Back in 2012, many observers scoffed at the billion-dollar price that Facebook paid for Instagram. Who’s laughing now? That acquisition seems more and more prescient as time goes by—as M.G. Siegler remarked recently, “The smartest thing Facebook ever did was buy Instagram.” The social networking giant managed to secure its own life raft, long before most of us noticed that the seas were getting choppy.
Now, Facebook itself is sinking. My friends, at least, have long since stopped posting there. The conversations that do happen on Facebook tend to be politically-charged and impolite. As Seigler notes, many teens never even join the service. At the same time, the company faces increasing pressure from government watchdogs—both for its role as a Russian lever in the 2016 election and for alleged censorship of particular political viewpoints.
Happily (for Zuckerberg & Co.), Instagram has avoided these problems. The service’s exclusive emphasis on photo-sharing—formerly Facebook’s best feature—has made it irresistibly sticky—even to the Snapchat generation. Plus, because Instagram only does photos (i.e., no text posts and no links), its conversation threads are less political, less controversial, and generally less fraught than on Facebook. Meanwhile, the branding firewall between the two companies has prevented Facebook’s regulatory controversies from engulfing Instagram. Six years post-acquisition, many users still don’t know it happened.)
Facebook’s strategy has worked perfectly on me, at least. I visit Facebook only rarely—and often only for a few seconds each time. There just isn’t much there for me.1 But Instagram remains a daily habit; who doesn’t love seeing snapshots of friends and family? ■
To be fair, I may not be the best anecdotal example, since I’ve worked hard to detach myself from Facebook these past few years. I’ve deactivated my account multiple times, I refuse to install the app on my phone, and I run content blockers to prevent the news feed from showing up on the web.↩
Justin Rosenstein, who helped invent the now-ubiquitous Facebook “Like” button, writes this:
“These are our lives — our precious, finite, mortal lives. If we’re not vigilant, TVs, computers, and mobile devices will guide us to spend our time and attention in ways that don’t align with our deepest desires.”
Here, Rosenstein succinctly captures what I was feeling when I picked this site’s name. “Careful tech” is about approaching our devices with more clarity, more mindfulness, and, yes, more caution. The risk is real: we’re in danger of wasting our lives.
We may even be losing our souls—those things that make us human. Tech distraction suppresses our agency, deadens our compassion, dulls our consciousness, and drowns out our sense of purpose. When we’re held captive by our gadgets, we stop pursuing noble causes and instead squirrel away our hours, chasing red badges and refreshed timelines.
“Businesses that depend on demand-generation advertising… are incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to stare at them, from sensationalist journalism, to outrage-baiting discourse, to addictive software. That’s why they sometimes bring out the worst in humanity: they turn people into a product for advertisers to buy…. I’m hopeful we can move onto other business models—in the way that HBO & Netflix have shown is possible for television—in which content producers’ and consumers’ interests are economically aligned.”
“Free” ain’t free
A corollary to all this? “Free” software isn’t free. I’m bartering something for that $0 price tag; in many cases, I’m giving up my attention. Ad-supported software attacks my focus; over time, it makes me shallower, more anxious, and less present. This barrage makes me unhappy.
That’s one reason paid software still matters, even in 2017. In buying great software, I incentivize developers to build apps that help me feel better—instead of ones that steal my focus. I’m helping align the app ecosystem with my best interests. So maybe money can buy happiness, after all. Or, at least, it can fend away unhappiness.
Owning my attention
But I can’t wait around for the software industry to align its financial model with my best intentions. I’m on the Internet all day, every day, which gives my monkey mind plenty of opportunities to get distracted. So here are some changes I’m making now to guard my attention:
I’ve locked down my phone notifications. Those buzzes and alerts aren’t doing me any favors. One example: until today, my podcast client pinged me every time a new episode was available. That’s pointless; very rarely do I drop what I’m doing to listen to a show. There are too many apps I let interrupt me for no good reason. You might find it helpful to scroll back through your phone’s notification center, so that you can remember which apps are constantly sending reminders.
