Leaving Social Media (or, The Illusion Of Choice)

I did it! I have detached from social media exactly as planned and on schedule. You’ll recall that I had previously announced that I would be leaving social media on February 1st, killing officially my Facebook account and my Twitter account too. Well, that day came and went and I am no longer on Facebook and my Twitter has been officially purged of all records, save a single tweet.

You may be wondering why I didn’t actually deactivate my Twitter, and the long story short is that two things are ultimately true: (a) I didn’t want to give up my Twitter handle and disabling your Twitter account for more than 30 days officially releases it back into circulation, and (b) it is sadly a principle way to engage in customer support with different brands and I recognize that it may be necessary for me to do that. Despite that, I will not be consistently using my Twitter account and I will also make it a personal policy to remove any and all Tweets once I have engaged in whatever necessary customer support engagement is necessary.

Leaving was an event. I was pleasantly surprised how easy Facebook was to delete. It did take me some time to ensure services like Spotify were fully disconnected and not dependent on Facebook, but having taken care of that the process to download my Facebook archive and deactivate my account was surprisingly simple. Twitter, on the other hand, was no so easy. Short of actually, truly disabling the service or simply putting your account into “Protected Mode” (that mode a PR Crisis firm will tell you to put your account in when you’re the target of the Twitter mob so that only people you follow can see your content), there’s no real option to clear out your account. Moreover, once you engage in the process of deleting tweets, retweets, and likes the service quickly starts to break in very interesting ways.

Perhaps what was most interesting was how Twitter eventually entered an invalid state. I could see tweets which I had retweeted and/or liked and they showed up on counts but the controls across the bottom of the Tweets didn’t reflect their status. So I couldn’t unlike a tweet without first having to like it again. As you can imagine, this lead to some interesting people being alerted to some very old Tweets. Retweets suffered a similar fate as well. In order to un-retweet, I was first required to retweet them again. This proved to be nonviable as I had over 8k tweets, a majority of which were re-tweets. I did eventually get around this issue by applying for developer access and deleting my re-tweets via Twitter’s API using a PHP-based tool I modified for the event.

The Illusion of Choice

Coincidentally, after having left social media there was an article published by TechCrunch which claimed to illuminate “Why No One Really Quits Google or Facebook“. It was funny to me, because I had arguably done just that. It’s worth noting that I’ve also begun distancing myself from Google too by finding substitutes for my personal projects for Firebase and Google Maps and having moved my e-mail off G-Mail and onto a privately paid for and hosted instance of Microsoft Exchange. I do still have a G-Mail account but all correspondence of consequence has been moved off it and now G-Mail is my spam account.

The author makes some interesting observations, though. Namely he claims that users are consistently making a choice. That, despite being presented with alternatives (such as FastMail for G-Mail) that users choose to stay with these platforms.

It’s incredibly condescending, and obscures a far more fundamental fact about consumers: people know what they value, they understand it, and they are making an economic choice when they stick with Google or Facebook

Danny Crichton

I couldn’t agree less. It is certainly arguable whether people truly understand the things they supposedly value or it’s material value relative to the world. I know, anecdotally, that a vast majority of my friends and family likely don’t. Not because they are uneducated, but merely because most haven’t bothered to truly consider it and don’t have enough broader understanding of technology to really make a valid assessment. Moreover, I do not believe that users are necessarily consciously making a choice to stay. They are staying purely because of the cost of switching is so extraordinarily high and the economies of scale shackle them to the services.

The lack of consumer switching or investment in privacy I do not believe is something that can be adequately deduced by simply saying “there are similiar services and they aren’t using them”. I emphasize similar because that’s all the alternatives are. They are similar services which have familiar features but which lack the essential underlying content. This lack of content is the very reason most who attempt to enter the “social” space collapse. A chicken and egg problem sprouts. Your initial users are essentially talking into a very large, empty room. The only options for growth in the early stage for such services is purely organic and organic growth is difficult when those who produce it already have an established foothold somewhere else.

It is for this reason, that you cannot simply look at there having existed alternative services and draw the conclusion that those services have, at best, survived but not thrived (or worse, failed altogether) on the premise that consumers have chosen to not care about privacy. Even if they want to make that choice and they want to leave, there are multiple steps necessary to complete it and leaving will frequently abruptly sever the tie to a multitude of long-standing social connections. That is not something many people can or want to afford. So they remain, forced into submission and abuse by a company who’s moral rot at the top is abhorrent.

The reality is that the only way we make this better and bring change to social media is through one of two choices: (a) another service has to enter the market which competes with Facebook and is more altruistic and steadfast in it’s values and also provides an even greater incentive than simply being the same platform with better leadership, or (b) significant government oversight and accountability in how the leaders of companies like Facebook and Google handle information about their customers. This would, arguably, need to go further than even GDPR. GDPR, while a good place to start, does not go far enough in making the complexities of how data is collected, used, and subject to abuse clear and accessible to consumers nor does it do enough to sufficiently hold companies who fail their customers accountable. Nevertheless, it would be a good place to start in lieu of the former option occurring. Realistically, however, option a is more likely to come first.