Face/off*

How to get off Facebook: It’s not just a technical step, but a social, logistical and mental process with real world consequences. But, don’t let that stop you.

The internet is actually one giant laboratory that users perceive to be a utility. Large technology companies are constantly experimenting on their user base to learn what they’ll do, how they’ll adapt and what they’ll endure. But as mere users, we can also use it to experiment on ourselves, as the best mad scientists always do. As for the web part of the internet, I regularly run feast/famine regimes; gorging on new platforms and trying out new tools, apps and different ways that hook data through this or that API to produce either wonderful or horrifying results, and then running through occasional delete-the-accounts frenzies, in which I’m always interested in how clingy or difficult different service providers make it to truly opt out (if that’s even possible).

Running in the background, the two giants have remained untested: Facebook and Google. In this blog, we’re dealing about Facebook, and the process of not being “on” it. I’ve been mulling almost daily for a number of years committing Facebook Seppuku, and have decided — somewhat arbitrarily — that the current Cambridge Analytica fiasco is my jumping off opportunity.

Before we go into what this is, here’s what it’s not: this isn’t a Facebook-bashing post. In fact, FB is an incredibly useful platform that is solving problems its users want solved, usually before they knew they had them. And through my work, I’ve met a few Facebook engineers, and each of them are brilliant people who take the users they serve incredibly seriously. I’ve got more than a little time for any one of them. Facebook is also essentially a planet-sized service, and I’d argue it has physics that would have analogies to large bodies floating in space. There’s certainly gravity. Everything is drawn back to it purely based on it’s digital footprint at this rate. So I generally think it’s a thing of wonder, even if there are many horror stories to be found accompanying its various individual decisions, practices and monetising efforts.

This also isn’t an attack on anyone who uses Facebook or wants to keep using it. Leaving Facebook isn’t frictionless, and is more difficult to manage if you’ve used it over a longer period of time. There are currently a huge number of online guides popping up around the whole #DeleteFacebook frenzy now taking place, semi-ironically, on Twitter. All of the how-to posts I’ve seen are your traditional click-here-select-that dog food. The stuff you could get by just looking at Facebook’s own documentation.

What they don’t cover is that for many users, leaving a platform like Facebook has a cost, and how to address or evaluate those costs. What are your options? What are the alternatives? Is it actually worth the effort? If your family is flung out around the world or in a diaspora, FB is a platform that makes staying in contact and sharing all the things really easy in the way that mashing together different single-service tools don’t. If you’re someone with only a few hours of internet per day because your country has horrible infrastructure or other things going on, then it’s a one-stop-shop to tell everyone you know how you’re doing, communicate with people you care about and get the news before it all goes black again. If you’re in a place where Facebook is providing the internet through Free Basics, then your basically locked in. And if you need / want to communicate with people in any of these or other cases, then you have to decide what you’ll do about that.

Solidarity campaigns, independent media outlets and journalists working in high-risk areas, grassroots activists struggling for social change all make the trade-off that Facebook is worthwhile for the potential audience to wade into the various kinds of attacks and maliciousness that can also come along with being there, and with full knowledge that the platform itself could turn against them at any time. Deciding not to be on it is a calculation against these other things.

I mull Facebook Seppuku daily, but with family & friends spread across the globe & various groups of people who see their few hours of internet access in terms of time efficiency, there are big cost trades. Prioritise the communication tools people *should* use, or the people?
Tools or peeps?

There is a counter campaign being waged as well, pointing out the place of privilege a lot of people who feel they can opt out are coming from. I’d suggest that form of privilege is very qualified, though. It suggests someone’s in a place where everyone they know — or at least everyone they want to talk to — is in close proximity, or has easy access to other forms of contact. It also suggest that they’ve kept their social circle smaller, which of course can be nice. But I think there’s a higher privilege in knowing, being friends with and collaborating with people who aren’t from one single place, or who are working on tough issues, and who still want you as part of their circle while all that’s going on. I’m being vague on purpose. Apply whatever specifics you’d like.

