By the time I decided to delete my Facebook account earlier this month, things had not been right between us for quite some time. Our relationship had changed since I had first signed up in college. I was bored. I felt used.
But Facebook wasn’t ready to let me go.
Facebook's advertising revenue depends, in part, on how many users it has to show ads. Losing accounts isn't good for business, and the company was prepared to put up a fight.
I only found the option to delete my Facebook account—buried in the help center—with the assistance of Google. The instructions on the page suggested that perhaps we could take a break instead of splitting forever: "Please keep in mind that you won't be able to reactivate your account or retrieve anything you've added," it reminded me. If you decide to temporarily deactivate your account, however, Facebook will "save your timeline information (ex: friends, photos, interests, etc.) in case you want to come back."
I mean, we have been together for all of these years, I thought to myself, clicking over to the "deactivate your account" page. There Facebook asked me to think about all the friends we’ve made together. It listed five of them with their profile photos. "Sara will miss you," the captions read. "Alison will miss you." "Stephanie will miss you."
And why are you so unhappy anyway? Facebook seemed to ask next, requiring me to select from a list of "reasons for leaving." Most options come with a list of ways the problem could be fixed. I noted my privacy concerns. Facebook assured me it could do better in the future. "Before you deactivate," it asked me, "please take a moment to learn more about how privacy works on Facebook. "
This was no high school boyfriend I was dealing with. Facebook has break-up deflection down to a science.
I asked Daniel Pink, the author of To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, to dissect some of that science. Here are a handful of persuasion techniques he pointed out in Facebook's effort to convince me and other users to keep our accounts:
Making It Complicated: Every year, the government spends more than $100 billion on tax breaks that encourage retirement savings to little effect, but it turns out that what actually has a huge impact is simply auto-enrolling people in their 401k plans. "In some cases, it is less important to change someone’s mind than it is to make it easier for them to act," Pink says. Facebook is employing the opposite principle by hiding the link to delete an account, burying the link to deactivate an account, and by asking users to fill out a survey before they leave. These efforts make it more difficult for someone to leave Facebook, which might be just as effective as convincing them that they don’t want to leave.
Avoiding the Nuclear Option: Facebook makes it just as easy to reactivate an account as it makes it difficult to deactivate an account. Users who wish to reactivate simply log in to their accounts as though they've never left.
Getting Personal: People are often more willing to give money to help a single person than to benefit an abstract cause. Radiologists may do a better job if they have a photo of the person whose scan they are reading. Anonymous statistics are much easier to ignore than personal stories. Facebook, Pink says, takes advantage of this bias when it points out specific friends who will miss us. "If you say, people are going to be disappointed, it’s not going to be that persuasive." He says. "If you say, Alex will miss you, that actually is more persuasive. . . . I mean, you can almost see Alex’s face turning into a frown if you leave."
Pinpointing The Real Problem: Pink gives Facebook credit for asking users why they want to leave. "One of the big lessons in persuasion, influence, selling is really getting inside the head of the other person and understanding what their real problem is," he says, "Because many times the real problem is not the problem the customer first announces." Once Facebook knows you want to leave because your account was hacked, for instance, it can show you how to secure your account without leaving. If it knows you’re tired of its emails, it can show you how to turn those off and still keep you as a user. "That’s smart business," Pink says. What he finds "a bit coercive" is that Facebook requires users to explain why they are deactivating their accounts. "You very rarely see that in any other business," he says. "If I say, 'I don’t want to go to my dry cleaner anymore,' they don’t say, 'that’s fine, but you’re going to have to tell us why you’re leaving or we’re not going to give you your clothes back.'"
Facebook’s hard sell did not stop me from deactivating my account (sorry, Alex). I felt satisfied knowing that the blow-by-blow life updates from long-forgotten acquaintances, the inane political commentary, the FOMO, all of it, was finally over.
But three days later, when I wanted to get in touch with an old friend, I reactivated my account like an ex-girlfriend who can't quite commit to a breakup—just as Facebook had designed.
[Facebook Image: PromesaArtStudio via Shutterstock]