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I’ve spent a year living without Facebook, and here’s what I learned

The social network’s privacy morass has grown only worse since I quit. I don’t regret my decision–but there are a few things I miss.

I’ve spent a year living without Facebook, and here’s what I learned
[Images: Tim Bennett/Unsplash; IkonStudio/iStock]

It doesn’t quite seem possible, but it’s been almost exactly a year since the story of Facebook’s dangerous liaison with Cambridge Analytica broke wide open.

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It’s also been a year since I decided to ditch Facebook forever.

Nothing that has happened since then has made me regret my decision. In fact, it’s been rather a rough year for Mark Zuckerberg and his 2 billion friends:

And all of this follows the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook allowed the notorious psychometrics firm to access the personal information of more than 80 million of its members and then use the data to send political ads to Trump supporters.

Cambridge Analytica was the last straw for me. After nearly 11 years, 8,005 posts, 725 photo uploads, and 25 pokes, I deleted my Facebook account. How do I feel about that decision now? As my old relationship status once said, it’s complicated.

Best laid plans

First, some caveats. “Ditch Facebook forever” isn’t exactly accurate. As a tech journalist, I can’t simply ignore a social network with a population larger than Europe and North and South America combined. So I concocted a scheme for how to do my job in a post-Facebook world.

My plan was to maintain a fake account, use it to connect with a handful of friends and relatives, and lurk on their timelines. I would use other services (LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Chat, iMessage) to stay in touch. Facebook would still have my attention from time to time, but it would no longer have any of my personal data.

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That was the idea, anyway. But my plan didn’t really work as, well, planned.

Most of the people I approached declined a friend request from my fake account. (Perhaps it was not the wisest choice to use a supermodel as my Facebook alter ego.) It also turns out that some people–including (ahem) one of my editors at Fast Company–really like Facebook Messenger and don’t want to use anything else. My attempts at persuading him and others to communicate via gChat, iMessage, or email went largely unheeded.

And I never managed to extricate myself from Instagram. Not that I love Instagram–in many ways, it combines the worst of Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. But it’s become incredibly important, especially with regard to the baffling-yet-undeniable power of “influencers” (or, as I like to call them, influenzas). Much as I’d like to ignore it, I can’t.

I also realized I don’t really want to personally reconnect with most of my long-lost friends and colleagues. I don’t want to talk to them on the phone. I don’t want to exchange letters or even emails. It feels awkward. I just want to peek in on their lives every now and then in a voyeuristic way.

I miss seeing pictures of all the jocks from my high school who’ve gone paunchy and bald. I also miss seeing the high school hotties who married well and still look great some 30+ years later. I miss that frothy cocktail of schadenfreude, wistfulness, and envy.

I’ve missed major events in distant friends’ lives–the birth of a child or grandchild, college graduations, dramatic career shifts, the passing of parents–which now seem to be commemorated almost entirely on Facebook.

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When wildfires raged through Northern California last November, destroying more than 150,000 acres, I wanted to see if my cousin who lived in that area had checked in as safe. I couldn’t. (I learned later he was fine.)

Last fall I spent several days trying and failing to locate an old college classmate. Had she remarried? Left the country? Died? I have no idea. If I’d had a real Facebook account, I might have been able to trace her through our mutual college contacts.

One thing I do not miss: The endless political arguments. But that’s what Twitter is for.

Life, changing

Several times over the last year I’ve pondered whether my life would have been any different if I (or the world) had never heard of Facebook. And I was surprised to realize that the answer is yes. That’s because Facebook was partially responsible for reconnecting me with my father after an absence of 28 years. Here’s how that went.

Six years ago, I chanced upon a status update that got my attention. According to Facebook, my eightysomething stepmother, who had sent me a friend request a year previous but had posted nothing since, had moved from Florida to North Carolina, just a few hours away from where I was then living.

I knew she had grandchildren in the Charlotte area. And the only logical conclusion I could reach was that my father had finally died, and she’d decided to move in with one of her sons.

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This sent me on a frantic scramble–because in my conflict-averse family we never do anything directly–during which I asked each of my siblings if they’d heard anything about my father. My sister in New York, an amateur sleuth, came up with the answer.

Facebook was wrong. My stepmother hadn’t moved, she’d just been visiting. My father was still alive and kicking in Florida, and she was still with him, despite the best efforts of social networking algorithms to persuade me otherwise.

My sister gave me his number. Two months later I mustered the courage to call and wish him a happy 90th birthday. We had a good conversation. And from that point on, we kept in sporadic contact. I visited him a few times. And I was with him a couple of weeks before he died last fall, at age 95.

I don’t believe any of that would have happened without Facebook.

At the same time, I don’t think this absolves the social network of its many sins. Over and over and over, Facebook has promised one thing: control over the information we so generously share with it–information that has helped generate $40 billion in annual revenues and a market cap of nearly $500 billion.

And over and over again, Facebook has failed to live up to that promise.

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Ultimately, I don’t regret leaving. But I do wish there were some kind of Facebook equivalent that was less monetized and more ethical. (Yes, there are alternative social networks; the problem is getting everyone you know to use one.) We need a better way to keep in loose touch with the people who’ve shaped our lives. Because in a world where everything is connected, it’s all too easy to feel disconnected.

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