Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, recently I’ve been working to do something very difficult: I’ve been trying to get off of Facebook after more than 7 years.  Mind you, the difficulty is not in cancelling the account.  That’s a four or five step process.  It’s the emotional divorce that’s been difficult, fighting the feeling (which they very much promote) that Facebook is your social life, and that by turning your back on FB, you’re really turning your back on your friends.  Getting past that feeling of “Oh, I’ll never know what ___ is doing with his life”, or “How will ___ contact me?” has been oddly difficult, and has forced me to move past any number of irrationalities, and has drawn the ire of many on my facebook feed as well.

Rightly, I’ve been asked why I’m taking this drastic step at all, and even moreso, why I’ve chosen to remain on both Twitter and Google+ while eschewing Facebook.  In a word, Privacy is why I’ve chosen to leave Facebook, but it’s a little more complex than that (as Twitter offers no privacy at all, and Google+ is owned by yet another data-mining collaborative), so let me explain.

The Expectation of Privacy vs. No Expectation of Privacy

My chief problem with facebook is that when Facebook started, it was pitched as something that happened between friends (and until it got big, it was). Posts were meant for consumption by the people you chose, and you had (limited) control over that.  You can argue (rightly so) that Facebook is (and was) the internet, and you have no expectation of privacy on the internet, but given that I was much younger then, as was our ability to mine data, that was my feeling, my understanding, and how I treated the service.  Although I was never so stupid as some, I was not nearly so cautious with my posting in 2004 as I would have been had I seen what Facebook had become.

Unfortunately, since 2004 (when I started there), FB has, much like a gropey frat boy, constantly pushed users to expose more, to make more of your information, posting, and life public. First, they changed the nature of the network, changing it from being a group of College students hanging out to a free-for-all, where your professors, parents and younger siblings were just as welcome.  Then, they started selling us.  First, with beacon, “Well, we’ve changed your security settings to allow your friends to view anything you rent from blockbuster. If you don’t want that, I guess we’ll let you disable it.” Then more and more was broadcast. “Oh, we made all your posts available to friends-of-friends. Did you not care for that? Sorry, luddite, go back and change it.”  Then, they realized that they could sell your posts.  ”Hey, we’ve made your posts visible to third party advertisers.  That’s cool, right?”, which led into “Hey, you mentioned Starbucks, so we’re going to use you in an ad for Starbucks to show your friends.  Don’t be lame, it’ll be awesome!”.  In each case, the public found out about Facebook’s latest invasion of privacy shortly after it went live, leaving those of us who cared scrambling constantly to shut the windowshades after Facebook had again decided it was more profitable for them to be open.

Timeline, the next step in the endless march towards openness

The latest (and last) straw in this series is Facebook timeline.  Timeline is a complex offering, but in short, it’s a completely different way of presenting information which makes one’s very first posts on Facebook just as easy to view and access as the posts last week.  In short, it breaks down the difficulty (to other users) of dredging up the past, and offers one’s entire history on the site for easy examination and analysis.  In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s actually quite well designed, but, like the gropey frat boy that Facebook is, it was implemented with only the loosest user consent.

Rather than giving us the option to not switch to Timeline, we were told “Well, you can do it now and have a week to clean everything up, or we’re going to turn it on on the 22nd of December”.  Once again, even this is not so horrible, except that Facebook has the utter hubris to allow people no control over what is shown in a practical way.  What Facebook offers us is the chance to hide old posts, but only one at a time, and using a 3-4 click process for each, which is nominally a privacy solution, but in practice, is a disincentive for anything to be hidden.

Rather than allowing us to, for instance, hide all posts older than __, Facebook has put a considerable penalty on people wanting to let bygones by bygones.  You have the choice to either spend 12+ hours clicking through their UI to hide your prior posts, or to just put it all out there.  Mind you, all of the content was already there, and a persistent enough friend could have found it, but because of the nature of the site, it wasn’t right there in your face.  Associations you no longer care to keep, posts which, although not embarrassing or non-work-safe, are likely best kept in the past (think of every lovey-dovey thing you might have posted to an ex), all of these things are revealed to even the most casual mouse clicker, unless you spend your time repeatedly informing the tactless voyeur, Facebook, that “No, I’d really rather keep that particular piece of my past private”.

