Why I'm Quitting Facebook

Culture, Technology

I've been using Facebook for a couple of years now. I've had a substantial amount of fun with it. I've reconnected with people I'd lost touch with, grown closer to others, and followed events in the lives of family and friends that otherwise I wouldn't know about.

Despite that — and despite the fact that I haven't found a good alternative to Facebook — I'm quitting fairly soon. Here's why.

The bottom line is this: staying on Facebook requires either (1) that I abandon the notion that I have any control over who sees, and profits from the use of, my data, or (2) that I engage in an increasingly tedious and difficult struggle to figure out, and exercise, the diminishing amount of control that Facebook is willing to give me over the privacy of my data.

User control of privacy has been steadily decreasing on Facebook for years, and that process has recently accelerated. Facebook has slowly made more and more of your information public by default. Its privacy policy has repeatedly grown longer and more complex, and the various settings one must find and manipulate to defend privacy have grown more numerous and unmanageable. Facebook has increasingly forced you to decide between making information public or not hosting that information at all — for instance, by making you choose between either having your interests, background, location, etc. networked and linked, or leaving those pages blank. In other words, they are stealthily reducing your control over some elements of your privacy. Facebook has developed features that require you to worry not only about how you are sharing your data, but about how your friends are exposing your data by sharing or commenting upon it. Under the guise of integrating the Facebook experience with other web activities, Facebook has made your other web activity increasingly public. Finally, Facebook has repeatedly compromised your data privacy [allegedly] by mistake, through programming errors that expose your information to others.

Facebook's steady assault on privacy norms does not appear solely motivated by profit motive. It's not just that they want to sell access to you, and your data, to advertisers and data miners to make a buck. No, Facebook's leaders have both philosophical and practical views about privacy that may be frankly inconsistent with your wishes:

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

"We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are."

In fact, they may have a pronounced and long-term disdain for the very concept of privacy.

Am I smart enough to figure out how to navigate Facebook's privacy settings, even in their current much more complicated state, and maximize the privacy Facebook is willing to give my profile and updates? Sure. But increasingly doing so feels like a job, or like an unpleasant but mandatory household task like balancing the checkbook. More than that, it feels like a job that's also contest with Facebook and its designers, in which they — motivated by a desire to make money off of my data, and by a futurist anti-privacy philosophical agenda — seek to slip changes past me, outwit me, and wear me down. Could I keep track of the steady steam of privacy setting changes and carefully analyze each one? Yes. But I'm sick of doing so.

It reminds me of the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, to the non-geeks among you — like World of Warcraft) called "Star Wars Galaxies" that I played about six years ago. In that game, your Star-Wars-universe avatar could build stuff like weapons and armor and tools, but to do so had to harvest resources like minerals. You could build machines to harvest those resources. But you had to visit all your machines to maintain them, or they would break. So every day I'd be logging on to the game and instead of exploring and shooting stormtroopers and stuff, I'd be running around for a real-time hour maintaining my resource harvesting machines. Suddenly I realized this felt like a job, not like a game, so I quit. (I understand many people come to a similar realization about Farmville on Facebook.)

Facebook is making me feel the same — like it's a constant chore just to keep ahead of them.

I think this is a feature, not a bug. It's profitable for Facebook, the same way that it's profitable for companies to make it difficult and annoying and time-consuming to submit rebate requests, such that many people never bother. I think that Facebook is deliberately making it more complicated and time-consuming to protect your privacy, in the hopes that you won't invest the time and will just accept the default lack of privacy, so that they can continue to profit from selling access to your information. Their explanations for the increasingly prolix nature of privacy settings are lame:

Q: I love Facebook, but I am increasingly frustrated by the convoluted nature of the privacy settings. It’s clearly within Facebook’s ability to make the privacy settings clear and easy to use — why hasn’t this been a focus? — Ben, Chicago

A: Unfortunately, there are two opposing forces here — simplicity and granularity. By definition, if you make content sharing simpler, you lose granularity and vice versa. To date, we’ve been criticized for making things too complicated when we provide granular controls and for not providing enough control when we make things simple. We do our best to balance these interests but recognize we can do even better and we will.

This, of course, is nonsense. Facebook can balance "simplicity and granularity" by having both a convoluted privacy control panel and a single, simple button you can push to set all of those complicated settings at once to maximum privacy. That would be trivially easy to program; you need look no further than your browser to see a system that offers both simple and complex control schemes simultaneously. But Facebook will likely never program it, because they don't want it to be easy to protect your privacy. That would cost them money, and offend their philosophy.

I'm sick of making the effort. I'm offended at the idea that I need to make the effort. I could simply scrub my Facebook page and all my postings until they offer only what I'm willing to offer up to the entire world (including Facebook's data miners and advertising clients), but that seems to defeat the purpose of Facebook. Plus, apparently it's an open question whether scrubbing the data would prevent Facebook from continuing to use and sell it.

So I've decided to join the exodus from Facebook. It's just a question of when. I'll be researching on the right way to do it, and the most effective way to actually delete my data so Facebook can't mine and sell it, and report back.

