The Ones Who Walk Away from Facebook

TL;DR: I have started a long-term project to substantially reduce my use of Facebook and increase my engagement with friends elsewhere, rather than outright quitting. I am interested to know where others are with this.

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas)

This post is motivated by a few things:

  • the sheer scale of the disaster-waiting-to-happen that Facebook now represents1 and the resulting surge in the number of people considering quitting Facebook;
  • the frequent tendency of people to rage-quit Facebook only to quietly reappear a few weeks later having achieved very little, in a manner loosely analogous to an addict attempting to go cold turkey without a plan or support2; and
  • Ben Freeland’s remarkable positioning of Omelas as “one of the most perfectly articulated allegories for addiction and recovery” ever3.

I particularly want to draw attention to walking away in preference to rage-quitting, the idea that what is required is a deliberate, gently paced, persistent process — possibly a lifelong one — rather than an event; more the tortoise than the hare. If true then it’s a critically important distinction because the work involved in a lengthy process requires far greater personal application and support than does the work required for one of the rare worthwhile outcomes which can be achieved in a moment of rage4.

I see this playing out on two fronts:

  • Reduction in (or elimination of) use of Facebook.
  • Expansion in use (or creation) of other means of engagement.

Reduction in use of Facebook

This is the bit that the rage-quitters have correctly identified as important, even if most haven’t thought through how to do it. I have no immediate plan to cease using Facebook at all5, but there is scope to drastically reduce my use of it:

  • That I connect6 with hundreds of people there exclusively and lack the means to encourage more than a tiny fraction of that particular set to move elsewhere is a concrete fact in my environment. No amount of displeasure on my part can change this fact. It does point to a reason to encourage and assist those who are amenable to change to do so of course, but cutting off my nose to spite my face does not make sense.
  • On my notebook, I generally only use Facebook at home anyway; dropping that to Saturday morning catch-up activity is easy enough.
  • On my phone, I generally only have the Facebook app installed when travelling in order to share photos, or during major events7 when I have reason to have every available inbound communication channel open. I expect to continue the latter, but suspect that I’ll find better ways to share photos when travelling.
  • I’ve had Messenger on my phone consistently since it was separated from the Facebook app. I suspect that all of the individual communication there could readily move to Signal or weekend catch-ups, and the group chats that I’m part of there could be dealt with as a Saturday morning catch-up activity.
  • Most individual communication on WhatsApp could likewise readily move to Signal, however I’m part of multiple group chats there, several of which are frequently relevant on a short-latency basis (seconds to hours, not weekend-only) and will be difficult to move in the short term.
  • I still have Facebook Login set up for a dozen third party sites. Needless to say I no longer use most of them anyway, however the ones that are still in use can readily be switched to username+password authentication instead and “Apps, websites and games” turned off.
  • Unintentional “use” where third-party sites have embedded Facebook components for various reasons can be largely eliminated by the use of Facebook Container.
  • I was going to point out that it would be wise to disable the Apps Others Use options in Facebook settings, these being what gave rise to the CA breach in the first place, however they appear to have been removed from Facebook in the last couple of weeks8.

Expansion in use of other means of engagement

Signal

I’ve mentioned Signal a couple of times above. I was very slow to install this and still have reservations about it, but it is a very good approximation of how I think a chat system should work and the remaining rough edges are in some very hard to solve problems, particularly around discovery.

Email

Email remains the original social network on the Internet. While most of it has ended up in the hands of Google and Microsoft, it stands as one of the most widely used federated messaging systems ever created. An email server can be stood up at will at any time by anyone who takes the (considerable) time required to learn the relevant technical skills and is willing to incur some modest connectivity costs and operations time (granted, the latter is a constraint). I still do this for my own email to this day, and fully intend to continue. It is necessary to sign-up with a registrar somewhere to register a domain name of course, however that is a large, competitive market at present, and it likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

The mode of interaction that Facebook has centred much of its activity (sharing something on a timeline, having a discussion with friends about it) is a specialised variant of something between blogging/commenting and mailing list activity, much of which has moved to Facebook over the last decade. I don’t expect to move all of it back, but do wonder two things:

  • how much of it can be gently moved back; and
  • whether an interaction comparable to that on Facebook’s timeline can be implemented as an adjunct to email in much the same sense that calendaring already is; that is: specific message/attachment types that carry the interaction content (much as for calendar invitations now) and a separate UI to perform the interaction, (something like the separate calendar UI sometimes in use now).

Diaspora, IndieWeb (including blogging)

Two other approaches that I’m aware of and have not yet looked deeply into — but now will — are:

  • Diaspora I dislike this approach for a number of reasons, partly that it’s ugly as sin, but particularly that it maintains the user/administrator separation and therefore invites much the same problem as currently exists with email: for the most part you can only use it by becoming a client of someone else (in the dependent sense, as they own part of your identifier), unless you have the technical skills and time to run your own. I dream of a system that does not require application-level administration at all (non-differentiating heavy-lifting opportunistically outsourced to a cloud IaaS/PaaS-provider, certainly), but it doesn’t exist yet. Diaspora has the great virtue of already existing. As with email, I’ll run my own, at least to experiment.
  • IndieWeb This is appealing as a rational, incremental move to a more independent existence, and of reviving various things that have withered on the open web (e.g. blogging, as for this post!). Over the last couple of years, that movement has developed from some broad ideas to a set of recipes that are ready for immediate use.

Prognosis

My walking away has already begun with various of the items above and the creation of Panprivicon over the Easter weekend. A personal Diaspora pod will follow shortly — hopefully this month — and various IndieWeb pieces over the next couple of months.

I’m definitely interested to hear how friends are thinking/acting on this.


1: The CA breach and the apparent impact on the 2016 Brexit vote and US Presidential election are by no means the limit of what could go wrong.

2: I do not mean to suggest that quitting without a plan and support is never a viable strategy, just that it has an unusually poor likelihood of success.

3: Sadly it was published just a couple of weeks after her death. Her view of this interpretation would no doubt have been interesting, particularly given the pivotal sentence that most commentators (including Freeland) overlook: “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (emphasis added). Le Guin appears to be at least hinting at moral cowardice on the part of the ones who walk away and moral courage on the part of those who stay, rather than the other way around.

4: generally: escape from an immediately life-threatening situation

5: Not going cold turkey at all; appropriate choice or delusion? I can’t tell yet…

6: arrange events, accept invitations, exchange messages, occasionally share and discuss on timelines

7: notably the FOSSASIA Summit

8: I turned them off immediately when they were announced several years ago, but it occurred to me to check them when the Christopher Wylie story became public on March 17. They were definitely still there and turned off in my case at that time.


Facebook logo CC-BY-SA Marc choisnard

‘Walk’ icon CC-BY Yeoul Kwon