I Wish I Knew How to Quit You, Facebook
Could YOU quit?
Nearly 70 percent of all American adults, 240 million people, use Facebook. With roughly half of those people, the ones who favored Hillary Clinton in 2016, currently dealing with the uncomfortable news that their favorite social network likely contributed to the election of Donald Trump, I thought it would be an interesting time to ask my friends a simple question: Could you quit now?
Facebook’s culpability, in allowing the proliferation of fake accounts and ads targeting American voters in ways that stirred up social divisions to Trump’s benefit or aimed to rev up or deflate a user’s enthusiasm for voting, has yet to be fully proven. Political scientists are careful to remind us that it’s awfully hard to change a person’s voting intention. So, even if Russian trolls flooded the news feeds of voters in swing states with spurious stories and inauthentic personal endorsements, that may not have changed many voters’ minds. People sharing anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracy stories were probably already anti-Hillary—fake accounts pumping up junk news maybe only made them more so.
But I’m after a different question: How hard is it to break away from Facebook? Could the Trump-Russia-Facebook news be a tipping point, at least for the site’s liberal users?
I started by going to where the people are. (That’s one of the tropes that all my organizer friends always give for explaining why they spend so much time on Facebook, even if they dislike its business model.) So about two weeks ago, I posted this to my Facebook page:
To all my friends here who seem hopelessly addicted to Facebook: You do realize that not only are you “the product” they sell to advertisers, and that they throttle what you see and what your friends see (if I want all my friends to see this post, I can pay Facebook for the privilege to “promote” it), but that Facebook’s business model (selling its users to advertisers) and its cavalier disregard for its users’ actual needs for authentic information meant that it became the perfect delivery vehicle for bad actors seeking to confuse voters in 2016. To wit: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/facebooks-role-in-trumps-win-is-clear-no-matter-what-mark-zuckerberg-says/2017/09/07/b5006c1c-93c7-11e7-89fa-bb822a46da5b_story.html. Serious question: Could you quit Facebook?
The link was to an article by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, headlined “Facebook’s role in Trump’s win is clear no matter what Mark Zuckerberg says.” There was nothing equivocal about that prompt.
A lot of my friends answered, and 35 of them shared my post to their own pages—for me, a pretty whopping number, since I don’t use Facebook on a daily basis. And lots of people commented, too.
“It would be very hard,” said one, who is a member of my local Indivisible group. “It’s an effective communication tool for groups—beats Slack with a stick.” My friend Tom Watson, a consultant and very active user of social media, was honest. He wrote, “Asked this many times—always comes back no, because it connects me to faraway family and friends who would not use another platform. Like Ma Bell.”
A few bragged about how they didn’t mind Facebook, and shared suggestions on how to block some of its ads. Others made excuses, arguing that the company wasn’t to blame for Trump’s election, noticeably not engaging my question about quitting.
But of the 35 people who commented on my post, close to half said they were open to quitting. Of course, everyone had the same concern: “I’d do it if the rest of my network did, too.”
It’s impressive how strong Facebook’s hold is on our behavior. Despite the fact that the more you use it, the more unhappy you feel, like other addictions it is very hard to quit. Even when I gently suggested to a few of my friends that using Facebook was like smoking, and asked if they would give their children cigarettes, no one accepted the analogy.
Given that the state of being connected to distant friends and family is a personal good, or social utility, that we have come to rely on, it’s obvious that unless the entire internet goes down someday, we modern humans aren’t going to give that state up. So that brought me to the second part of my experiment:
If you could switch to a social network similar to Facebook, but one that doesn’t keep your data or sell ads, would you switch? Such networks exist, though since Facebook’s rise to global dominance, none have succeeded. For example, there is MeWe.com, which was founded in 2016 as a “next generation social network” and which explicitly markets itself as being for people who want to own their own content, rejecting ads and data tracking of its users.
