The Future

You can’t just tell everyone to leave Facebook

Tech is not a problem of individual consumption.
The Future

You can’t just tell everyone to leave Facebook

Tech is not a problem of individual consumption.

To run her content marketing company Let’s Talk Nola, Jana King and her business partner rely on Facebook. They communicate with clients through Messenger, set up and manage their clients’ Pages, and advertise their services through the Let’s Talk Nola page. For King, it “feels like opening my email. I just opened my Facebook and had 18 notifications, and only one is not work-related.”

King wishes she could leave the service, but knows it would be impossible to keep her business if she did. However, she has found ways to establish boundaries, especially with her conservative family members in rural Louisiana: She uses an extension called Newsfeed Eradicator, which replaces a user’s entire Newsfeed with an inspirational quote. “I haven't seen my friends’ posts in nearly three months,” she said. “It's really changed my day.”

When Playboy announced it was deleting its Facebook account on March 29, Twitter users piled onto the already-viral #DeleteFacebook hashtag. If a publication with 25 million Facebook fans can delete its account, why can’t you?

Years of studies have documented users’ concerns about social media, yet relatively few people actually change their behavior—keeping Facebook’ profits and engagement rates sky-high.  While social media addiction likely plays a role in this, leaving the platform is about more than just preferences: Facebook may be required for someone’s job, the only way to keep in touch with far-flung family and friends, or simply the cheapest and easiest way to connect with like-minded individuals.

Avi Saini, a medical student in Knoxville, TN, says he wants to delete Facebook for many reasons (he calls it “a drain” that has too much untrustworthy information), but needs to look at Facebook groups for school. “Even though we have our school email, people spread more up-to-date information on [these] pages. So deleting my Facebook would effectively limit any information flow for school.”

Simply telling consumers to avoid a product demonstrates the inherent privilege required to abandon a technology.

Calls to leave the Facebook don’t reckon with the thorniest ways it has entrenched itself in our lives. History has shown that simply telling consumers to avoid a product—because it’s bad for them and/or bad for society—won’t effect large-scale change, and it demonstrates the inherent privilege required to abandon a technology.

#DeleteFacebook is one example of a larger trend in which people seek to cut back on or completely stop using certain technologies, and they encourage others to do the same. The trend picked up steam in the past two years, with The Guardian predicting 2018 would be the “year of the Neo-Luddite,” and organizations like the Slow-Tech Movement and Time Well Spent building large audiences.

And, right on cue, a micro industry has popped up to cater to this demand: one can attend a “digital detox” festival for $3,000, buy a sleek, talk/text only “dumb phone” for $400, or get a smartphone app to cure your smartphone addiction for $3.99/month (with an optional coach for $9.99/month).

Like the larger slow-living movement, slow-tech encourages people to re-adopt behaviors that used to be ordinary and unavoidable. But, like shopping at a farmers market or growing food in an urban garden, these behaviors are now less convenient and more expensive than newer options; thus, the people likely to adopt them have at least some extra time and cash to burn.

These movements also emphasize personal choice and discipline as solutions to systemic problems caused by the profit motivations of large corporations. This may be because it’s is an easier framework for the average person to think about; writing a list about how to use less plastic feels more tangible and immediate than reckoning with the sweeping regulations and incentives needed to really decrease a country’s waste, like Taiwan has.

Similarly, slow tech doesn’t wrestle with this complexity or consider the real impact of technology on different types of users. How admirable is it for Will Ferrell to leave Facebook when he has teams of people managing his career, a net worth of $100 million, and all forms of communication at his disposal, when the average user lacks the same ability to replace Facebook’s services elsewhere?

Keeping up with family and friends is only one small part Facebook activity: Facebook Pages have become a necessity for small businesses, with 80% of small businesses in the US using them in 2016; for many small businesses, it may be their only digital presence.

Lauren Thompson describes an implicit requirement for her role in her children’s preschool in Crofton, Maryland. “As president of the Parent Board, I run our school’s Instagram and Facebook pages, create Facebook events, use targeted ads, manage a private parent group and alumni group, and post in local mom Facebook groups.” She says she “can’t wait” to get rid of it, but for now it is “a necessary tool.”

Facebook’s personal and professional uses can be inextricably linked for independent artists. Musicians with label representation likely have a team to manage their accounts—making it relatively easy for a star like Rihanna to cut the smartphone cord. But for artists who run their own marketing, Facebook’s services are invaluable.

Brooklyn-based comic Khalid Rahmaan says Facebook “absolutely helped establish” him as a comic. “I got a freelance writing gig for an advertising agency that still pays from being funny on Facebook. I primarily promoted my first monthly show on Facebook.”

For these artists, Facebook may represent a means to an end. Rahmaan says, “I kind of hate Facebook now, but I still have to be on it to get bookings and promotion. Mad booking goes down on Facebook Messenger.” But he hopes this could change if he gets successful enough.“My goal is to be so well established that I can leave social media for good,” he says.

In South Africa, the choice between using Facebook’s free data or buying their own could be the difference between buying another loaf of bread for their family.

Facebook is even more firmly entrenched with users in its newer markets in Southeast Asia and Africa. And this is by design: Facebook has aggressively pursued them through initiatives to bring affordable internet access to places that lack it. In South Africa, the choice between using Facebook’s free data or buying their own could be the difference between buying another loaf of bread for their family. As a result, Facebook’s use has skyrocketed in these places: after Free Basics, the app that delivers these services, arrived in Myanmar (as well as loosening of other restrictions that made SIM cards unaffordable), Facebook users grew from 2 million to 30 million from 2014 to 2017. As a direct result, Facebook has become a tool leveraged in the government’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

In some of these places, Facebook’s presence is so ubiquitous users don’t know the difference between Facebook and the wider internet: a 2015 study asked Indonesians if they use internet and then if they use Facebook, and 11% said they use Facebook but not the internet; 9% of Nigerians said the same. The study also showed the majority of these users never follow a link outside of Facebook.

“Facebook is the only lifeline I have with my extended family in remote parts of West Africa and how I access to the mundane and special parts of their daily lives,” Call Your Girlfriend podcast host Aminatou Sow said. “We complain constantly about data in the US, so you can imagine what free data means to a less accessible part of the world where the infrastructure simply doesn't exist for affordable broadband.”

Not every Facebook user is tethered to the service as firmly as a Free Basics user in South Africa. For many, the choice simply demonstrates Facebook’s success providing the most convenient way to communicate, be it with family members on the other side of the world or our next door neighbors.

Telling people to stop using Facebook—while ignoring the foundational problems that led us here—ensures that only those with the fewest alternative options will be left to deal with those problems.

It’s no accident that the tech community loves “back-to-basics” products and services, be it Burning Man or meditation apps, or that San Francisco is the epicenter of both tech and the contemporary New Age movement. Consider that users of ad blockers skew young, male, wealthy, educated, and tech-savvy, or that Brian Acton, the founder of WhatsApp who sold his company to Facebook for $19 billion and worked there until 2017, declared “it is time” for us to leave Facebook: the same people who earn their living from invasive tech products have the most access to salvation from them.

Sow says, “While getting off of Facebook seems like a no-brainer for some people, flouncing doesn't really address that some of us don't have the privilege of making that choice without seriously impacting how we communicate with some of our nearest and dearest around the globe on a daily basis. The troubling privacy and security issues on these tech platforms is worth fighting for.”