Getting out of Facebook like trying to escape from Alcatraz

Saying goodbye to ubiquitous social network can prompt delight and anguish

Last year, Facebook launched a mobile ad network, the Facebook Audience Network, designed to target users across different mobile apps using information Facebook has gleaned from the users’ Facebook usage

Last year, Facebook launched a mobile ad network, the Facebook Audience Network, designed to target users across different mobile apps using information Facebook has gleaned from the users’ Facebook usage

 

Last week, Facebook was forced to admit that it tracked the online activity of people who do not even have an account with the social network, which is a pretty egregious violation of most people’s assumptions of online privacy. After all, the people who are not on Facebook in 2015 have most likely made a very explicit decision not to be on Facebook.

The admission came in response to a report commissioned by the Belgian data protection authority, which found Facebook in breach of European data privacy laws, but the social networking giant claimed the tracking only happened because of a bug that is now being fixed, while disputing many of the details of the report.

Nevertheless, the incident gave me pause. The firm’s track record on privacy is so consistently poor that once again I was forced to wonder whether it was time to walk away. Pushing me towards that conclusion was the fact that recently, upon logging in to Facebook, I was met with the question: “Your profile is only 55 per cent complete, would you like to complete it?”

Every single time I see this query, I recoil and wonder how I might get that profile down to the 5-10 per cent completion range.

Sure, it might seem like a fairly benign request, but to my eyes, it’s loaded with sinister intent. There is a palpable hint of disapproval in the phrasing, as if I have been lax in not providing Facebook with a comprehensive set of my records.

There is a barely concealed subtext in that ostensibly friendly request for 100 per cent of my information: that I am not a customer of Facebook, per se, but rather that it is my data that holds value to the social network.

Mobile ad network

Last year, Facebook launched a mobile ad network, the Facebook Audience Network, designed to target users across different mobile apps using information Facebook has gleaned from the users’ Facebook usage.

Personal information, collated and analysed, is the key to targeted advertising, and Facebook is well on its way to becoming the largest such advertising machine in the world.

Like many people, I have long been concerned about Facebook’s inglorious track record of manipulative, untrustworthy behaviour and its cavalier disregard for its users’ privacy. The frequent design changes and notoriously labyrinthine privacy settings are intensely frustrating in themselves, of course, but cumulatively they have had the effect of diluting the social network’s credibility on issues of privacy and trust to the levels of a homeopathic remedy.

The impulse to leave entirely has become so frequent I figured it was time to investigate what it involves.

But like lobster pots, the Mafia or Alcatraz, getting out is a lot harder than getting in. Invariably, given the company is dependent on growing its user base, it doesn’t make it easy to make your way to the exit – finding something like a delete button is nigh-on impossible. Like many basic Facebook features that really should be obvious and intuitive, this one requires a bit of Googling to discover.

And Googling “leaving Facebook” or “deleting Facebook account” is to discover just how convoluted a process it is.

Entire websites such as deletefacebook.com and howtoleavefacebook.com have been created in order to detail the Facebook-quitting process; YouTube is coming down with how-to-delete-your-account videos; and even mainstream publications such as Time and the Guardian have offered details for readers eager to escape the clutches of the social networking behemoth. Many of these articles read like therapy sessions rather than how-to guides.

This all points not merely to how convoluted a process it is, but also how many people are similarly eager to get out of Facebook’s clutches

What all these guides tell you, and what Facebook itself only grudgingly reveals in the bowels of its help section, is that the exit door can be found here: facebook.com/ help/ delete_account

First, it is recommended that you download an archive of your information, which includes your posts, messages, photos, activity log, apps you have connected to your account, even a list of IP addresses where you’ve logged into your Facebook account, and much more.

Needless to say, there is some debate as to whether this is the full extent of the information Facebook holds about its users.

Once you have a copy of your information, you can go to the delete account page. Once you click delete account, you are prompted to enter your password and a captcha security check, then confirm.

However, merely going through that process doesn’t actually delete your account immediately – Facebook conveniently provides a two-week window in which your account is merely deactivated, which is a kind of social network limbo status. As the help section puts it: “Even after you deactivate, your friends can still invite you to events, tag you in photos or ask you to join groups.”

Potential pitfalls

That two-week deactivation window is useful, in many ways – certainly many people might want to reconsider their deletion request. But if you actually do want to leave the site, those 14 days are full of potential pitfalls - if you accidentally log into the site in any way, whether via a Facebook app or, even more insidiously, through an app such as Spotify that you have associated with your Facebook account, your account will be reactivated and you will have to go through the whole process again.

It is entirely in Facebook’s interests to make the quitting process as difficult as possible, of course, but eventually it is indeed possible to get out and stay out. Like many people, if I never saw that awful blue and grey layout ever again, or never had to waste precious time fiddling with privacy settings, I would be simply delighted. It is a deplorably bad site in many respects that matter to me as a user.

But there is a cost – I know I would have that ineffable sense of losing friendships, that realisation I was missing out on part of that great connectedness, and ultimately the sense that I was losing a fragment of myself.

That is what it is to feel beholden to a social network. Facebook has become, in a remarkably short period of time, part of the fabric of our lives.

And like a lot of things that appear inexorably tied into our sense of identity, it can be daunting to contemplate doing without. It speaks to both Facebook’s simultaneous failure and success that the thought of leaving has become such a quandary for people. The failure is evident in the fact that so many people are eager to get out of Facebook’s clutches; the success is evident in the fact that doing so is the source of so much anguish.

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