Privacy Fatigue & Ditching Facebook

Five years ago, I deleted Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Last year, I deleted all content from my Facebook—every status, picture, like, and interaction. This week, now that—hopefully—the backup archive of my life has been reduced to a null, I plan to permanently delete Facebook.

It was easy to delete the feed of news blips and pictures; there was no sense of loss. Facebook was different. It was home to family, friends, bands, events, and possibility. Facebook gave me a sense of connection and it was nearly impossible for me to stay away for more than a week or two.

The impulse to check my news feed was embarrassing. I knew exactly what would be there: pictures of cooing babies, 30-second cooking videos, quotes of psedo-widsom, and poorly articulated political rants. And the poorly-directed advertisements certainly failed to excite me.

When deleting everything, post by post, I encountered over a dozen instances in which I had written something suggesting my desire to leave the site: “What’s with this new feature? Facebook is getting creepy. Thinking about leaving…” These posts date back to 2013, five years ago.

I find it both fascinating and disturbing that we so freely share our information online, despite recognizing that the information could be used against us. We know that the government can tap into our digital lives and third parties can collect and manipulate. We know, yet we do nothing.

My boyfriend is currently working on a research project to explore Facebook users’ attitudes surrounding privacy and sharing. In support of this research, he found a newly-released research article that discusses the role of privacy fatigue in online privacy behavior. The study defines “privacy fatigue” as an individual’s sense of futility and weariness around online privacy. Between the increasing difficulty of managing one’s online personal data and the repeated consumer data breaches, privacy appears to be a fast-departing car. Technology moves too fast for the average person to keep up, and too fast to protect themselves. As a defense, people internet users develop cynicism and emotional exhaustion surrounding the subject.

“Data analyzed from a survey of 324 Internet users showed that privacy fatigue has a stronger impact on privacy behavior than privacy concerns do, although the latter is widely regarded as the dominant factor in explaining online privacy behavior.”

–Computers in Human Behavior, The Role of Privacy Fatigue in Online Privacy Behavior (April 2018)

When I read this study, my own story began to make sense. Despite an acute awareness of privacy risks, I was repeatedly unsuccessful at leaving Facebook. That is, until now.

I discovered a trick that has made Facebook infinitely less enjoyable, beneficial, and addictive: strip away the clues, make myself begin to disappear.

  • I snipped away at my “Friends” list, deleting over 570 people. The list of 650 cool people I’ve met over the years was reduced to my closest friends and family, 80 in total.
  • I unfollowed and un-liked every organization, brand, cause, subject, and event. I removed myself from groups that discuss books, music, enlightenment, and local volunteer opportunities.
  • I deleted every status, stripping my online home of every photo, journal, and ticket stubs.
  • I wiped every comment and like for other people’s pages, even the ideas that were well-formulated and true—especially those.
  • I stopped interacting with anything or anyone on the site.

Almost instantaneously, the quality of my news feed went downhill. The entrepreneurs, writers, and travelers I previously followed were nowhere to be found. The cute puppy pictures I love were gone. My front page was filled with pictures of babies, advertisements for diapers, and a promotion for an online GED. The experience felt like taking a bite out of a chocolate cupcake, and then finding toenail clippings on your first bite. I quickly stopped craving that sweet, addictive cupcake.

Facebook and most modern web interfaces are built upon algorithms, and many would argue that those algorithms are broken. Several would argue that computer have gone rogue, taking off independently like a runaway train. The very systems that dictate what we see and who we interact with are “making decisions” based upon based behaviors, rather that future possibilities. They are capturing us in a continuous feedback loop, perhaps limiting our chance at personal expansion.

Along with dysfunctional algorithms, there is also movement of outrage surrounding the use of personal data. Facebook and Google are painted as the villains for having tricked us into disclosing the most personal details of our lives. Yet, I see so much confusion around the topic. People excitedly install new elements into their “smart home,” yet feel deeply violated when those very devices track their conversations, sexual activities, or comings and goings. Whether in good hands or not, this is vital information that could have long-term negative consequence.

Alex Tabarrok posted an interesting thought regarding this idea on Marginal Revolution. He argues that our hundreds of friends on Facebook are not simply our data—they are a unique co-creation of ourselves, our friends, and Facebook. Without Facebook, many of those connections may not exist. As Tabrrok concisely states, “Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.”

So, from there, the question inevitably circles back to what the benefits of Facebook are as compared to the risks. Technology freely offers a world of abundance and convenience, yet that comes at the cost of data and, often, privacy.

Personally, I’m weary of the long-term, yet-unrealized consequences of big data and compromised privacy. I’ve read too many dystopian novels to fully trust those in power, whether political or corporate in nature.

Having all but severed my final tie to Facebook, it feels absurd that I waited so long, but with a newfound understanding of privacy fatigue, I’m beginning to understand my delay.

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