Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Goodbye Facebook

Goodbye Facebook

Threatening to leave Facebook is nothing special. Everybody makes the threat. A few people even follow through, only to sheepishly rejoin later so they can resume their social lives. This post probably represents an idle threat, but more and more I feel that it is time to delete my Facebook account.

I don't know that there is any one thing that has been decisive in my decision. Certainly the most recent set of policy changes/threats has been a factor. The Facebook message says:

By using our services after Jan. 1, you agree to our updated terms, data policy and cookies policy and to seeing improved ads based on apps and sites you use. Learn more about these updates and how to control the ads you see.

Since I do not agree with those terms or data policy, it's time to go. Truth be told, by that standard I should never have joined. I actually have no idea what the implication of these new policies are, and I don't feel like spending hours of my time and attention finding out. I am pretty sure these changes are not in my interest, and that is reason enough to leave.

There have been a lot of other factors in my decision, however. The first factor consists of the usual Facebook creepiness:

I am not willing to be Facebook's product any more. Unfortunately, leaving Facebook will not make much less of a product; there is no realistic way I can stop the company from harvesting information about me. However, by cancelling my account I am asserting that I do not consent to their surveillance, and they cannot pretend that they are giving me anything in return for their surveillance.

The second factor might seem more trivial but is probably more important to me personally: Facebook does a mediocre job of keeping me connected to the people with whom I want to maintain connections.

Before Facebook, it was difficult to keep in touch with those whom I did not have regular face-to-face contact, as hinted in my old old Eulogy for the Forgotten entry. When I graduated from high school I lost touch with most of my high school peers; when I left my undergrad I lost touch with almost everybody. Sometimes I held on to email addresses that I could use (until the addresses became stale), but maintaining email correspondences takes conscious effort, and so I let almost all those correspondences drop. My hope (and as I naively thought, Facebook's mandate) was to make this communication easy: I would keep up with the adventures of my high school friends and they could keep up with mine.

I clearly misunderstood Facebook's intent. Facebook does not want to show me status updates from my high school friends; it wants to show me a lot of sponsored content, clickbaity articles (most of which are carefully marketed to "go viral"), the occasional wedding or baby birth notice, and a bunch of political posts that I don't care about. When it does bother showing me life updates, they are usually authored by people I am already in close contact with, such as coworkers.

Maybe there is some magical way to twist Facebook into serving my needs. Maybe if I "Like" the right articles and comment enthusiastically on the right posts and carefully sort my social network into the right groups I will tune Facebook's algorithms into showing me what is interesting. In researching this article I found a "News Feed Preferences" link which might have been useful if the page did not hang whenever I clicked it. Regardless of whether I could wrangle Facebook into showing me some content I care about, I know I won't be able to stop seeing sponsored ads, and I doubt I'll stop getting the clickbaity articles that my Facebook network has liked.

I admit that I have not looked sufficiently hard at tuning the algorithm, but that's not the point; the point is that Facebook does not want me tuning the algorithm, because it does not make it easy for me to do so. As a simple example, it does not make it easy for me to see all the posts on my newsfeed in reverse chronological order. I have tried setting my newsfeed to do this, but the setting does not seem to stick. How convenient for Facebook. The message is pretty clear: the way I want to use the service and how Facebook wants me to use the service are not in concordance, and as Facebook chases revenues the problem is going to get worse, not better.

Here's one thing I know will not improve my experience: acquiescing to Facebook's incessant demands to "complete my profile". Every time I log in Facebook wants to know what city I'm in, and every time I log in I refuse to answer. For one thing, Facebook knows very well in which city I live; it knows my IP address, and every mediocre website on the Internet knows how to interpret GeoIP data. If that wasn't enough of a hint, the kinds of events I organize make it abundantly clear where I live. I am fairly confident that if I suddenly started connecting to Facebook from Bolivia the service would notice; it might even challenge me to prove my identity in case my account had been hacked. Furthermore, Facebook knows that I am not about to answer its question, because I have been consistently ignoring it for months (or maybe years).

The real reason Facebook nags me to complete my profile is because it wants me to acknowledge the city in which I live, thus refining my marketing demographic further, thus making me a more marketable product. "Completing my profile" is not for the benefit of those who wish to stay connected with me; Facebook has the capability to do an excellent job of keeping me connected with those I care about even if we all used pseudonyms (Livejournal and Tumblr certainly manage). "Completing my profile" is code language for "completing my marketing profile", and nothing more. In my mind, this is clear evidence that Facebook does not have my interests at heart.

If I had a readership consisting of Facebook enthusiasts, they would now be jumping down my throat for being a lazy Facebook user. No wonder I am not getting the results I want, they would argue. How could I expect good results if I am not putting sufficient work into the project? Maybe they are right, but this very criticism illustrates another factor in my decision to leave Facebook: the site is not intended to be used part time. I know full well that I am susceptible to distraction, and that I am not able to cope with Internet distractions as it is. There is no way I could handle the additional distraction of regular Facebooking, so I mostly stay away from the service.

