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Why I closed my Facebook account

May 19, 2011

I am closing my Facebook account today.

I am closing it not because I think social networking is a bad thing, or because I don’t want to connect with people in cyberspace. I don’t think being online is preventing me from having fulfilling relationships in the real world.

I have a particular problem with Facebook – mostly related to the fact that on Facebook, you are the product, not the customer.

I think social networking is a wonderful thing, and I have no problem with technology facilitating my interactions with other people. I prefer to meet in person, of course, but social networks are a fantastic way to interact with people you can’t see because of distance. I live on the other side of the world from where I grew up, so I need technology to stay in touch with people.

Facebook is a parasite

My problem is with Facebook. There is something about Facebook – best explored in the film Catfish – that I find really creepy. My relationships with other people are the most precious thing I have. The fact that they are mediated by a company that uses me as a nothing but a data source really is a problem – I keep getting that image from the Matrix in my mind, of Zuckerberg feeding on our relationships.

I am not particularly paranoid about surveillance and privacy, but it’s worth noting Julian Assange’s recent comments about Facebook being a massive spy machine for the US Government. In East Germany the Stasi went to great lengths to monitor people – we are happy to fill in databases for the security services ourselves.

The recent Facebook purge – a number of political accounts were closed by Facebook – shows it is subject to political influence. The West is in financial and existential crisis, and civil liberties are already threatened as a dying Empire clings to power. I think this will get worse, and I don’t want to be exposed more than absolutely necessary.

Recuperation

Facebook is an instrument of US, and neoliberal, soft power, and it’s a post modern space I don’t want to inhabit. Facebook recuperates humanity’s most radical expressions of liberty, and turns it into entertainment. ‘Liking’ revolution on Facebook does not change the world. Facebook reduces political activity to a lifestyle choice and politics becomes an online pose. It amazes me how many ‘radicals’ I know whose sole political activity appears to be posting radical messages on Facebook.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing political links, but if the medium is the message, you’re inviting people to participate in a post-political future where all our decisions are made by Pavlovian responses to an endless spectacle of stimulants paraded in front of us. Maybe in future we won’t have elections – just ‘like’ buttons on Facebook. The party with the most ‘likes’ can run the country.

The Net Delusion

I also think Facebook’s organising potential is overstated. The Arab Spring is widely touted as being a Facebook and twitter revolution. Evgeny Morozov criticises the view, which he feels is dangerously utopian. If online slacktivism is mediated through Western corporations, how on earth can we be sure we’re influencing the world in the right direction, and not just promoting Facebook?

If Facebook appears to be a useful political tool, this will encourage activists to use it – and add themselves to the database. It’s bad enough if our activism is subsumed into Facebook – even worse when the Metropolitan police buy software that can track us through social networks and mobile phones.

Morozov is half right in attacking cyber-utopianism. He diagnoses the problems really astutely, but doesn’t deal with alternatives very well. Technology can bring liberation – this is the point of my cyberunions project – but only if we control it.  There are some basic principles that are necessary. If the current Net isn’t appropriate for building participatory online movements, then surely the challenge is to build a better Internet, not retreat from the 21st century.

It is not just politics that is affected: humanity, in all its uncomfortable glory, is neatly framed in blue and white, and even the most extreme and fringe ideas are rendered mundane by Facebook. The chthonic power of a Black Metal band is made ridiculous. The numinous wonder of traditional belief systems is dissipated. Science sits next to conspiracy theory in a perfect equality of meaninglessness. There are no exciting new terrains to conquer.

The illusion of intimacy

Clicking on ‘like’ is not, for me, human interaction. I am more than my Facebook profile. It’s a vacuous commodification of our most intimate relationships. I don’t like what Facebook does to me, either: we are interested in The Lives of Others, and so it turns me into a voyeur (and I suspect I am not alone in this). I find myself clicking through pictures of people I don’t know very well, looking at the precious moments of their lives. It all becomes part of the spectacle, the endless parade of the human zoo.

Far healthier, I think, to actually ask people about their lives than to cyber-stalk them. I think people make less of an effort to connect in meatspace because of Facebook. It makes us lazy, and we are not really there for each other in the ways we should be.