Finally, Timeline’s biggest sin, in my mind, is that it takes away the benefit of learning.  Those of us who got involved with Facebook when it was still college students only got involved when we were 18 or 19, which, as I now understand, is not an age where we should be involved with anything which will affect the rest of our lives.  Whereas most people now understand that Facebook is public (and constantly pushing you to be more so), data-mined, and that you’re the product, not the client, people took a while to learn that, and our posting habits changed as we did.  Many, like myself, were quite happy with the past being difficult to access.  By doing what they have with Timeline, posts which we now would think better of are thrust out front and center, and we’re no longer able to simply let the past be cloudy and do better in the present.

All things considered, I’m actually quite proud of 2004 me with respect to personal privacy on Facebook, but nonetheless, I dislike that I was even asked to worry about it, and the gropey and non-consentual way that Facebook went about it was the straw that broke this camel’s Facebook account.

There are other evils, mind you

Facebook is, in addition to being a gropey voyeur, a major corporation, and we’re not customers, clients or users any more than a cow walking into a slaughterhouse is an invited guest.  As it comes out just how much information Facebook is keeping about us, who is funding them, how you’re being tracked as you move around the web and Zuckerberg’s feelings on Privacy, anybody who cares at all about personal privacy should be thinking twice about participating.  But most people who are on Facebook are aware that it’s evil, gropey and against your privacy.

“But twitter is public! And Google’s just as evil”

Yes!  I agree completely, on both counts.

Twitter is completely public, but the wonderful thing is that they’ve claimed that all along.  Those of us posting there know that we’re posting to the world, and nothing is said which we would expect to be otherwise.  You have no privacy on Twitter, but more importantly, you could have never expected any.  There are no privacy settings to change, no (misplaced) trust to betray, as you know damned well that everything is minable.  And, Twitter does allow mass deletion of old posts.

Google+ is Google’s baby, and Google has a very liberal definition of where Evil starts and ends, so those of us who have started with Google+ have known all along that everything is essentially public, but Google+ has a much nicer way of managing the privacy of your postings, and frankly, offers a more pleasant UI and better experience overall, except for the fact that, well, most people aren’t on it yet.  In addition, the Circles concept (designating specific groups of people and tailoring the availability of your posts using those groups) is a powerful one (which facebook has already stolen), and does wonderful things for helping you maintain privacy (at least with people, everything is likely still available to Google and to advertisers).

I’ll also admit that using G+ is a calculated move.  I have an Android phone, so much of my information can already be assumed to be compromised to Google (although I refuse to use GMail so that I have at least one psuedo-private means of communicaton).  They’ve got it already, which is the price of admission (right now) for using what I feel to be a superior smartphone, so, while I’m being sold, I’d as might as well enjoy the full benefits offered to the cows by this particular slaughterhouse.

Finally, there is Diaspora, which I’m a member of, along with nearly 10 other people (more than that, but that’s how it feels).  It’s a very-early prototype of a networking system run for the users, not for the advertisers, but it’s largely used for discussing Diaspora at the moment, and a total of two people I know are on it.  If you’re on there, please, please email me so my feed will grow just a bit less depressingly sparse.

So, that’s why.

I’ve chosen to close my account on Facebook.  It’s not so much that there are things in my past which I want to leave behind, or friends I don’t want to follow.  Just the opposite, really.  I wish I could tell Facebook to forget everything before 6 months ago, download it all for my own use, and move on with life.  I’m going to miss seeing updates from people I care about, and I know that by leaving Facebook, I’ll lose touch with people who have brought me joy.

But I’m tired of being groped and exposed.  I’m tired of seeing “Facebook” in headlines and having to immediately go over to my profile and tell them that no, it’s still not OK for them to expose more of my life.  I’m tired of finding that they’re cutting me up and selling me in a novel way, and frankly, I’m tired of having these arguments with myself.

Although the temptation is there to delete my current account and create, in a few weeks, a completely psuedonymous account, which would accomplish some of my goals (effectively erasing my past and starting over fresh with absolutely no expectation of privacy), Facebook would still have my information, they’d still be tracking me, they’d likely be able to link me to who I was based on who I friended, and I’d still be feeding what amounts to a very ugly beast.  But it’s a very tempting thought, I’ll be honest.

That temptation is telling, too.  As I do all of this, and even as I write this, I still can’t believe how tough it has been even to wrap my mind around clicking a few buttons to close an online account.  If nothing else, the fact that this moment, this simple act, can be so emotionally loaded, shows just how bizarre the human emotional experience can be in a digital age.

Edit: Apparently they know all about the emotional difficulty of leaving, and aren’t afraid to use it to try and keep you on board.



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