Some thoughts on quitting Facebook

I did an odd thing last night, for a social media webponce. I disabled my Facebook account, perhaps for good (at least that’s the intention).

Although this was not solely due to what came out of the latest Facebook f8* conference, it probably was some sort of straw that broke a proverbial camel’s back. At f8, Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook Timeline, a way of not just showing what you are up to right now, but your whole life as Facebook saw it, digitised and shown to all. And my reaction was along the lines of:

Fucking hell, I’m going to be spending the rest of my life tagging photographs of myself

I joined Facebook early in 2007 when they let ordinary civilians in, and at first I quite liked it. It was a cute way of tying in and aggregating one’s content, thoughts and photos, and keeping up with people I knew, or used to know. What a nice service. And for free! But over time, the fun faded. Facebook kept on quietly changing privacy settings and made a landgrab for copyright of uploaded photos (later rescinded).

So, I harrumphed, tightened my privacy (a tedious task), removed a lot of personal info and content (photos, imported blog posts) and despite my misgivings, carried on with a stripped-down profile to keep in touch with friends. But as Facebook matured, and my profile accrued information over time, another unwelcome feature came about.

The practice of “Friending” someone just because you met them at a party, or went to school ten years ago with them, or you work with them, seemed a good idea at the time; it’s nice, who doesn’t want more friends? Even if they are just Facebook friends. But these are people I do not see every day, for whatever reason; as sad as that may be, over time those social ties would normally fade. C’est la vie.

But Facebook ossifies these previously ephemeral social ties; they are there forever, reminding us of the past. Whereas before we would be able to let these ties fade passively, with them laid now we have to actively “unfriend” people we no longer associate with. That’s not very nice, is it – after all, isn’t the opposite of a friend an enemy? So out of politeness, we accumulate these ossified ties, even after we change jobs, cities, relationships, as a form of digital clutter.

This was as bad as it got, until now. While social ties lingered, other content on Facebook would gradually drop off your timeline and fade away. Indeed, as online archiving extraordinaire Jason Scott observed in an excoriating critique of Facebook:

So asking me about the archiving-ness or containering or long-term prospect of Facebook for anything, the answer is: none. None. Not a whit or a jot or a tiddle. It is like an ever-burning fire of our memories, gleefully growing as we toss endless amounts of information and self and knowledge into it, only to have it added to columns of advertiser-related facts we do not see and do not control and do not understand.

Be careful what you wish for. Now our Facebook profiles will have everything we ever have, dished up by default (and while Facebook’s UI has got easier to customise recently, I bet the default will still be everything). Now it’s impossible to escape your past. Everything you have ever done that has been digitally logged by you, or your friends, can now be potentially dished up as your very own digital This Is Your Life. There is, on Facebook, a photograph of me in my early twenties, passed out after drinking too much tequila on Mexican Independence Day (any excuse, my younger self would say). That’d be on my Timeline by default, no doubt.

But it’s not because of embarrassing photos that I’m off Facebook (far more cringeworthy ones exist, thankfully on analogue prints). It’s the sense that Facebook is very much about the past. The people you have known. The relationships you were in. The things you have done. And these hang around your neck and tie you down.

Whereas what’s really exciting about the web is the things you are going to do. The new fact you’re going to find out idly browsing Wikipedia. The amazing people you meet thanks to you sharing a joke on Twitter. The inspiring blog post you’ll find via Delicious. The silly lolcat you’ll find on Reddit. Facebook isn’t offering anything what makes the Internet fun, and it’s taken this change to make me realise.

With Timeline, we’re opening ourselves up with an ever-growing obsession with the past. A quote I saw last night was “We’re gonna need architectures for forgetting”. Poetic as that line is, that’s a cure when prevention might be better – for me, in any case.

I must stress that this is not to say Facebook is bad, or Timeline is going to be a failure. Plenty of people are happy to have ossified social ties – if you are in a small, close-knit social network that is relatively static, I can see it why is a boon. Timeline will be fantastic for you, if you have been on Facebook your entire adult life, and all that data is there and well-curated (which it will be, if you have been on Facebook your entire adult life). But it’s not for me; it’s not interesting to me as a user, any more. So I’m out. Bye, Facebook.

* Named for Fate, the all-knowing computer in V for Vendetta, right?
† Although I’m still keeping the Facebook Like button at the bottom, just for kicks and sheer hypocrisy ;)