Escaping Facebook

Thousands of stories of ‘leaving Facebook’ have been written by now, but this time it’s different: I really left Facebook. My profile, all of my photos, messages, pages and whatever else, along with a decade of digital noise, is gone for good.

I think we’ve all fantasized about leaving Facebook in some capacity, be it by just suddenly doing it one day, or just by never logging in again, but few of us ever really do. Facebook’s reach is everywhere, and there’s always a reason not to delete it: my friends are there, family, memories, events, messages, whatever it is. There’s always a reason to not delete it, if you think hard enough.

Facebook extends beyond just a social network because it knows that it’d be easier to delete your profile otherwise, and so has become ever pervasive in our lives, from events to marketplace, for a reason: to solidify the habit.

Even deleting your account is famously difficult, with Facebook trying everything from using your friends’ faces to beg you to stick around, to moving the ‘delete’ button around.

I had considered deleting my profile repeatedly, and never followed through, yet wasn’t sure why I had Facebook in the first place. What purpose did it serve, other than passively consuming content from people I barely spoke to? I don’t know why, but any time I thought about leaving, it felt like I was giving up my friends, or any semblance of social life, too. I just never did it.

GDPR, however, presented an interesting opportunity that arrived as a smack in the face: accept our terms, or leave Facebook, and we’ll remind you until you do:

The first time I saw the box appear, I had a realization: this is the way out, and I’m just going to let it happen by doing nothing. Facebook had to get me to agree to its new terms or would have to delete my account — by ignoring it, I would eventually just fall off the service.

The game begins

Over the two months leading up to the GDPR deadline of May 25, Facebook began trying as hard as it could to get me to click through its ‘consent’ wizard and either blindly, or accidentally, accept its terms changes.

Facebook’s GDPR wizard was both this weird sincere attempt at trying to explain what it does with your data, then talk you into letting it keep doing it.

Each option, including facial recognition, would let you disable it, but once you did it meant being subjected to a series of steps to confirm that near begged you to reconsider, complete with cute illustrations about how it’s needed to do useful things. I get it, most users are probably blindly tapping yes, or tapping no just because it seems creepy. Not all ad tech is bad, but hey, Facebook has motivation to try and convince you that you should be advertised to, given the majority of its revenue is derived from targeted advertising.

The first time I saw this popup, I began dismissing it multiple times per week until it simply couldn’t be blocked anymore, both as a way to defer actually choosing if I would be deleting the social network, as well as a way to see if they’d actually follow through on threats to block me if I didn’t click accept by the deadline.

What ensued was an ever-escalating series of begs, trickery and other weirdness that left me surprised I somehow didn’t accidentally hit OK on, even though the goal posts kept moving. At one point, the buttons either changed color or position on a daily basis.

Over that time I saw notifications, messages glued to my Newsfeed, popovers and whatever else, but continued to decline. The messages that appeared seemed to escalate in their threatening tone, with later ones prodding that I’d be deleted if I refused to agree. OK, sounds good!

As time went on, I just became more sure of my decision. If Facebook has to go to these lengths to get me to stay, and I’m still saying no, why am I here?

The deadline arrives

May 25th arrived with a bang and I’d still not accepted, so I figured it was basically over at this point. Turns out, Facebook’s own popover started conveniently breaking on the day it should have complied with GDPR! It was still possible to both exit out of it, and just reload the page to get rid of it.

At this point, I half figured that I’d beaten the system, and that they weren’t going to delete me. The opposite was true, about a week after the deadline passed: it got more aggressive, presumably to begin with its compliance, and started presenting full-page prompts that required work — visiting the Settings page, then my Newsfeed — to get around before it could be used.

I kept habitually checking my feed, without even realizing it, despite my own looming intent to delete it. I figured I should just do it, but I was so morbidly curious how far they’d be willing to go before actually disposing of my profile.

After six weeks of constantly dismissing GDPR popups and “we’ll delete you” warnings later, it hit me: I just don’t need Facebook, and don’t want it anymore — Facebook the company isn’t even really Facebook the product anymore, which definitely seems to be Instagram and Messenger, with the core product left to die. Facebook’s product is a shell of itself, and it exists on growth hacking alone to keep it alive.

Shortly after this Facebook started blocking me on desktop entirely, with no way around the blockade. Instead, it began including a lovely fake flat image of a notification that definitely didn’t exist, in order to try and get me to accept the terms to see who had messaged me.

I can say for sure that notification didn’t exist, because I still had access on mobile — so it was trying to fool me into accepting, under the pretense of messages from friends. That’s one hell of a dark UX pattern that Facebook’s designers should be ashamed of, but it’ll get away with forever as users keep slamming ‘OK’ to whatever to get their dopamine fix.

When I saw this screen, I decided it was time, and that there was no way I wanted my profile back. I’d delete for sure, and wouldn’t bother getting around it, especially with a data export now in hand.

By the first week of June the block was omnipresent, across all of the core ‘Facebook’ services, including Messenger, all featuring the same message: Accept now, or you can’t proceed. I chose delete, and I’m not even joking, the deletion feature was broken — convenient.

A few days, and attempts, later, the delete button worked, and I was unceremoniously erased. I assume it isn’t instant, but I haven’t logged back in at all, I’ve disappeared from my friends’ profiles, and the emails about notifications have ceased. It almost felt like I didn’t exist all of a sudden, while simultaneously just feeling free.

Don’t say it’s easy

Facebook, in my mind, isn’t inherently evil, it’s just… not natural to interact on the 2 billion-ish people scale we’re trying to make work, and it doesn’t care. This is a company that’s unwilling, or at least unable, to manage its own platform until forced to, and uses its own user base as human guinea pigs to poke, prod and push us around to make a few bucks. or see how far we’re willing to go to get another dopamine hit.

To get there, it’s willing to play your friends’ emotions off you, and tries to lock you into this sense that you don’t exist if you aren’t on Facebook. Everything and nothing is happening on Facebook, so you better be a part of it or risk losing your friends! It’s a miserable existence, and we’re digital cattle.

I think I deferred deleting Facebook for longer than I should have because of a false sense of connection to home it gave me; living overseas and keeping up with things back home in New Zealand is hard at the best of times. The reality, however, is that I wasn’t keeping up, and just scrolled my Newsfeed to feel like I was, without actually talking to any of them.

Even Facebook knows that its core product — Facebook —is no longer relevant, and the brand has moved beyond the bounds of that big blue website as fast as possible. We’re all sitting there on our News Feeds, scrolling, clicking little red bubbles, refreshing, and doing nothing. It knows that, and it’s running toward new business models instead; it makes sense that the company has an intense, renewed focus on Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, the stories format and anything else that sticks, because it needs it to work.

It’s easier said than done to delete your account, and the emotional journey you have to go on to get there is weird, because society, by default, just now assumes you have Facebook. Leaving isn’t something people do, and if you’re not on it, you’re subjected to explaining why even though we all know why: none of us really want to use it, but we all do anyway, justified by whatever excuse we’ve told ourselves to avoid deleting it.