Over the past 12 months I’ve been divesting from platforms and companies that I do not support. I believe it’s important to make conscious choices as a consumer. This becomes especially true when spending time on, and contributing to, free-to-use online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google. Users of these platforms are the direct mechanism through which they make money, without the users, they wouldn’t exist. I want to be sure I use platforms that are compatible with my personal beliefs.
Briefly, and I won’t belabor this, I don’t hold uncommon beliefs, or hold any values that would shock anyone in the western world. Fundamentally, companies, like people, should add value to your life, be honest to you, respect your right to privacy, and not participate in harming others. Companies also bear the burden of providing a healthy work environment for their employees, which is not something a person would normally be responsible for. It’s also important to mention, even if someone were to hold these same values, it’s entirely within their right to ignore them when convenient or necessary. For consenting adults using these platforms while also holding these common values is not inherently incompatible as long as they understand where the lines are drawn. It’s much less clear for children, who may not be able or willing to fully understand the consequences of participating in these platforms.
As of last year I’ve deleted my Facebook account, and found I did not miss the platform all that much. In retrospect, it did not provide much value to me individually. At its best, it just provided a redundant channel to communicate with people who I already connect with using text message and email. At it’s worst, Facebook was a distraction. Functionally, it’s a poor communication channel and social network, as it’s sole purpose is to place ads in front of its customers for as long as possible. Using Facebook to communicate and share with loved ones is like watching a full 24 hours of cable news just to find out what the weather will be. I’ve found that texting, emailing, and calling, is a much more intimate and connective experience than trying to do the same using Facebook — it would be — since you are basically cutting out the middle man.
Apart from the lack of utility, it’s difficult to rationalize the many opaque practices of Facebook-the-business. It is inevitable, given their business model, that they are an inherently dishonest company. Facebook, really, has to tell us to tell two different narratives. Facebook’s public corporate narrative to us, its users communicate that its mission is to connect you with friends, family, and the rest of the world. They’ll say they value privacy, and that they respect every one of their users. Of course, reality is different from corporate messaging. Facebook is a 500 billion dollar marketing company built on top of the greatest data mining platform ever conceived. The result of Facebook’s deeply-entrenched social reach, combined with the industry’s most sophisticated user targeting system in history creates a tool that companies, political campaigns — even governments — can use to literally alter the path of history if they have access to a large enough advertising budget. The company culture wholeheartedly leans into their immense power when selling its ad products to advertisers, in private, while at the same time breathlessly touting their intentions are good and pure, in public.
While I’m sure the reader isn’t learning anything they didn’t already know, and I definitely respect all that Facebook has achieved, all this is to say: Facebook is not compatible with me, personally. Instagram, like WhatsApp, Oculus, Messenger, and many other apps, is owned by Facebook, running on the same servers and sharing data with the same advertising engine. While I’ve always known Instagram was a Facebook property, using it seemed innocuous in comparison to the full blown Facebook experience. For quite a while after it’s acquisition (originally, Instagram was an independent company) the impression (though not the reality) was given that Instagram lived in its own bubble. It had a lot fewer ads, the content was better. The platform’s intent — sharing photos publicly, and following content creators — was clear. The product was sleek and manageable. Over time, the user experience became bloated, but it was still mostly pretty reasonable.
However, as stated at the beginning of this article, I believe it’s important to live a principled life. I can not stomach Facebook-the-business: Instagram is Facebook, and therefore, I have to leave. There are other platforms out there, with fewer downsides, and I’ll be looking for another social photo sharing app in the near future where I can migrate my content to.
Twitter was the harder one for me, which I didn’t expect, but in retrospect makes sense. I joined Twitter in 2008 a couple of years after I moved to San Francisco and started a career “in tech.” Most of the people that I connected with on Twitter were people that I had met in real life at companies I worked at, conferences I went to, friends, friends of friends, and so on. I liked these people, and Twitter was a fun way to connect and share experiences like Apple keynotes, election nights, the Giants winning the world series... It was just a lot of fun. A lot of my online social identity was tied up in my Twitter profile, chronicling my many attempts at wit, friendships new and old, and the raw material too, like when I had to shutter a startup. Twice. Old Twitter was great. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damn good.
Over time Twitter got less great, then worse, and then really bad. As its social reach expanded, people started using it differently, including those who I knew. People seemed to utilize Twitter as a place they could re-enforce their own personal belief system (much as with Facebook). Since this increased engagement, and therefore revenue, Twitter leaned into it. Instead of “Apple Keynote Twitter” as a lighthearted event, it became “Liberal Twitter” and “Conservative Twitter” as long standing community divisions. And in 2015-2016 with the US presidential race, GamerGate, rampant abuse, amongst other issues, Old Twitter abruptly became New Twitter. To me, it felt almost overnight, as if there were no transition at all. Perhaps the Twitter experience itself started to more accurately reflect its more diverse set of users, left entirely to their own devices, with no content moderation, and this unfortunately is just what it looks like. That may be so, but it doesn’t reflect the kind of platform that I would want to invite into the precious minutes of my day to day life, much less spend time contributing content to.
