It feels like yesterday when we were poking each other and passing imaginary drinks on this new social media website called ‘Facebook’. The platform changed and with it, also the things we did on it. We took Harry Potter character quizzes and identified countries on a world map. We made groups and built intimate communities, sent friend requests to people we didn’t quite know, started maintaining weak-tie friendships with hundreds and thousands of acquaintances, professional contacts and family members all in one place. Gradually, more formal boundaries of emailing with Gmail and Yahoo! Mail, looking for jobs on LinkedIn, reading news on Google and everything else started happening on posts, status updates and private messages. Tagging was so much easier than writing separate emails. A glimpse at common friends could tell you so much about someone. Often, the first thing you did after meeting a new person was to go “look them up” on Facebook.
Fast forward to the latest Facebook scandal, where Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm hired by US President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, gained access as a third-party app on the Facebook platform to the private information of more than 50 million users. While this latest scandal is especially shocking because of how it might have compromised democratic processes in the US, as many have pointed out, Facebook has a history of influencing and, sometimes, enabling the real-life breakdown of democratic governance in Myanmar, South Sudan, Kenya and of course, trying to become the dominant mediator of the digital public sphere elsewhere through its controversial ‘Free Basics’ initiative.
While thinking about all of the latest “trust breach” on Facebook, the Internet commons are divided on the next step: to #deletefacebook or not to? In trying to explain my own aversion and the gradual move away from Facebook and in understanding other positions, I couldn’t help but reflect on my decade-long association with the platform, as a user, a group moderator and as a digital researcher. In this article, I explore our affective relationship with the Facebook environment in various ways and, in turn, try to argue why you should still consider #deletingfacebook.
While my parents were suspicious of everything on the Internet, while we were still having debates about how much Internet-time is good (or healthy), I grew up in the generation of ‘digital natives’, the ones before the Snapchat generation, where Facebook became an infrastructural block for so many things that we did. It not only helped us communicate with our friends but it also supported the imagination of having a few thousand ‘Facebook friends’. Same with likes, shares, tagging, changing profile pictures to support causes. It is only in a world after Facebook, that “unfriending” someone also became a meaningful way of signalling where a relationship stands. In this decade-long journey, we also had moments of frustration, suspicion and self-awareness where we shared status updates decrying Facebook’s privacy policies. So now that we know how participating through and on Facebook, we were both, producing extremely intimate and authentic representations of ourselves and simultaneously, giving away data permissions to third-party app developers by “clicking on cows”, how should we feel about the most recent data breach, as users, as individuals? Afterall, those are our names, locations, likes and clicks at stake.
There is a lot of important and useful writing around Facebook emerging and resurfacing at this moment, such as the effects of addictive game and interface design within the Facebook environment, how Facebook’s early terms of service and data-extraction permissions gave away way too much user data forever and, how it might still be useful to bring a platform that boasts of 2.2 billion users, under stricter data regulation. Beyond these platform-level legal, infrastructural and IP discussions, there is a larger, scattered, familiar debate raging: to #deletefacebook or not to. Elon Musk has already joined the former and the Facebook pages of Tesla and SpaceX have been deleted as we speak. As someone who thinks a lot about refusal as a way of bringing social change, I want to bring our collective attention to our very real relationship with Facebook, of the meaning we have made within the platform and the extremely real ways in which we, as users, have nourished its environment, how our behaviours and interactions have been seminal to the new formalized features of Facebook’s valuable products, how our attention translated into and displayed as “engagement” metrics literally fuels the company’s own valuation (and of those dependent on it). How do we acknowledge this very real affective relationship and the personal costs of leaving Facebook (communities) while also, simultaneously, understanding that a network’s power lies in its stickiness – in the collective decision of its members to stay, or leave?
