Following the recent Cambridge Analytica data scandal, a lot of us have been compelled to confront our fears about data privacy online. After the controversy, the #deletefacebook campaign won some support, but hasn’t made a dent in Facebook’s 2.2 billion user base globally. Nor has it impacted the company’s profits.
Though my use of the platform has evolved, I have always been circumspect about my Facebook account and yet, knowing what I know, I am still there — liking, observing, and sharing and commenting sporadically. This willing surrender of tremendous quantities of data to a platform that is vaguely regulated, which has been playing fast and loose with our information, is an interesting dependence to consider.
I started using it in its early days when it was only open to U.S. universities. My cohort of university peers used AOL Instant Messenger for quick communication, and as far as I recall, we all took to Facebook quite seamlessly as an additional way to connect. I suppose we experimented with My Space or even Orkut pages, but those died quickly.
We complained pettily when Facebook opened up to non-university accounts, but got over our grievances as it continued to evolve quickly without caring about upsetting its initial user base. Why were college-age kids upset, despite the silliness of it? It was the start of a privacy concern. A system we thought was designed to be open only to our peer group was suddenly open to parents, older siblings, younger cousins, and bosses.
Over time, it became a network of everyone from ex-colleagues to family to recent acquaintances, a repository of everything: unnecessary food photos, meaningful eulogies to deceased grandparents, work news, articles I write, travel updates, support for causes I believe in, support for friends’ enterprises, and the occasional customer complaint.
As a former public relations professional with a continued interest in behavioural psychology and communication, I did also start to think of it as an anthropological experiment in which I am a knowing participant. Beyond the obvious privacy concerns, there are other disturbing matters to contemplate.
Facebook can make us unhappy and create echo chambers with harmful effects. Facebook posts are often not an authentic look into anyone’s lives, but rather a curation of content people share purposefully, beyond the simple desire to keep in touch. In 2013, Tim Urban wrote an excellent article, “7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook” on his long-form blog Wait but Why. It detailed his sardonic observations of Facebook usage, and still makes me laugh out loud and cringe.
A total of 2.2 billion people using one communication platform without reasonable competitors is a lot to contend with. Those of us who have been on it since 2004 have spent our entire adult lifespan to date making it a part of our lives. Even if I did delete Facebook, I might still continue to use WhatsApp or Instagram (Facebook subsidiaries), and be within the system. And even if I adopted a Luddite approach and took myself off all of these platforms entirely, my data would probably continue floating around.
We have allowed Facebook to supplant other communication methods and change relationship methods altogether. We use the same channels to communicate with our friends as we do to market our blogs and businesses or to uphold our more public images, and that can be an uncomfortable mix.
There is no convenient alternative, and we are social creatures that flock to convenience. As Sarah Jeong recently wrote in The Verge, Facebook can serve as an “emotional labour machine” and to get off it means having to rethink the very human trait of connection and communication.
I won’t call the data breach scandal a clarion call for change because the truth is, a lot of us have known these possibilities before. For those of us who are choosing to stay on Facebook for now, we should certainly use it as an opportunity to continue to assess our reliance on it, monitor our usage, and take a more active role in understanding our digital footprint.
Questioning the systems that have built up around us is healthy, and each time we take to something en masse, it can become an ingrained part of our culture and change the very nature of our relationships. That’s a lot of power to cede to a corporation.