And yet, the near constant stream horror stories of abuse of power and trust make up one part of the reason I’ve decided to start my own opt-out process. The other part is the amount of mental space Facebook requires if you want to use it even moderately securely for yourself or (more importantly) your contacts. You’re basically not just managing your own account, but you have to be the system administrator for everyone in your Friends list and make sure you’re not exposing them to dodgy apps, bad-actors trying to move into certain communities for nefarious purposes, third party services that don’t just suck your data, but everyone in your list as well, and so on and so on. You also have trust that everyone is doing the same for you and all the other people in their list. Spoiler: They aren’t.

Both Facebook and Google present highly problematic opt-out scenarios, and even the definitions of what we mean by “not being on it” are not clear. They’re different creatures, but essentially in both cases, once you’ve digitally touched anything touching them, you’re basically on them in some way, either transparently on the front end in a profile or search result, or in some database for algorithmic study and targeting. You had no obvious opt-in in the matter and path off. Whether this matters to you or not is a separate discussion.

Even if you’ve never had a Facebook account, unless you’re actively blocking all its tentacles,  then it’s developed a shadow profile of you it can use, market and exploit. So when people say “delete your Facebook account” they should make sure to point out that you’re not deleting yourself off of Facebook. You can’t do that. And if you have had a Facebook profile, deleting it doesn’t erase your past and has no impact on the data that has already been accessed either within Facebook’s terms or use, or outside of it, as Cambridge Analytica has done. That horse has left the sable. What you can do is decide to voluntarily opt out of participating with Facebook in an overt, have-a-profile, manually-enter-data kind of way. That’s not insignificant. Users actual interaction with the service is it’s most valuable and marketable asset. It’s the juicy data.

You’re probably not hacking your own computer to force it to avoid Facebook.

I’m not going to say you should or shouldn’t opt out. I’m not going to say whether you should just deactivate or delete your Facebook profile, or wipe your WhatsApp or immolate your Instagram. I do this stuff to myself all the time, and it can end in a cautionary what-not-to-do note just as likely as not. I previously experimented with easily blocking 80,000+ Twitter users, experiencing the site without a lot of horrible people, and then later, somewhat painfully but in the least painful way possible, unblocking them all. That post is still in progress. What follows is just one person’s Facebook exit strategy proposal (mine).

Exit Facebook

Opt-out of of the platform API sharing. Let’s start with the thing that’s behind the present kerfuffle involving Cambridge Analytica and quite possibly Russian troll factories. It’s easy, and EFF shows you how.

Remove Facebook from all devices except one. When I replaced my mobile I just never put it on the new one. Easy step. Reduces activity, provides a mental break. Browser Facebook requires actively going to the URL.

Practice data minimalism on the site. Loads of resources are out there. Here’s a recent one. I tended to do this over time, removing likes, unsubscribing from groups, removing biographical information from your profile, etc. It reduces what’s happening in your feed and gives you less of a reason to check things out, and reduces your data footprint on the site.

Cull your “friends”. This may be hard at first, but maybe not so bad. Check for anyone you’ve added that you don’t literally actually know in person, and start from there. Maybe they just friended you because your both in similar communities or know a lot of the same people. You add each other, but you don’t really communicate. From there, go for ones you maybe used to be in touch, but really aren’t now. If you communicate with communities of people at risk of doxxing or other attacks, this is fairly essential, anyway. Don’t be the friend in common that gives an attacker the clout to move into a targeted community. You’re doing the lord’s work, except there isn’t a lord, just you.

Even if you’re getting off Facebook, ramp up all the security settings. Use an impossibly long passphrase and activate two-factor authentication. Go through the settings to see what other devices the account is logged into and shut them down. If you’re going to be deactivating the account before deleting it, you won’t be paying attention to it much, and you don’t want someone logging in and taking over. This also adds to the work commitment of logging into Facebook (don’t let the browser “remember” you logging in) and reduces your time on the platform and likely your interest in it. It eliminates the use of third party apps, games, surveys, etc. Here are some things to do in this area.