This feels scary, but I’ve even turned off Twitter notifications. I’ll no longer instantly be aware when someone retweets or replies to me, unless I’m actively using the app. This not only protects my attention, it also prevents me from obsessing about how much (or more often, how little) interest my posts drum up.
If a phone app has a reasonably-priced upgrade that disables in-app ads, I’m going to spring for it. For example, I check Weather Underground, my weather app of choice, multiple times each day. That app lets you obliterate ads for $1.99 a year. That’s a good buy.
If an app has advertising or distracting media that can’t be turned off, I’m going to delete it. I’ve already dumped Facebook, the preeminent offender here. I’ve also killed the Weather Channel app, which offers a $3.99 “no ads” option but doesn’t (as far as I know) let you turn off its ridiculous ‘video’ and ‘news’ features.
I’ve rearranged my home screen (yet again) to make productivity and focus my priorities. My most productive apps (OmniFocus, Calendar, and Drafts) get pride-of-place in the bottom dock. The first page is completely empty, as a reminder to be intentional about what apps I open. On the second page, everything gets buried into folders. And within those folders, the first folder page is dedicated only to favorite apps that improve my focus. Check out the screenshots at right.
These are small gestures, but hopefully they give me just a little bit more headspace. ■
I’ve flirted with deletion for months now, repeatedly deactivating Facebook, only to come crawling back a few days later.
This past weekend, however, I made the first change that couldn’t be easily undone: deleting all 500+ friend connections using a Google Chrome script. That step had “weight” to it, since rebuilding my social graph would mean starting from scratch. I would have to manually, painstakingly send each individual request, and confused friends would hesitate to accept, since they’d wonder whether my account was legit (“Wasn’t I already friends with Matt? Is this a spammer?”)
As it turns out, the great unfriending purge lent me just the momentum I needed. Once that was done, I felt liberated to finally delete my account for good. Of course, as Facebook eagerly reminded me, I haven’t escaped quite yet. There’s a two-week waiting period; if I log in again, my old account will instantly be resurrected (“It’s a MIRACLE!”). This is the last Facebook face-off; the company leaves the door unlocked for those whose willpower can’t last the fortnight.
But, again, the unfriending step has given my Facebook departure some inertia. Because that old account no longer has any friends, I’m not tempted to come crawling back. Even if I did log in, there’d be nothing to see; Facebook’s a ghost town to the friendless.
Facebook deleted, but…
I do have a confession. At the same time I was deleting my old account, I was creating a new one—a “dummy” account that’s 100% undiscoverable and nearly empty. It has no Facebook Messenger history (by which old friends could track down my profile). It has no ‘like’ history or profile info for Facebook to target advertisements against.
Why maintain a dummy account at all? I’d rather cut ties with Facebook completely, but there are three reasons I’m keeping my toe in the water:
IMing with my wife. We use different chat services for different purposes. iMessage works well for on-the-go contact. Google Hangouts serves as our ‘work chat’ solution. But we still need an asynchronous conversation for sharing articles and links. Divorced from the grossness of Facebook itself, Messenger is actually a pretty decent messaging app. More importantly, it’s one my wife is already using. So my dummy Facebook account has one (and only one) friend: my wife.
Promoting my online work. Although Facebook isn’t for me, others have found ways to make the service tolerable—even valuable. I want them to be able to enjoy my work; a reader is a reader, no matter how they find me.
Keeping tabs on new tech developments. Like it or not, Facebook is a major player in the online space. They’re likely to be influential for years—even decades—to come. If I want to understand the features and products that Facebook will announce in the future, I’m going to need an account. I might as well have it ready to go.
Summary: tips for deleting your Facebook account
Quitting Facebook is hard. The service is optimized for capturing and recapturing human attention; it’s literally engineered to keep you from leaving. But it’s possible to ease yourself out the door, so that the actual account deletion feels anticlimactic. To summarize, here are my recommendations:
Try account deactivation first. Short-term Facebook “fasts” are a good first step. They wean you off the service’s constant, algorithmic stimulation. Plus, you may be pleasantly surprised how much more time you have and how much better you feel. These realizations will make it easier to take the deletion step.
