A month ago I did the unthinkable. I quit Facebook. There’s a lot you might learn from my experience, even if you never follow me.
I didn’t bail in a pique over privacy or ethically questionable emotion experiments. I was fed up with the time-wasting inconsistency of a news feed that Facebook algorithmically displays in everything but a true reverse-chronological order of all friends’ status updates.
Not everyone agreed. “You’re out of touch,” one reader scolded. “Continue to whine about how you’re entitled,” another admonished. “You’ll never guess what happens next!!!” a third exclaimed thrice.
But as I pulled the plug, I experienced enlightenment of a sort worth sharing with no Like button attached.
Archive anyway. The steps in deleting or “deactivating” (the preferred alternative for the indecisive) an account unexpectedly forces good Facebook hygiene. Either path prompts a suggestion to download the content from your Facebook account.
There’s no need to wait until you’re fed up to get this benefit. Under Account General Settings, at the very bottom of the main options you’ll see “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” Click, and you start the process of generating a “personal archive” which includes posts, photos, videos, messages, chats and the information in the About section of your profile.
Mine was 63.4 MB unzipped, and seemed complete. There was the list of all 428 friends, including (cough) 20 I’d removed over the years. Full photo albums were preserved with snarky comments, some my own. The one thing missing? A group of status updates I’d purged in early 2009, of which I was I was reminded by the note, “Frank Catalano deleted two years of Facebook posts. Because he can.”
Prepare to be guilted. It began immediately after I clicked “Deactivate your account” under Account Security Settings. The very next screen asked, “Are you sure you want to deactivate your Facebook account? Deactivating your account will disable your profile and remove your name and picture from most things you’ve shared on Facebook.” Directly underneath were photos of five friends that the Facebook algorithm had presumably selected based on my interactions, topped with “Otis will miss you,” “Steven will miss you,” “Ellen will miss you,” “Randall will miss you,” and “Elaina will miss you,” along with a prompt to immediately send each a message.
Suspiciously, neither my spouse nor any member of my extended family was pictured. Either Facebook realized I have other ways of communicating with them, or knows more about the current state of my offline personal relationships than I do.
If you decide to deactivate, do not leave this page without selecting the checkbox to, “Opt out of receiving future emails from Facebook.” Even deactivated, if you don’t opt out you’ll still get Facebook invitations and tag notifications. Think Godfather III and avoid Michael Corleone’s fate.
Others may not understand. Well after the week-to-ten days it took for the twitching to stop (my thumb kept reflexively reaching for the smartphone icon), I was asked by those friends who could still reach me why I quit. And they were dumbfounded to hear that Facebook messes with the news feed.
They are not alone. Recent work presented by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard confirmed how surprised Facebook users were by how much content was kept from their news feeds. Only 38% of participants in a study were aware that Facebook used an algorithm to determine what content from friends to display. “Often,” noted one report of the Berkman Center results, “People became very upset when posts from family members and loved ones were hidden.” In some cases, they simply assumed their friends had stopped posting.
There may be no escape. Rather than seeing Facebook’s manipulations as a cautionary tale, its social media brethren appear to be treating it as a model. Around the time I fled Facebook, I began to notice occasional tweets showing up in my Android Twitter app’s home timeline that had merely been favorited by those I followed, or had come from an account those I followed themselves followed – but had not actually retweeted.
A few days later Twitter’s support pages confirmed this annoying new reality: “When we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow.”
Others have already begun claiming that this changes the entire nature of Twitter as user control over what they curate deteriorates. For me, it just means common convergence continues toward the same event horizon of no return, as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn each become more like the others and approach the black hole of algorithmic opacity. I suppose I could always escape to Google+, but I do like the social part of social media.
For now, I’ll keep my distance from Facebook – that habit appears broken. I’ll wait and see what happens with LinkedIn. And I’ll be very careful to make sure that when I favorite a tweet on Twitter, it’s something I don’t mind sharing.
Since, increasingly, it appears I may not be able to choose what I see or what I share as these services decide that the only rules worth following are their own algorithms.