How big a deal is the movement to delete Facebook? Is life better without it? Photo: Esther Vargas

Why the risk of going cold tech turkey is worth it

Have you deleted your Facebook account yet? Apparently people are leaving Facebook in droves after they learned that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook user data to micro-target swing voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and presidential election in the United States. Elon Musk, Will Ferrell and even our Privacy Commissioner John Edwards have cut their ties with the social media giant.

Is #deleteFacebook a big deal? It is if a sufficient number of people jump on board. The success of the exodus depends on how many users are prepared to gamble on the social costs associated with leaving Facebook.

These costs aren’t trivial. Musk and Ferrell may be able to easily delete their accounts but for anyone without a publicist Facebook remains a critical way to stay connected to the rest of the world.

For one, Facebook is the go-to events management tool. Scores of students use Facebook to set up study groups and share notes, young parents use it to set up support groups, and activists to organise rallies. As Facebook is often the only way these activities or events are coordinated, deleting Facebook makes it much more difficult to participate in social or civic activities. You can’t show up to an event if you didn’t know it was on.

There are other factors too.

Social media scholar Laura Portwood-Stacer suggests men find it easier to disconnect, as women carry the cultural baggage of traditionally managing the social calendar.

People who depend on social capital for their livelihood will also find it difficult to leave. Facebook is crucial for business and brands. The social media giant is still the biggest attention marketplace in town.

And then there are those who are applying for jobs. Ten years ago, all you had to worry about was hiding any lurid online photos. Now a bad photo may be better than nothing at all. Some recruitment experts have suggested that having no Facebook profile can lead hiring managers to question your social skills.

To put it simply, deleting Facebook is like requesting to be removed from the White Pages a decade or two ago. It doesn’t make you impossible to contact, but it invites social exclusion. With over two billion users, Facebook is the world’s most popular café or office water cooler. A place to catch up with others and stay informed.

If enough people delete Facebook, then the social infrastructure of Facebook will collapse

Part of the gamble of #deleteFacebook is that you risk losing being in touch. This includes with ‘weak ties’: the Facebook-only friends, those you met backpacking in South-East Asia or awkwardly shared details with at a work conference. We typically care less for these weaker ties, but network and media scholars have long acknowledged they turn out to be valuable contacts for that next venture or job opportunity. If you believe in the career maxim “it’s all about who you know” then #deleteFacebook does significantly shrink your network. Sociologist Gary Paul Green even contends that having weak ties can aid in competitive pursuits such as buying a house.

In this sense, Facebook is more than a platform; it is the social infrastructure to people’s lives. An essential and widely shared utility that is indispensable for over two billion people. A service that people think they cannot go without.

But here’s the thing. Facebook isn’t infrastructure like electricity, water or even Wi-Fi. It’s social infrastructure, meaning its value depends entirely on how many people are on it. In fact, Facebook’s entire business model relies on it being more popular than any other social network.

If enough people delete Facebook, then the social infrastructure of Facebook will collapse. Facebook will no longer be the prime information exchange, events board or marketplace. The social costs of not being on Facebook will disappear.

This makes #deleteFacebook the equivalent of a high-school dance, with the success of the spectacle hinging on how many people are willing to take the plunge. And if a sufficient number are brave enough, the collective benefits of being Facebook-free will soar.

If the exodus reaches a tipping point, Facebook will fade from a bustling town square into an antiquated pub. A place that once felt familiar but refused to go with the times so its patrons moved on.

Where could people move to? The Cambridge Analytica scandal suggests people want better privacy from their social networks. There are other platforms out there that provide it. There’s Diaspora, a network where users own their own data, and there’s Ello, an ad-free social network for creatives where data isn’t shared with third parties.

Then there are web browsers such as Brave, which blocks ads and trackers. Brave provides a solution for those who aren’t willing to delete Facebook but want to stop them from tracking you once you leave the social network.

These alternative places suggest you can have your internet cake and eat it too. They favourably rewrite the terms of the social network contract, meaning merely having access to your online friends no longer comes with a trade-off of having to grant third parties the rights to analyse your online behaviour.  

Besides, life is still possible without Facebook. I deleted my account nearly four years ago, and I’m still here.

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