Identify which Facebook friends you want to stay in contact with but only ever communicate with through Facebook. You’ve probably got email addresses, mobile numbers, etc. for a lot of people you know.  But there are some people your connected with on Facebook that you’ve only ever communicated with there since day one. Figure out what other methods they use so you can keep in touch. You can even use your Friends settings to create a group of “people I’ve only ever talked to on FB” and just send that group a targeted message about where else to find you, or ask them where to find them.

Who’s birthdays do you want to remember? Get this from their profiles and pop it into your calendar.

Calculate what you’ll miss out on. Here we get to the pain point. There may be Facebook Groups you’re actively involved in or you may adjust your social calendar around Facebook Events. I’ve got no real advice here, as these aren’t huge for me, except that you will want to have a plan for how to remain engaged with these communities. It isn’t an easy one to answer as so many communities exist on the platform and sometimes no where else. You will need to be in good contact with at least one person who will keep you posted. You may love seeing photos shared by people who aren’t sharing them elsewhere. No easy solution here. Talk to the people you like seeing content from and see what else they do with it.

Pick your backup date. You can and should get a local backup of your Facebook history. You can do this in the settings pretty easily. Downloading all this stuff takes the strain off of the idea that you may be wiping it from the plaform, or at lest losing access to it. It won’t include the photos and things people shared with you. It does include your posts, photos, videos, etc. though they’re all already shrunk for web use. Don’t add any new wall posts or the like that you’ll want to remember after this.

Are you a developer? Is your profile keeping any Facebook Apps alive? Handle that. Before you vanquish your account, you may want to check if your account is holding any API keys or running any Facebook apps that will stop working when your account goes away. If no one’s using them, then don’t worry about it, but if you’ve made any for other people then you’ll need to migrate ownership of that to their accounts. Check if you’re running any in your account here.

Delete upon death. Okay, this one isn’t necessary for this particular project, but I always enjoy the macabre option. And if you get hit by a bus or something before you delete your account, you’ll at least know your wishes were recorded. I also found it kind of cathartic.

Delete upon death button
The Facebook version of opting out of immortality.

Deactivate. You can now easily in settings go through the “deactivation” process. This leaves you on Facebook, but no one sees you and you can’t do much with Facebook while your account is deactivated. I would suggest leaving it this way for at least a month, and don’t check in at all for at least a week. Get comfortable with the new reality. Leave it for as long as you like.

Delete. Letting go is the hard part. Is it for you? Who’s to say? You are. Go to the page to delete your account. I’m linking to it because Facebook doesn’t make it obvious in its own menu. It takes a few days for Facebook to actually delete your account, and if you log in during that time, it cancels the deletion process. After that, wiping your public-facing data doesn’t happen fast. As Facebook says, it can take around 90 days for all your deletable content to come off its platform, and some data never goes away, such as any personal messages you sent to people (though they won’t have your picture or name next to them).

Well done

you’re not listed on facebook.com anymore. It still has in its databases legacy information about you, and if you’re a WhatsApp or Instagram user, then you’re still adding to Facebook’s profile on you, and, of course, it’s still collecting information for your shadow profile when you visit a whole lot of websites. You can get rid those other Facebook owned apps, and even tell your computer to block an ever growing number of Facebook trackers in a sort of whack-a-mole manner. Then there are the other ethically dubious tracking platforms out there that aren’t Facebook, but as marge Simpson once said, “slow and steady wins the race.” You’ve still taken a huge step in deciding or actually showing what you want and don’t want to happen with your own information.

In this laboratory called the internet, we should never accept that, as the test subjects, we don’t have any agency. Rats in a maze don’t realise they’re being tested; they just accept it as the user experience to obtain cheese. You don’t have to.

*Yes, the blog title is inspired by the 1997 film starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta. Thanks for asking.