Like Facebook, MeWe is free to use. It has lots of the same features, too, including a very similar look and feel. Users can decide who they want to include as a contact and how much they want to share with them. They can create public or private groups, or chats. And they can upload pictures, videos and files. Plus it has some features not (yet) available on Facebook, like calendar functions and group document editing tools. And it’s being advised on its privacy and data protocols by none other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
MeWe’s founder, Mark Weinstein, is a serial entrepreneur who also happens to be passionate about privacy online. That zeal comes across clearly when you talk to him face to face or by email, and he communicates it with a regular stream of posts from places like the Huffington Post with titles like “Facebook’s Remarkably Egregious Democracy Breaches—What To Do?” Since founding MeWe, he’s managed to raise two rounds of funding, according to Crunchbase, and he’s confident that he can keep the site oriented around protecting user privacy by offering premium services aimed at businesses and others interested in a suite of “MeWe Pro” collaboration software that is aimed at the same market now being served by tools like Slack and Microsoft’s Teams.
The main thing MeWe doesn’t have is that with only about 1.5 million users, it’s not a social utility.
Could it grow to displace Facebook? There are at least four reasons why moving whole networks from Facebook to another platform is really hard. The first one is obvious: Quitting Facebook now for the comparatively unsettled territory of a MeWe means losing more than you gain. Facebook is valuable to most of its users because so many of the people they know or are interested in knowing are also there. Unless you are already a person who hates Facebook so much that you are willing to give up the benefits it affords you as a utility, the most you are likely to do is open an account on MeWe, and in all likelihood spend very little time there and eventually forget that you ever were on it.
The second reason is more of an environmental problem. MeWe obviously wants to grow, and has set up its user interface to make user acquisition as easy as possible. A week ago, I downloaded its mobile app and gave it permission to access my contacts, so I could start inviting some of my friends and colleagues to give it a try. Working my way down the alphabet, I used the site’s “invite friends” tool to generate messages. “Hey, I’m on MeWe now – social & chat with no ads or tracking. Here’s your invite [link].” I was almost done with the letter J when my son Jesse responded.
“Hacked?” Nope, I wrote. “Doing this deliberately (both because I know and like MeWe’s founder, Mark Weinstein) and also to understand just how hard or easy it may be to pull my friends off FB.”
“Got it,” he responded, adding, “You should add a little customization to that message…It comes off as very ‘I clicked a link and now they are spamming my contacts.'”
He’s right. What the geniuses of Silicon Valley call “growth hacking” —the tricks and affordances that can make a site or app spread quickly—has changed how we socialize using digital tools. The spam in your email, and the steady rise of unwanted messages on your phone coming in via text, is spoiling what was once a more human interaction. In 2004, when Facebook first took off like wildfire on elite college campuses, it tapped the hunger that students had to see what each other were up to online, in an environment where many of them were getting their first personal email address and their first fast internet connection. The conditions that made that kind of rapid growth easy are gone.
So MeWe has a much steeper hill to climb. Indeed it wasn’t long before several of my other connections also responded, wanting to make sure I hadn’t been hacked. One, a program officer at a foundation who does a lot of tech-related work, went to the trouble of asking me for a piece of personal information about our relationship that only I would know before he accepted the contact request. He’s gotten security training, but he’s not alone in worrying that an unexpected online note from a friend could be more like a prowler trying to figure out how to pick his digital safe.
For the fun of it, I took my son’s advice and wrote a slightly more personal generic text message to the rest of the people I invited to join. This one included a sentence stating: “(This is not spam—this is Micah Sifry and I’m doing this deliberately to see how hard or easy it is to get my friends to switch off FB.)” I invited about 150 people in all, slightly more than half by text and the rest using MeWe’s email invitation. (That one didn’t let me customize my message, unfortunately.)
The results as of a week later: So far, 30 of my invitations have led people to join MeWe, about 20 percent of my whole pool. Just under half have taken the time to upload a personal photo to their page. About four have posted something, including one who complained that MeWe appeared to be “infested” with white supremacy groups. And indeed it appears to have lots of such groups, with names like “Save the White People The Minority of South Africa” or “World Free of Islam.” This despite terms of service that state that users may not “Post content that is hateful, threatening, harmful, incites violence; or contains graphic or gratuitous violence” or “Use MeWe to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.”
