • Consider Reddit as a Facebook Feed and Groups replacement. I missed being able to scroll a news feed of items of interest, as well as interact with people with similar interests. Reddit is a perfect solution, especially if viewed through a quality Reddit viewing app like Apollo. You can subscribe to topics of interest, browse the top items from your personal subscriptions or the world at large. And frankly, I found that the vast majority of interesting content I ever found on Facebook had been originally sourced from Reddit anyways. Bonus: viewing Reddit through Apollo removes ads (and even the few ads on Reddit on a desktop PC can be removed with an adblocker — but to be honest, they’re pretty unobtrusive anyway.)

Bonus suggestion: Consider trying Mastadon, a decentralized open source social network. Although my current plan is to follow the above steps and check into Facebook 1–2x a month on my terms, I plan to explore whether it makes sense to create a Mastadon instance for friends and family in the future.

Following these steps has turned Facebook from a negative presence in my life to a semi-positive one. I still don’t trust the company in the slightest, and resent the extra effort I have to take to find a way to constrain the darker aspects of the product. But it’s a start.

Bonus “Let’s Make Facebook Better” Wrap up:

My hope is that Facebook wakes up before it’s too late, and makes a genuinely user-centric product. At the end of the day, Facebook is a company offering a service that users find valuable, but at a significant, deliberately obfuscated cost in terms of user privacy and security. During his testimony before Congress on April 10th, 2018, Mark Zuckerberg was completely unable to reconcile — or even directly address — his creation’s “connect the world” mantra with the negative requirements of driving an addiction and surveillance economy for stockholders. In my opinion, Facebook’s inability to address these conflicts of interest, together with the rising privacy and data protection backlash, means it is already on its way to becoming the next America Online.

This doesn’t have to be the future. Here’s a roadmap to a good, socially acceptable Facebook:

The Facebook Becomes an Actual Socially Good Company Guide (bullet point edition):

  • Stop Deflecting and Denying. More and more people are recognizing these attempts at dodging discussing the real issues, as well as the deliberate product decisions that are not for the public’s good. It’s time to own up and have meaningful conversations with public accountability.
  • Facebook has to admit to itself that it has an addiction problem — an addiction to driving “engagement” and hence ad sales. In a perfect world, the company could admit this publicly and move forward, but realistically I don’t know what such an admission would look like for a large, publicly traded corporation.
  • Offer an option for a legitimate subscription model. Ask for $5–10 a month, in return for which Facebook would commit to (and allow external verification of) a lack of ads, tracking, and imposing anything that attempts to drive engagement. Basically, let users who wish not to be tracked use Facebook without the negative consequences. Yes, there’s a likely financial hit here, which is why the company (which is effectively Mark Zuckerberg as decision maker) hasn’t convinced itself to do so yet. And yes, the quality of surfaced content for users may decline — but I’m willing to bet a lot of users would appreciate the option of reducing the creepy accuracy of suggestions but still being able to use the service. Bonus point: this is also an opportunity to pivot the company from a surveillance economy to being a recurring subscription revenue service users actually want to pay for.
  • Respect the user. This means changing privacy settings to be incredibly simple to understand and manage (for those who wish not to pay for a subscription). Offer clear, interactive diagrams showing how and where personal information will be shared or not. Stop continually trying to drag users back into engaging with Facebook. Add a very simple-to-find way to opt out and quit Facebook, including a way to delete all data Facebook has on the user (with external third-party verification).
  • Respect the open internet and stop trying to replace it. Only require logins when necessary, and extend features so they play well with non-Facebook users and the open web. Allowing Facebook users to sync Facebook calendar events with their externally-hosted calendar is a simple example.
  • Hire an Executive + Team focused on driving toward a true, socially good Facebook. You need a senior team internally that reports to both the CEO and board and that can cut through the internal morass of engagement-driven design decisions, and allow a subscription model to flourish, as well as be able to help drive decisions that allow the open web to engage with Facebook in a complementary fashion. And this team needs to be able to communicate openly with the public on recommendations and how Facebook is responding to those.

Note that I don’t mention maintaining a focus on managing “fake news” or social disinformation campaigns in the points above. That’s just the bread and butter work that Facebook needs to nail. Everything above is all about making a massive U-Turn and becoming a company that people want to use and respect.

These aren’t original ideas — and I guarantee you they’ve been discussed within Facebook already. I think there are many users who have a faint and fading dream of a Facebook that can do genuine good, for users, on their terms — and still be a hugely successful business. I hope Mark Zuckerberg and the company are in a place where they can pause and start pivoting openly, without continuing the past history of lies and obfuscation. If not, it’s pretty easy to imagine the company continuing to fade over the next decade, hampered by investigation and regulation, and eventually being replaced by the next big thing. Personally, I’d love for Facebook’s next big thing to simply become a product users trust and love… but that’s up to Mark in the short term (and the regulators in the not too distant future if he continues to dawdle.)