It’s happening. Facebook is having its MySpace moment.
If you put your ear to the feed you can hear it — a spreading rumble of discord among Facebook’s billion-strong userbase, collectively cringing at each new scandal that drags their data through the mud.
Most recently, we’ve seen Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stammering before a congressional committee as he tried to shove his proprietary cryptocurrency, Libra, into reality, but ended up hitting a wall as committee members grilled him over the company’s “say whatever” approach to political advertising. In response, we saw him launch a repurposed “News” section that sets up “partnerships” between the networks and a “wide range” of publishers (including routinely bigoted outposts like The Daily Wire — because ... news?).
And as this was going on, we heard tales of Zuckerberg’s private dinners with conservative commentators crying bias — or as Zuckerberg calls them, “lots of people across the spectrum on lots of different issues" (though strangely, seemingly no one from the left). We’ve seen patently false political ads drift by our eyes unencumbered, but were blocked from seeing ads on Instagram for PrEP — an HIV prevention medicine — because the organization posting them was not “authorized to run ads about social issues, elections or politics." We’ve seen Facebook and Instagram upping their message-scanning practices to target the use of sexually suggestive emoji and zap accounts out of existence.
Disinformation. Discontinuity. Digital puritanism. None of these are good looks for a social media network still reeling from its role in piping propaganda and lies into the election system four years ago. And as friends, fake friends, and strangers alike decide the titan of platforms is starting to feel like the platform of the Titanic, many (and that’s not a Trumpian “many” but a real one) are starting to wonder: Where do we go from here? And how?
It’s true that an escape from Facebook can feel like running from one room of a haunted house to another — considering that the two most viable alternatives for casual connectivity and messaging (i.e. Instagram and WhatsApp) are owned by Facebook. But there’s something to be said for recalibrating your relationship to the social media quagmire; determining precisely what you want to get out of it — even if that means getting out of it. Besides, “where?” is an easy question compared to “how?"
Leaving Facebook can feel like leaving the phone book (which was this thing where everyone’s phone number was lis — oh nevermind). So omnipotent and ubiquitous has Facebook grown that abandoning comes across like some Thoreauvian performance — dimming your green dot for good and self-exiling yourself to the analog boondocks of real life. Bra-vo! But as weird and bad as it may feel to suddenly cut contact with thousands of people you’ve never said a word to after friending, let me assure you that the slow boil of staying is almost certainly worse.
So the first step is to pack your things. Under “Settings" you’ll find a little section called “Your Facebook Information” — what I consider to be the most terrifying page in all of Facebook. There you can review the insane haul of personal data Facebook has hoovered up from your daily life ever since you accepted their Terms of Service. But save that leafing-through for later; your task here is to “Download Your Information." Do this, and a few days after submitting your request, a thick file of data will land in your inbox, containing all of your posts, photos, comments, likes (and other reactions), friends, stories, messages, groups, events, pages, payments, authorized apps, stored locations, search histories, login details, and of course, ads — which is what all of this information was sucked up in service of.
What will you do with this data? Probably a lot less than Facebook did. Mine lives on a little blue hard drive that I will never plug in. From there you can either “deactivate” (wimp) or “delete” your account — and I have to admit, the two-button choice they offer does smack of some major nuclear-level decision. But it’s really not.
This, of course, is just the practical part of burying your account, and as someone whose finger has been hovering above the button for weeks, stalled by silly propositions (“I need it for work!”; “I just use it for events!"; “I like people saying Happy Birthday to me!”), it’s easier said than done. There’s a whole strata of social and emotional preparation that needs to happen to make your departure feel like the completely sensible and healthy move that it is.
To this end, I recommend an afternoon stroll/scroll through your Messenger list — note how those contacts you actually talk to float effortlessly to the top. Send them a hello; get their phone number (old school!); maybe even their mailing address (holidays: coming); or any other info you need to stay in touch. Repeat as desired all the way down your list. The ones you don’t bother with? I’m sure they’re lovely people, but YOU AREN’T FRIENDS. As I’ve told friends and readers who are considering a social clearance of their own, you’re not de-friending anyone, you’re merely re-strangering them. Consider yourself worth tracking down by anyone who really misses you. Believe in yourself.
As for where to go, there’s no shame nor hypocrisy in retaining an Instagram presence (or simply lurking). Stubborn in its simplicity, Instagram remains a good way to maintain a window on your actual and virtual social lives; it tends to be freer of political agita and arguments; it relies on a visual language instead of caustic texting; and its single feed eschews the labyrinthine un-fun house of Facebook for a more straightforward experience — even if what’s-his-face’s seemingly endless stream of vacation photos drives you batty.
And alternatively there are plenty of less popular gathering spots for Facebook exiles — I’ve heard tell of MeWe (a privacy-focused knockoff) being an especially promising “next gen” social network, and if you’d rather all your data go straight to Chinese tech powers without the Silicon Valley middleman, there’s always TikTok.
But personally, I’d recommend taking your weariness and wariness of Facebook seriously enough to consider that no alternative may be the best alternative; returning your social lives to a set of intentional gestures and connections, cultivating real relationships by using technologies that aren’t there to use you. If there’s one thing we’ve learned after a 10-year sentence on social media, it’s that most of us had no idea what we were signing up for.
Update: This article has been updated to clarify the writer’s characterization of the conservative media outlet the Daily Wire.