In that sense, my aim here is to offer you some of my experiences that made me realise the costs of staying, for myself and others. For instance, as a female Facebook user who founded and moderated a Facebook group of 110,000 members, I started experiencing the costs of high visibility (including harassment, abuse and general unwanted attention). As a personal strategy to make myself less searchable, I decided to do away with my last name on Facebook. But it would not let me only have a first name. So I split my first name up into a first and last name (Noo and Pur, yup). This tricked the real name conditions for a while until when I got into an ugly argument with a Twitter troll who was making rape threats to someone. To avenge my reporting of his Facebook page and tweets, he mobilized an army of followers to report me for using a fake name on Facebook. The next time I logged on, my Facebook account was deactivated for non-compliance. I vividly remember trying to fight back and forth with the “community standards” team just before Thanksgiving break, to explain why I had a right to choose what I wanted to call myself. After several failed attempts, I photoshopped my identity proof to reflect the name I wanted (Noo and Pur) and guess what, Facebook accepted it. I was seething by this time. I was the latest victim of Facebook’s real-name policy that had already caused a great deal of inconvenience to others (including Salman Rushdie!). This was before 2015 when the company finally rolled out a feature to accommodate pseudonyms if users could make a case for alternate names. Facebook also announced that it was adding more “human oversight” (the tech industry’s favourite “noble” trend) which made no guarantees for whose oversight, from where, how and so on. In January 2018, a German court ruled the real-name policy illegal, declaring it as “a veiled way of compelling users to share their names without adequate consent”. The reason for tracing the real-name fight and its implications is to emphasize how, performing your authentic self, including providing a valid identity proof to keep existing on Facebook is at the heart of the vulnerabilities that Facebook has infrastructured. These can be extrapolated to tagging – locations, people, events, dates, creating very real and relational memories (of you but always also your friend or family) are crucial to any data breach involving Facebook. It’s not just a leak of your information, it’s the giving away of relational, affective experiences that you laboured to keep authentic.
More recently, in my work as a user experience researcher, I arrived at the question of Facebook from another angle. In trying to build a skill-training and job discovery platform for a noted technology company, office conversations between designers, researchers and product managers often converged on the observation that Facebook has been widening its reach to compete with all kinds of existing platforms – dominant search platforms, news aggregators, of course social media sites but also job-listing platforms. And the biggest advantage it had, in product-speak, was that of a “social surface” or the primary space where all kinds of human-human conversations happen, where people go looking for people to talk to, to hire, to seek help, to find things and crucially, to express themselves. In that sense, people are not only performing but also often working who they are, what they want, what they don’t like – all of it through various Facebook interactions. In a paper we published on why people use Facebook Groups in the Indian context, we often asked group founders and moderators why they didn’t just make a separate website to move their valuable group-services out of the Facebook environment, especially since they were frustrated with the environment’s constraints. Those who had tried, often reported that the success of the groups was in some part due to the sociality of the Facebook environment itself. It gave users the right kind of distance, personalized information, lurking abilities and so on.
Coming back to the Cambridge Analytica moment, I was certainly among those who agreed with the widespread online calls to #deletefacebook and to me, personally, as an ex-user, moderator and academic, the reason is not only its latest breach. As I have tried to explain through some of the structural working-outs of the platform, it is the centralisation of the variety of our affective, political and identity-making experiences being plugged into the attention economy of the platform that makes its a rich and vulnerable source of my data. The reach of its other platforms such as Whatsapp and Instagram folds back almost every activity outside of email and tweeting that I undertake into the data regime of Facebook. Many responded to #deletefacebook by calling it elitist, declaring that the real costs (of care networks, support groups, special interest networks) are just too high. To them I would only say that I understand and I don’t claim any of this is going to be easy. But refusal doesn’t have to be sudden and total disengagement. It is going to be a process of slow, gradual withdrawal, gently pulling our friends and families away to other networks, along with ensuring more user/citizen control over our data interactions with any entity including Facebook. It is also going to require imagining and building those elsewheres. In that sense, #deletefacebook is not about this platform as it stands today but rather doing away with the bad and dangerous idea of the platform-enterprise that we have entered into an unequal but very intimate contract with. Here is a great way to begin the data detox!
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Visuals: Rajesh Subramanian
(The views expressed in this column are those of the author.) Updated at 02:47 pm on March 26, 2018 to change the lead visual as also correct a wrong URL in a backlink.
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