Alternatives

I use new media as part of my job. I may have to create a Facebook account in future for work reasons. But my days of using it for personal social networking are over. Some people say that there’s no alternative to Facebook, because everyone is there. According to Metcalfe’s Law, “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system”. In other words, Facebook is valuable because everyone is on there – not because it’s any good. By leaving Facebook, I reduce its value very slightly. If the exodus grows, Facebook will become the next MySpace – a social networking graveyard. Each profile is worth about $100. I am very pleased to take that money away from Zuckerman.

There are choices and alternatives. Before Facebook, I scheduled regular Skype calls with people who were far away, or just spoke on the phone. The development of web 3.0, which embeds metadata in our online actions, means we will be less tied to individual services, as our different online identities are increasingly able to talk to each other. OStatus, an open standard for social networking, will let people on different services communicate with each other – just as some one with a Gmail account is able to email some one with a Hotmail account.

We need a system that is secure – we need to control our own data – and distributed. If all your information is stored on a central server, it is vulnerable. The owners of that server are vulnerable to political and commercial pressure, or it might simply fail due to load.

By distributing data over peer to peer networks, we avoid this problem. Hierarchical information structures benefit a hierarchical society. To create a new, transparently horizontal and networked society, we need a different information architecture. The problem is the privatisation of virtual space, not the space itself. The answer is to build and defend the digital Commons. We need to move the discussion on from the shortcomings of Facebook and on to a wider look at the role technology plays in our lives.

Facebook is a ghetto, and part of a developing splinternet where we are separated from people who use different services. We need a social network that is open source, secure, and distributed over peer to peer connections so that our data is not stored on anyone’s servers. If OStatus is adopted, and Incliq lives up to its promise, we will have this. In the meantime, email, twitter, flickr and identi.ca are fine for me.

Finally, my decision to leave Facebook is not a judgement on your decision to stay. If it works for you, stick around. If not, break out of the walled garden and I’ll see you on the other side.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 9:26 pm

    thank you. provokes thought.

  2. David permalink
    May 19, 2011 9:54 pm

    Interesting stuff. Can I stick in a word for as an Open Source, distributed Facebook alternative.

  3. David permalink
    May 19, 2011 9:55 pm

    Sorry. Didn’t close the tag. It’s Diaspora.

  4. Lily permalink
    May 19, 2011 9:58 pm

    Excellent post. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the commodification process, block numerous apps, refuse to sign up to all the add ons and have used it mostly for light chat with people who are real-time friends living elsewhere. But. I posted that my son had died and someone ‘liked’ it and that, more than anything else, drew me up short. What does it mean, to ‘like’ something?
    Have you seen the book just out by the MoveOn.Org guy, on the dangers of ‘personalisation’, esp. in relation to political challenge and debate? Looks worth a read.
    Meantime, thanks for this, more food for thought.

    • May 19, 2011 10:37 pm

      I haven’t seen the book you’re talking about. I still haven’t got to the bottom of what’s actually going on when people interact on Facebook, and ‘like’ things, or why I find it so creepy. It just doesn’t sit right with me. I’d like to read more about is.

      I think narcissism is part of it. Facebook encourages this, it’s focused on individuals. On twitter I feel like I am participating in HiveMind, that I am part of a stream of intelligence, and that while my individual contribution may not be earth-shattering, collectively we can achieve a lot. I like that feeling.

      Incidentally I have some concerns about Twitter too – central server, political influence and so on. So far, though, it doesn’t have a viable business model, so it’s still a fairly open space.

      But OStatus would mean we could all choose the social network we like most, but still communicate with people in other networks. Win.

      • Lily permalink
        May 19, 2011 11:34 pm

        for Ted talk by Eli Pariser on ‘filter bubbles’ – his take on that individualism you talk about – and where it leads poliitically.

  5. May 19, 2011 10:04 pm

    Yes, forgot to say I am on Diaspora as well. Don’t think it’s great so far.

  6. May 19, 2011 10:56 pm

    Walton,

    I see and understand your reasons, and I think your concerns are real. I’ve been at a photography business seminar today, and the moderator was singing the praises of Twitter and FB (though he was more in favour of Twitter). So far, I’m not convinced about Twitter – I need to spend my time working on photographs and writing, not following a large community of tweeters – and I especially share your concerns about the commodification of some of the applications attached to FB.