On top of New Twitter’s political and cultural issues, add on the gradual ramp up to what is now an excessive amount of ads, the platform as a whole has completely lost its charm and usefulness. Twitter is no longer a good social network. Even though they aren’t as viciously effective at selling ads as Facebook, it’s obvious that to succeed as a business they have to aspire to be. Their business model inherits all of the same problems described about Facebook above.
So I’ve left Twitter entirely. I exported my data and deleted my account. I’m sure this will leave me vulnerable to impersonation, but that is Twitter’s problem, not mine. For the record, if you’re reading this, I am not and will never be giving away ETH. I still hope to rekindle the days of Old Twitter on a different platform.
Finally, there’s Google. I think Google is one of the more interesting case studies out there in unintended consequences, even compared to Facebook. While Facebook’s utility is obvious: it’s a supposedly better version, and unification, of existing communication methods, Google’s global social relevance seems almost like an accident.
When Google was introduced in 1996, most internet users today were not yet on the internet. The internet had not yet become as vastly powerful as it is today. While it was always obvious to early internet users that as a technology, the internet was going to eat the world, its exact form had yet to take shape. It might have been hard to tell that in the very near future, entire lives would be lived out online — in fact, that the internet would become an entirely irreplaceable part of our lives. The social impact of search engines, especially one that could become the search engine, might not have been obvious, but as Google quietly crawled the web in those early years, it quickly became so.
At the time, information on the internet was incredibly sparse, so to use the internet for almost anything, a search engine was necessary the starting point. Gradually, as the internet ate the world, its value to society exploded and became a requisite part of life. Search engine usage grew at exponential rates, and Google, offering the best product, became and still is the global search leader, serving nearly all search traffic for the entire planet.
This is an incredibly lucrative position to be in for any company, and Google took the obvious and potentially only viable option to monetizing their search product: ads. Initially ads were informed solely by the search terms being served by the engine. The ad engine would pick ads based on a number of factors, but the primary input was what its users typed into the search engine, at the time they typed it in. This model evolved over time, with the introduction of Google products that required accounts. Gmail, Docs, Drive, various chat products like Hangouts, multiple defunct social networks, and eventually Android, all required the use of a Google account. Google has developed hundreds of products most of which require a Google login, and Search followed. All of this account data gets mined to serve their customers more relevant ads, and like Facebook, follows them everywhere around the internet, tracking every website they visit.
Google search data however is unlike any other type of personal information on the internet because it is so highly intimate. The type of information Google is able to capture is as personal, if not more so, than the type of data Facebook can capture. Facebook data is naturally sanitized by its billions of users. If a given individual is curious or worried, about anything at all, the first place they are likely to seek information is going to be Google. This means that the data tied to a Google profile is extremely intimate. Facebook and other social networks can only capture the socially acceptable version of whatever their users provide Google, if at all. Combined with the data from phones (Android), work (Gsuite), and downtime (YouTube), Search data creates a highly detailed portrait of any given individual.
It should also be mentioned that these profiles are created even if internet-goers never created a Google account. Their tracking network, powered by Analytics and Ads products are present on nearly all websites in existence, so it’s fairly easy for them to target someone without consent, even across devices or browsers.
For its part, Google has yet to be involved in nearly as many scandals as Facebook. They’ve been reasonably responsible, playing the role as shepherds of the world’s data, but the writing is on the wall. It is inherently baked into their business model. They’ve already been implicated in multiple government surveillance programs. The evolution of Google’s products and services offered has made them a one-stop-shop for state actors set on surveilling their citizens, and Google will be forced to remain complicit.
Leaving Google entirely in 2018 isn’t as easy as it might seem. To leave Google (as with Facebook) one not only has to delete their accounts and stop using their services entirely, but also block their tracking agents that would otherwise continue happily logging every activity around the internet. It also goes without mention that search is an essential function of today’s internet. Most competing search engines willfully follow in Google’s anti-privacy footsteps. Fortunately, blocking trackers is easy with browser plugins and privacy-respecting browsers such as Firefox. Also fortunate is the existence of DuckDuckGo, which is an ad-supported search engine like Google that doesn’t track its users, but works just as well. Fastmail is a great alternative to Gmail. Personally, I’m not entrenched to the Android ecosystem, so I don’t need to change anything about my phone. That leaves YouTube, which can be used logged-out, or in a private browser window, which decreases its usefulness (suggested videos don’t work any more) but still allows access while retaining peace of mind.
At the end of all of this, I am feeling quite positive about the future of the internet. New platforms are popping up all the time, and because social networks tend to follow cyclical patterns of popularity, within the next decade or so I expect to see examples that respect user privacy while at the same time finding a business model that sustains them. ActivityPub is a great new open standard for social networks that gives me a lot of hope. It would be amazing for an ActivityPub-based platform to come along that reaches a critical mass that will fuel its success, without carrying the baggage of the current generation of social networks. Actually, that gives me an idea…