I'll miss using Facebook. I'll probably lose touch with old friends. But I won't miss the increasingly ubiquitous feeling that I've fallen behind on the Sisyphean task of protecting myself from Facebook.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

17 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Mike  •  May 14, 2010 @6:20 pm

    That's odd. Usually you'd post a link to this sort of thing on Facebook.

  2. yoshi  •  May 14, 2010 @6:20 pm

    Deleting your account is an overreaction. The answer is simple – remove all information outside of your name and picture and don't subscribe to any applications. That's what I do and so do most of my peers (we all work in information security) – you get the function of being able to connect with people without having to manage your privacy settings.

    I also find it fascinating that only now people are getting annoyed with personalized advertisements. Amazon has been doing it for more than a decade (I worked for the company that initially provided it) and google has been doing it for almost as long. But only when facebook started to do it – did people freak out. Interesting.

  3. Kathy H.  •  May 15, 2010 @4:46 am

    See today's NY Times: http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/techtonicshifts/archive/2010/05/13/as-facebook-takes-a-beating-a-brutal-movie-is-set-to-make-things-much-worse.aspx

    I'll stay on Facebook. I don't want to give up how much it enhances my relationship with family and friends. But, I check my privacy settings every week now.

  4. piperTom  •  May 15, 2010 @5:26 am

    There is an open source alternative, Disapora. I haven't tried it, but it sounds good.

  5. Mike  •  May 15, 2010 @8:03 am

    Yeah, Diaspora could be the first real Facebook alternative to come along. Hopefully it will gain enough traction to live up to its potential. Sadly, it doesn't actually exist yet.

  6. Al  •  May 15, 2010 @8:49 am

    I'm hoping for a Facebook alternative that my entire frigging family won't jump onto.

  7. Rob  •  May 16, 2010 @8:24 am

    Thanks Ken. I just linked to this post on FB. I then realized that since my company is working on a FB offering and I have co-workers added as friends – I probably shouldn't be talking about it in a negative light. Another reason why I should delete my profile I guess.

  8. eddie  •  May 16, 2010 @2:09 pm

    Facebook can balance “simplicity and granularity” by having both a convoluted privacy control panel and a single, simple button you can push to set all of those complicated settings at once to maximum privacy.

    Maximum privacy is almost certainly not what anyone wants, and not what you want, either. Maximum privacy would be to not share any of your information with anyone. If that's what you want, why did you put any of your information on Facebook in the first place?

    What you really want, rather than what you just said you want, is a simple button that sets all of the privacy controls to exactly the amount of sharing that you, Ken, would like to have and no more. Now, maybe you think it's obvious where that should be – after all, it's what any right-thinking person would want, right?

    Turns out people have lots of different ideas about what the "obviously correct amount of sharing" is.

    For example, the largest target audience of Facebook doesn't give a rat's ass about any of this Facebook privacy hoo-ha that's sprung up on the Internets. They like publicity. They want all of their friends AND EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD to know that they really really like Twilight and that they need help feeding their ducks in Farmville. Interestingly enough, one of the things that they really want to keep private is whose profiles they've been looking at. And Facebook happily accommodates that right out of the box.

    Quitting Facebook is a reasonable proposition for someone who's too old to have the social environment of a sixteen-to-twentysix-year-old, too busy to keep up with the necessary privacy settings, and too dumb to just take down all the info you wouldn't want public in the first place.

  9. Ken  •  May 16, 2010 @4:06 pm

    Yep, that's me. Old and dumb.

  10. Kathy H.  •  May 16, 2010 @4:11 pm

    If you weren't on Facebook, I wouldn't have gotten to know more about you and Katrina. I've been glad to get to know you better. Don't leave!

  11. Madrocketscientist  •  May 17, 2010 @4:02 pm

    You can also try this

    http://www.reclaimprivacy.org/

  12. Austin  •  May 17, 2010 @5:08 pm

    The biggest problem for me is the Opt-out policy. Might as well have no policy if they can change it at any time and automagically opt you in without your consent. If you're not paying attention you could wind up sharing anything and everything according to FB's whims.

  13. Mark W  •  May 18, 2010 @11:25 am

    Wow – that's exactly why I quit Star Wars Galaxies as well; it was nothing more than a job, and yet I was paying for the privilege of working. Not fun.

  14. David  •  May 19, 2010 @6:02 am
  15. Kevin  •  May 19, 2010 @10:37 am

    I never included a lot of private information on my Facebook page, but finally decided I just didn't want to be listed, and it was, as you put it, their obvious "disdain for the very concept of privacy" that finally got me to quit and delete my account entirely. I do want to have a page for my website, though, but as it turns out you can't use many of those functions unless (surprise) you also have a personal account. Why should that be required? Seems like another example of the overall corporate attitude they have. Still on the fence about using it for a business site, but if I do sign back up, it will be the most bare-bones account ever — if they let me do that. If they demand that I flesh it out, forget it.

  16. Ken  •  May 24, 2010 @2:29 pm

    With respect to whether a one-button-keep-it-private approach is feasible, or old and stupid, here's Facebook's CEO after some bad press:

    If a user would rather that Facebook not share her personal information with other services unknowingly, then there should be a simple switch that turns off Facebook's ability to do that. This was the message delivered by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in an op-ed piece published in Sunday's Washington Post.

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