A complicated web: deleting social media is easier said than done

Just delete Facebook. Easy. No more worrying about your profile being compromised, no more guilt about hours of mindless scrolling, no more stale memes to contend with. You’ll have your life back! You’ll really connect with people! And the best part: there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from making the decision to leave.

Or so it would seem, according to the frenzied – and often condescending – barrage of articles, tweets and opinion pieces since the March 2018 Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, in which the political consulting firm gained access to millions of Facebook users’ data through the app, ‘This is Your Digital Life’. The simple takeaway: if you want your information kept private and your time spent wisely, then simply delete Facebook and walk away (you just need the willpower).

Of course, when 87 million Facebook users have their data harvested without consent through an app they never used, this is undoubtedly cause for a long think about how safe our profiles really are. I know for certain that I am not immune; recently, a message from Facebook appeared on my News Feed to let me know that my personal data had been harvested by Cambridge Analytica. But like most of the 311,127 Australians affected, I hadn’t downloaded the app – someone on my friends list had. The app leveraged a known loophole in Facebook’s design that allowed third-party developers to collect data not only from its users, but from all of those users’ Facebook friends. The incident was a powerful reminder of the oft-forgotten fact: online, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.

Deleting Facebook to fix the problem seems simple enough. It even has the added bonus of being a cool counter-cultural statement. You’ll be more connected, more intelligent and more woke than your mindless zombified peers. Once you navigate through the multiple submenus, I imagine the adrenaline rush from clicking ‘deactivate your account’ would be incredible.

I mean, I’ve thought about it. I like cleaning, culling, getting rid of pointless stuff. But I can’t bring myself to do it. As a millennial, I have seen and experienced the way in which my social, educational, cultural and political lives have merged into one convenient online sphere. I have become caught in a social media web that demands that I pay attention, lest I get left behind socially and professionally. To proclaim from on high that we should all just delete Facebook betrays a certain position of wealth and privilege, and is an outlook that fails to consider that Facebook is non-optional for many people. It might be easy for Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp – which Facebook bought in 2014 for a sweet US$22 billion – to delete Facebook and jump onboard the #deletefacebook hashtag, but for most of the two billion-plus monthly users, taking a permanent social media detox is a luxury.

Indeed, social media has become a normalised and often necessary part of our work and education. At my old job, all of my shift swaps were organised informally through Facebook and the same goes for essentially every university group assignment that I’ve ever done. For millennial journalists, social media managers and marketers who need to keep their finger on the pulse, deleting Facebook is not an option if they want to stay relevant. Job listings, internships and other resume-building opportunities are often handled exclusively within Facebook pages and groups. Sure, there are other ways to come by this information and to organise assignments, but they are not as fast or convenient. By walking the offline path, we risk putting ourselves at a disadvantage to our millennial peers.

For the many millennials taking the freelance career pathway, starting up their own small business, or taking the bold step into the creative industries, simply abandoning all social media would be career suicide. For anyone trying to build a network and a presence, social media has become so normalised that it is strange for a business to not have a Facebook page. If you find an emerging musician or artist that you like, your first instinct is probably to look them up on Facebook so that you can follow them. But if they don’t have a page, they’re now essentially off your radar. When the stakes are that high, it’s hard to just drop and leave. Effective social media use can launch us into careers that may not have been possible without it. For many young photographers and artists, Instagram has not only provided them with the exposure they need, but it is also the main platform from which they can generate an income.

So how, then, are millennials expected to navigate the conflicting messages about our social media use? On the one hand, we have been told that as ‘digital natives’ – an odious term – we should take advantage of our social media literacy and apply this in our jobs and careers. On the other hand, we are scolded for tending to our social media lives, that we should #deletefacebook and if we don’t, well that’s just because we’re millennials and who could honestly expect any better of this narcissistic, tech-addicted generation?

Even if you can successfully extricate yourself from the social media web or reduce your usage to zero, it would be a very hard to ask other people, let alone an entire society, to abandon social media and return to the days of pens, paper and business cards. It would require an unrealistic level of collective action.

Maybe it’s a fine line to tread, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily narcissistic to want to preserve a record of our lives online. Of course, there’s no doubt that Facebook capitalises off this nostalgia to encourage us to keep our accounts lest we lose important life-data; the ‘On This Day’ feature illustrates this perfectly. But that doesn’t change the fact that to delete social media in one fell swoop would be to delete a whole swathe of history and memory. My formative years were partially lived online. I’m hesitant to let that all go in one click.

To be clear, I don’t believe that nothing needs changing in the way that we engage with social media. I’m concerned about the fact that when I wake up one of the first things I do is open the Facebook tab before my eyes are even fully open. (I deleted the Facebook app about a year ago but this was a laughably pointless exercise when I can just access it through Chrome anyway.) The addiction becomes invisible when we’re all simultaneously addicted. That’s what frightens me most.

At the end of the day, even if Facebook were to be shut down, something similar will inevitably pop up in its place to demand our data and our time. So we need to learn how to manage the power dynamic so that we are not merely a swarm of little worker bees returning with sweet, sweet information-laden pollen to Queen Bee Zuckerberg. The first, most obvious step is to better manage our own privacy settings. Secondly, we need to make careful decisions regarding which apps we allow access to our information. Finally, it is important to remind ourselves, every now and then, that Facebook is a free tool and that there are certain compromises that we have to make in order to use it. However, that shouldn’t mean that our privacy is itself compromised in underhanded ways; the onus is on Facebook to ensure that its users are better protected from malicious third-party developers, a key responsibility that Zuckerberg admitted to in his testimony to the US Congress.

For my part, I’m slowly refashioning my Facebook into a glorified events planner. I’ve started unfollowing pages and friends who tag each other in shoddy memes. My News Feed is gradually becoming more bearable and less like a black hole that sucks away my precious time. I’m doing what I can to make myself feel more in control. But I recognise that I’m tackling a beast that has been specifically designed to keep me captive. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it in the end.

I do not believe that, as millennials, we are beholden to social media. We are just as capable of finding jobs, building networks and keeping in touch with friends without it. We are just as socially and professionally adjusted and just as resourceful as other generations in our offline lives. But social media is a huge resource to lose and deleting our online connections would place us at a huge disadvantage.

If you can quit Facebook and social media and still feel well-connected in your personal and professional life, then by all means, go ahead. But for many millennials, it’s not as easy as simply signing out forever. And I’m (mostly) ok with that.

Grayce Arlov is part of the Grattan Street Press team for Semester One, 2018. She is a writer, editor and publishing student at the University of Melbourne. Her hobbies include making tea and then forgetting about it, loitering in bookstores and bushwalking.

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