This is not what Facebook wants. Facebook wants me logged in all the time so it can monitor my actions better. I know that Facebook wants me logged in all the time because it greys out the menu containing the "logout" option. I know it wants me to stay logged in all the time because it will often deny showing me content unless I am logged in. And of course, if I was the type who was inclined to click "Like" buttons on the Internet, I would know that it wants me to stay logged in all the time because I cannot "Like" things unless I am logged in. I do not want to remain logged into Facebook, so Facebook has no interest in making my Facebooking experience pleasant.

The privacy factors alone should have been enough for me to leave, especially given how terrifying identity brokers have become (look yourself up on sometime). Sadly, I am motivated by a far more selfish consideration: I originally joined Facebook to promote events and issues, and in this respect it has failed me profoundly. I originally joined in order to promote the 2007 Ontario electoral reform referendum in general, and our Fair Vote Canada information sessions in particular. As usual in my organizational life, nobody else was willing to help promote these events online, so I signed up for Facebook. The effort was futile. Few people came out to our information sessions, and the referendum flopped.

More recently I tried to get people talking about blood donation questionnaires and I got no traction. If there was a final straw, I think it was this year's Software Freedom Day celebrations. I made an event and invited all the locals I could, and encouraged others on the organizing team to do the same (with very little uptake, as usual). It looked like the event was getting some traction -- a respectable number of people accepted the event invitation -- but then a bunch of those people didn't show up. I do not want to blame those no-shows; I am sure that many of them were trying to express their approval for the concept of Software Freedom Day. But other than the Installfest (which was a zoo), the attendance at that event broke my heart, and broke any will I had to use Facebook as a marketing platform. I used Facebook a little in promoting things around the municipal election campaign, but mostly I didn't bother, and I am not inclined to bother in the future.

There might be ways to effectively promote events on Facebook. Goodness knows that there are enough social media gurus out there giving workshops on the topic. In my experience it takes money and influence to get one's message out on Facebook, and there is not much space to start new conversations (say, about blood donation) without that money and influence. I know that Facebook is important for organizing parties and other private events, but I am done with trying to use it as a platform to promote activities to the broader public. Facebook does not care about promoting the causes its product thinks is interesting; it is interested in earning revenue, which means it is only interested in promoting my events if I pay it money. Since I am done with promoting stuff on Facebook, I am done with Facebook.

Of course, leaving has consequences. Maybe there are great ways to promote events; by leaving Facebook I am forfeiting all opportunities to do so. I am also forfeiting any opportunities I have for a social life, since people who post Facebook events rarely bother with email invites.

It is not as if I got invited to many parties to begin with; now I will be invited to fewer. Even community events such as our Lazy Queer Reading Circle are organized via Facebook. There is some sense in which this makes me sad, and some sense in which this is okay. I am getting more antisocial in my old age, and it is probably for the best that I am not invited to things. For now, events are still published on the web and on other sketchy social networks like Meetup and Eventbrite, so if I want to attend public lectures I will still have opportunities.

Losing my social life is no big deal, but giving up the connectivity dream makes me sad. In cancelling my account I have to let go of the idea that I can stay in touch with those who are geographically distant. I will not be able to keep up with high school classmates. I won't reconnect with those I suffered through my undergrad with. People come and go from my workplace and my community, and when they are gone they will stay gone. Email remains a terrible correspondence medium. Blogs are okay but nobody blogs anymore, and I do not know the RSS feeds of the people I would like to follow. There are other social networks, but even those that permit anonymous, unregistered followers are fragmented.

It is true that a bunch of projects are trying to redo Facebook so that it respects user privacy. I expect none of them will have the critical mass that Facebook enjoyed. What made Facebook special is that everybody joined it, and because of the "Real Name" policy (which I still oppose) you had a realistic chance of identifying all of those people from your past to whom you wanted to stay connected. That's not going to happen again. Even Google couldn't make that happen with G+ (thank goodness), and I don't think anybody else has the resources to try. If nothing else, Facebook is not going anywhere, and unless something catastrophic happens it will retain much of its user base. That pretty much guarantees fragmentation, which means that the hope of connecting with more than a handful of my previous acquaintances is dead.

This story was supposed to have a different ending. I was supposed to spend some money to rent a VPS, researching the best FLOSS, federated, self-hostable, privacy-respecting Facebook alternative out there, and then inviting my friendslist (and all of you) to join it. That might have kickstarted a movement to build something better. But I have decided that hanging on to my past is not worth $120-150 a year in hosting fees, and I have not done my homework in researching alternatives. That's too bad, but regardless I feel that it is time to go.

Although leaving Facebook effectively means I am disappearing from the Internet, in actual fact I am still around, and we can still keep in touch. For now, I still have a web presence here with an RSS feed (currently , and you can still contact me via whatever email is posted on my contact page. If I ever join a different (hopefully better) social network that I would like you to know about then I'll update my contact page. I understand that you are not going to take me up on my offer of staying in contact, but it is worth making the offer anyways.

If you decide that it is time for you to leave Facebook as well, you can try following the instructions at or just go to , delete your account and never come back. (Remember: deletion is not deactivation. In either case Facebook has your data forever, but deactivation means you get it back easily.) You may want to make a backup of your data first: Go to "Settings" and click the "Download a copy of your Facebook data".