The failure of other leading online platforms, like Twitter as well as Facebook, to pay close attention to the amount of abusive behavior on their sites, much of it aimed at women, minorities and other vulnerable groups, is poisoning the well for other platforms too, it appears. The fact that this friend, who is a longtime feminist activist, immediately zeroed in on these offensive groups as soon as she started to check out MeWe, is telling. Obstacle three to a Facebook alternative—lots of people don’t trust the neighborhood anymore.
I asked Weinstein what white nationalist and anti-Islam groups were doing on the site, and he responded quickly, writing that “we welcome all opinions as long as they abide by our TOS.” He added:
If your friend had opened either of those offending groups and clicked the “report” link …then our Feedback and QA teams would have been notified, an investigation would have occurred within 24 hours or less, and the offending group(s) would have been deleted and selected members or all members banned from MeWe depending on the results of the investigation. In this case, we opened an investigation based on your email and then deleted/banned the offending groups and members. This is a daily routine – we don’t stop people at the door, that would be prejudice on our part – we and our members see what others do and if there is a violation and it is reported (and we have extensive reporting tools built throughout the platform for our members to use), we immediately step in. It works quite well. Also because we have no advertising and no way for any members to pay to “boost” fake news, we circumvent that issue entirely.
Weinstein took pains to emphasize that he doesn’t impose his own political preferences on what appears on the site. “There are groups on MeWe across the political spectrum! It is not my place to decree what political opinions are allowed or not – the principle of democracy is freedom of speech and I love our constitution.” He also asserted that “we have an extensive and patented permission model that gives additional control to group owners and admins to manage their unruly members too. In fact our tools are so good that we’ve shared them with other large companies and others who are also determined to provide their users with a safe environment. I like to say ‘MeWe is for the good guys.'” Who knows—if MeWe does manage to beat back the trolls of 4chan and the like, it might indeed attract people hungry for a non-toxic alternative.
But the last obstacle in the way of a MeWe’s growth is a lot more subtle. On its way to societal dominance, Facebook actually hasn’t converted everyone. About 30 percent of Americans, for example, don’t use it, include one out of ten people under the age of 29 and two out of ten between 30 and 49 years old, according to the Pew Research Center’s data. One might think that this shows there’s latent demand for something different and better, but I don’t believe that many of the people who have successfully resisted Facebook’s siren song want to join a more ethically designed online social network. Instead, they’ve told themselves they’re fine, or even better off, not wasting their time posting updates to their timeline and reading about the lives of their friends and families along with myriad “engagement ads” striving to attract their attention.
Think of this in personal terms: Those of us who do use Facebook can probably think of the handful of people in our lives who aren’t there. If an old friend, or a colleague you really admired, suddenly told you the way to connect with them was on MeWe or a site like it, you might be tempted to give it a try. After all, if Facebook can’t be a complete social utility, delivering connections to everyone you’ve ever known, you might use other platforms to fill out your personal picture.
But here too, I suspect the well has been poisoned by the dominance of Facebook. It has sorted society into Facebook users and non-users, and by now most non-users have convinced themselves that they aren’t missing anything ignoring the whole social network phenomenon. (Note to those of you who aren’t active on Facebook but spend all day on Instagram: You are on a Facebook property.) The many people who aren’t in Facebookistan aren’t sailing off together to a new world where users are more in charge, they’re just missing.
This isn’t to say that I expect Facebook to be dominant forever. In the United States, it grew in very favorable conditions, including a laissez-faire approach from government regulators. Until recently, it was the darling of politicians on both sides of the aisle. In other countries, Facebook’s spread has been more contested—most notably India, where it has 240 million users but has also encountered fierce and organized opposition. Now the conditions that fostered the network’s growth in the United States are rapidly changing. As the backlash grows against Silicon Valley’s hyper-libertarianism, more of Facebook’s users may rethink their loyalty to a product that up until now has treated them as the product for sale.