Unfriend everyone before deleting. Taking this step makes it less likely that you’ll reverse your decision after the fateful click. One note: Facebook makes it infuriatingly difficult to unfriend people in bulk. Fortunately, there are browser extensions that can speed up the process dramatically.
Consider using a “dummy” account. Facebook’s orbit is hard to escape. You may need to manage a Facebook page for work, or Facebook Messenger may be your family’s default chat platform. For these one-off needs, create a replacement account, locked down and hidden from everyone you choose. Just remember that Facebook specializes in increasing user engagement; it will do everything it can to suck you deeper into its ecosystem. ■
It sounds kind of sad when I put it that way, huh? ↩
But Facebook isn’t just “sticky” from a relationship perspective. There are also some practical annoyances that make it difficult to resist the blue behemoth. From time to time, I’ve even given in and and temporarily reopened my account (then immediately deactivated it again). Here’s what keeps dragging me back:
Many web services rely on Facebook identity for authentication. When I sold my old Apple Watch a few weeks ago, I was forced to reactivate my Facebook account in order to log into Swappa. Lesson learned: whenever possible, avoid using third-party services (e.g. Facebook, Google, or Twitter) to create accounts for new apps and web services. If an app forces you to connect to Facebook, consider skipping it (and letting the developer know why).
Some meatspace (i.e., real-life) groups only communicate via Facebook. For example, my local ultimate frisbee “league” drums up attendance each week by posting to a shared Facebook group. Without an active account, I can’t chime in—or even check whether anyone else is planning to show up. Lesson learned: I only have myself to blame here, since I was the one who originally created the Facebook group. Looking back, a shared text message thread would have accomplished the same thing, while remaining platform-agnostic.
Similarly, many local businesses use Facebook as their only web presence. I’ve occasionally been tripped into logging in, just to get at a restaurant’s operating hours or menu. Lesson learned: fortunately, most Facebook page info is accessible to anonymous users, though it’s not hard to imagine Facebook someday locking this data behind their authentication wall. In that case, there’s not much you can do, unless you want to (a) pester business owners by complaining about their skimpy web presence or (b) offer to help them establish a “real” website. And even if you have the time for this, many business owners are reluctant to pay for web hosting, when so many of their customers live in Facebook anyways.
Since I started blogging again, I’ve wondered whether I ought to be promoting my posts and podcasts on Facebook. I don’t want to do this, but it would drive more traffic. Lesson learned: no good solution here. If I want Facebook users’ eyeballs, I will have to reopen my account and cross-post there. There’s no way to update a Facebook page without maintaining an active personal profile.
Of course, if I were really serious about quitting Facebook, I could simply delete my account. At that point, it would be a chore to re-join, since I’d have to rebuild my friends list and repopulate my profile. Momentum would likely keep me from getting sucked into Facebook’s orbit again.
But for all the reasons listed above (and especially the last one), I haven’t yet had the courage to quit, cold-turkey. ■
And by “league”, I mean “a dozen people who like to drop frisbees and jog meekly around an elementary school soccer field.” ↩
“The researchers found quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. A 1 per cent increase in ‘likes’ and clicks and status updates was correlated with a 5 to 8 per cent decrease in mental health. In addition, they found that the positive effect of real-world interactions, which enhance well-being, was accurately paralleled by the ‘negative associations of Facebook use’. In effect people were swapping real relationships which made them feel good for time on Facebook which made them feel bad.”
Lanchester forcefully makes the case that Facebook is a net evil—bad for your mental health and bad for society as a whole.
Cynical about Facebook’s motivations, its suck on my time, and its effects on my well-being, I’ve tried to untangle myself from the service lately. I first deleted the app a few months ago—a divorce that didn’t take, since I reinstalled within days. My second attempt proved more successful, however, and I haven’t used the app since late spring. I do occasionally get sucked into checking Facebook via the web, but that happens less and less frequently. I’m slowly psyching myself up for a permanent account deletion.
What keeps me from pulling the trigger? Family photos, of course. It’s hard to resist the spurts of dopamine I get when friends comment on pics of my adorable two-year-old. That same mild addiction also makes it tough to quit Instagram (which is owned, of course, by Facebook itself.)