Deleting Facebook is a Privilege. You Should Do It Anyway.
#deletefacebook is trending.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal that is currently making headlines, many Facebook users appear to have decided enough is enough. Should you join them?
Full disclosure: I made the decision to deactivate my account back in December, prior to the Cambridge Analytica scandal; so if you ask me, heck yes you should get off Facebook! But for many, breaking up with Facebook has become nearly unthinkable, and critics of the hashtag argue that the ability to #deletefacebook is itself a form of privilege.
Deleting Facebook is a Form of Privilege
For many vulnerable and marginalized people, Facebook is one of the only ways to be in community with others who offer meaningful social and emotional support. Think of the closeted gay kid in rural America or the person with disabilities who has a tough time getting out of the house. Then think beyond the borders of the U.S. Those who live in areas where Facebook effectively is the internet rely on it for timely local news. An ex-pat friend of mine who lives in Costa Rica constantly reminds me that she needs to stay on Facebook because it’s the most reliable way to be informed of incoming tropical storms or hurricanes. According to Zeynep Tufekci, in many countries “some employers and landlords demand to see Facebook profiles, and there are increasingly vast swaths of public and civic life — from volunteer groups to political campaigns to marches and protests — that are accessible or organized only via Facebook.”
Tufekci is a frequent critic of Facebook and writes regular columns for the New York Times. (I highly recommend that you read all of her stuff.) Her TED talk on the horrors of Facebook’s ad-based business model played a decisive role in my own decision to log off at the end of last year.
Facebook’s Biggest Critic Won’t Delete Her Account
So I was truly shocked to learn that even Tufekci refuses to accept “logging off” Facebook as a meaningful possibility. She has good reasons for her position. As she points out, deleting your Facebook account won’t magically release you from being surveilled by Zuck: “even if you are not on Facebook, the company may well have compiled a profile of you, inferred from data provided by your friends or from other data. This is an involuntary dossier from which you cannot opt out in the United States.”
Tufekci reliably (and rightly, in my opinion) presses the point that these are systemic issues and must be addressed at the level of the system. Deleting your Facebook account won’t help pass legislation protecting your personal data, won’t result in a meaningful fine against the company for their permissive privacy policies and lax enforcement, and won’t impede their ability to sell your already-collected data (in my case, 10 years’ worth of “likes,” photos, and posts) to third parties.
Let me grant the point that we have a larger battle to fight to protect our right to privacy and force tech companies to start treating our personal data with the care it deserves. I also grant that for many people, leaving Facebook just won’t be a viable option for a variety of reasons.
But if you have the privilege to delete your Facebook account, you should absolutely do it.
Vote with your feet
Firstly, there is a long tradition of “voting with your wallet” and boycotting consumer products to protest a company’s bad conduct. I know, I know — you don’t actually have to open your wallet in order to use Facebook; it’s “free.” But as the Cambridge Analytica scandal clearly demonstrates, the personal data that you give up to Facebook merely by using the platform is immensely valuable. Yes, they’ve already got a ton of data on you. But you don’t have to give them any more. Deleting your account sends a clear signal to Facebook that their way of doing business has to change, or people will vote with their feet.
Improve your mental health
Secondly, deleting Facebook is healthy for you as an individual. Back in January, Zuckerburg himself admitted that the platform has a negative impact on its users and announced changes to the algorithm in an effort to combat the effect. Don’t hold out much hope that the changes to the algorithm represent a real solution, because the experience of six countries shows it’s only going to reinforce echo chambers and exacerbate “fake news.”
Let every flower bloom
Thirdly, by getting off Facebook, we give ourselves the opportunity to go elsewhere to find online community. Did you know Facebook is killing comedy? Communities that formerly convened by direct traffic to websites and forums have been bled dry and had to fold up shop because Facebook poached all their visitors. (On a personal note, this also happened to the worldwide community of swing dancers. Bring back the Yehoodi forum! Long live Balboa Nation!)
Reclaim your friendships
And finally, you should delete Facebook because you have the power to reject the paradigm it represents. Being on Facebook contributes to an impoverishment of interpersonal relationships. It undermines and distorts real friendships by inserting itself as a mediator between you and your friends.
“Kids these days” actually spend less time with their friends because of social media, even if they’re on Instagram or Whatsapp rather than Facebook. 12th-graders in 2015 went out to see their friends less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009. These socially-mediated friendships are clearly no substitute for face to face interactions, either — teenagers’ rates of depression and suicide risk increase the more time they spend on screens.
It’s not just teens that are suffering from having their social lives dictated by social media. The quality of our friendships has meaningfully declined because we manage them through Facebook.
Though it’s easy to forget, you don’t have to passively keep up with every friend you’ve ever had. In prior decades, most old friendships eventually faded away. We were maybe a little sad, but we were ultimately fine with it. We went to high school reunions and found out what everyone had been up to for the past 5 or 10 or 50 years. Yes, we can keep up with our elementary school best friends and our former babysitters and our old co-workers. But should we? I think the answer is no.
Research shows that human beings can only really keep up with about 150 friends. (It’s called Dunbar’s Number.) Facebook encourages you to attempt the super-human and maintain hundreds, sometimes thousands of “friendships” that otherwise wouldn’t last. And while we may fear allowing certain relationships to fade away, doing so gives us more time to invest in those we care about most. In my experience, making the time and effort to keep up with friends outside of social media produces a far more rewarding — and more human — form of friendship.
So go ahead — #deletefacebook.
And if you’re not up to full-on deleting your account, maybe you could just deactivate it for a couple months and see how you feel.
I think in the end you’ll be glad you did.