    Some of my FB friends (most of whom really are friends I can count in the real world) only seem to use FB for games and other diversions. I only do one computer game – it’s the one where you start with a blank screen. You write one word in the top left-hand corner. Then you write another. You repeat this 20,000 or 30,000 times, then you print it out and try to get someone to buy it.

    Having said all that, I shall stick with FB for the time being; but I realise it’s imperfect and compromised. Trouble is, everything else we do in the world these days is also compromised; and now being a freelancer, going off the grid isn’t an option. I’ve probably picked up some work tonight because there’s another professional photographer called “Robert Day” but who has no Web presence at all. I’ve pointed out to the client that I’m not who he and the theatre who is putting on his production think I am; but I’ve quoted for the gig anyway.

    In the meantime, I also have my own blog on wordpress, “Steer for the deep waters only”. You may like to take a look at that.

  7. Marcus permalink
    May 20, 2011 5:54 am

    I agree 100% with you. I ditched facebook a couple years ago after 1 month of trying it. Apart from the various privacy issues you mentioned, I think it trivializes human interaction. If i want to interact with someone, I try to do it properly.

  8. andy c-b permalink
    May 20, 2011 8:47 am

    hey man..
    interesting thoughts indeed.. thank you for the thought provoking thoughts..
    i can totally relate to the way f.b treats one & makes one feel.. i think there’s being a lot of thought going into the background of how f.b works & how they make their users/consumers feel..
    so thakns, i now have a lot more to consider about what i put out there

    but one thing f.b did give me has being finding people i’d have to have hired a P.I & paid a lot to track ’em down.. that & being able to see how any folks who’ve migrated from S.A. are doing..(hint hint)
    yes, in terms of narcissism & stalking, it seems to encourage that.. almost in a way that makes you feel like it’s natural & naturally afterward leaves you feeling cheapened/violated ..
    clever manipulation built in tools subtly increasing weird memes in society.. questioning what the words ‘friend’ & what we ‘like’ really mean..

    so yea.. guess there’s more than i, a simpleton, sees going on under the neat ‘n tidy dashboard of the interweb.. but as a shift in society & the web it’s being a pretty big shift (ie before we were told never to give our details online,use real names etc) and if you see it as a simple way to see the 7degrees of separation in the world, it’s quite entertaining too..(that an just wasting time like many activities online)

    but i totally get what you’re saying too.. guess my life’s full of such paradoxes..
    guess as a superficial platform, it’s perfect.. but when it comes to it’s other uses(by such as governments/law/business), it’s a huge gaping hole waiting to be exploited..
    ps i’ve always hoped we could remove the government & we the society run society, via the web, voting etc.. wouldn’t that be true democracy, by us for us?..guess i’ll still be waiting a long while..

    i don’t consider myself much of a thinker, but thanks again for moving those old cogs in my head forwards a bit
    and will miss checking u out/stalking on f.b (as someone who knew u just a lil while in sunny s.a), but you gotta do what u gotta do.. or you wouldn’t be a self willed human..

    to me, i just think it’s a matter of not taking f.b or anything like it, too seriously.. it was designed for school kids to show off.. and just grew from that thought i guess.. so i suppose it’s what u want to make of it.. but then again like school u also open to all those +&- elements school had on offer.. then again, guess i’m hooked.. i can’t believe the amount of old acquaintances & new ones i’ve made.. guess the point is to make contact there & take a relationship further in the real universe, if geographically possible..

    thanks 4the inspiring tidbit & hope u doing well bud

    Andy

  9. Sam permalink
    May 26, 2011 12:55 pm

    You are very right about the nature of the facebook-to-user relationship being exploitative. Zuckerberg is a billionaire because there is value in these relationships, but he monetizes this value and shares none of that moneytary value with the users.

    It reminds me of the history of the early industrial age when unscrupulous owners paid labourers partly in alcohol and with just enough to keep a roof over their head to come back to work the next day.

    At the same time, the issues of control over the relationship and means of communciation arise. Indeed it is scary to think that one company can have so much control over the ability of individuals to congregate in the virtual world.

    The opensocial movement is a reaction to the abusive nature of this relationship, as is myCube:
    http://www.fastcompany.com/1754416/what-if-facebook-paid-you-for-your-data

    I’m not convinced that mycube is MUCH better than Facebook, perhaps marginally so. But I think social networks are in a very immature stage a la AOL and that in the end, they will evolve towards open standards and individuals having the ability/option to monetize the value of their own relationships.

  10. May 30, 2011 2:24 pm

    I have been test driving Diapora a bit and as more people come on board it’s becoming more and more worthwhile. It’s slowly filling up with Facebook refugees.

    Diaspora runs on autonomous pods, so if you can’t get an account at the main site (joindiasora.org), try londondiaspora.org.

  11. aisha permalink
    June 8, 2011 8:46 pm

    Hi Walton, Aisha here, I don’t know if you will remember me but I worked with you on some stuff when you were in Cape Town at the time I was with Workers College. I am still Durban based. Its really nice to stumble on a friendly face on the net.

    I really liked your post. Michael, who is now my husband, decided to set up a facebook account for me, I know he was coming from a good place but I was really irritated! Anyhow, it was like a bad movie that you cant stop watching, people I barely remember from 30 years ago wanted to be friends. mostly it was voyeuristic for me. But it really made me uncomfortable, and i couldn’t really put my finger on why. That is until your post.

    I immediately went to my facebook account and deactivated. the bastards try and get you to stay, quite pathetic! To hell with the guilt, I feel free after all it was never really personal now was it? so thank you

    Anyhow, the reason I stumbled across your blog is that i am looking for somewhere to post occasional articles on Africa and labour. I have been writing quite a lot recently, just finished on article called ‘can africa’s industrialisation ambition be greened?’ its written for labour but I realised that it was not appropriate for my usual place to contribute that requires articles to be news, not commentary. I don’t want to create my own blog, I would prefer to add a voice to an existing online network, any ideas?

  12. August 5, 2011 11:56 am

    It’s no surprise that more and more people are leaving facebook.
    I been off it for 2 months now, and I haven’t looked back… I feel much happier that people from THE PAST no longer know my business…

    It’s just a 1) Privacy destroyer, 2) Popularity/Coolness/Narcissism contest 3) A complete Time waster…

    I mean adding people from highschool— Did you like highschool? I hated it, thought it was full of dickheads why would I want to re-remember them?! that’s just haunting… lol

  13. Irene permalink
    November 25, 2011 7:40 am

    From the documentary “All watched over by machines of loving grace”, which I highly recommend by the way:

    “It is fashionable to suggest that cyber-space is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality, this is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.
    Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money value. In the 19th Century, commodities were made in factories, by workers who were mostly exploited. But I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board I was posting to – like Compuserve or AOL – and that commodity was sold onto other consumer entities as entertainment.
    Cyber-space, is a Black Hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it, as an emotional spectacle. It is done by businesses that commodify human interaction and emotion – and we are getting lost in the spectacle.”
    —Carmen Hermosillo

  14. January 22, 2012 3:39 pm

    I just recently received a message from Facebook that my account will be deleted if I not take certain actions on my page. I had posted an American flag with instead of stars it had swastikas on it and many more “anti-american” content. (mostly quotes from Morris Berman) This is MAJOR CENSORSHIP! I didn’t hesitate and closed my account immediately.

  15. Nelson permalink
    February 11, 2012 2:54 pm

    Amen!
    I closed my FB acct. yesterday. Only until today I read your article.
    I feel so much better now being out of FB.

  16. jacqueline permalink
    April 15, 2012 11:40 pm

    me bloquiaro mi cuenta de correo en hotmail como en trar a mi facebook si se meolvido la contraseña y paar eo necesito mi correo…..

  17. jacqueline permalink
    April 15, 2012 11:44 pm

    no entro mas de año en mi facebook y la contraseña se me olvido y para colmo mi cuenta de correo en hotmail me la bloquiaron….pero no es la primera vez q me blquean una cuenta en hotmail….simpre he perdido cominucaciones con amigos por este problema.. hoy en dia me esta pasando lo mismo que hacer para recuperarambas cosas….

  18. May 24, 2012 6:31 am

    quiero recuperar mi cuenta en facebook, gracias

Trackbacks

  1. Using Facebook for union organising and campaigns | Cyberunions
  2. John Kyle » Blog Archive » Why I closed my Facebook account

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