If Facebook Wants My Data, They Can Find Me On Instagram

How a tech giant has outlived its usefulness

Some people post things like this on Facebook, announcing to the world that they are deactivating their account for a time, opining about how they need a break while offering alternate means of communication just in case. I used to make fun of these people. I would wonder why they had to make such a grand pronouncement. Why don’t they just do it? Go quietly into the dark. Just leave.

It’s ironic though, because one could argue that that’s the whole point, caring about what people think without caring about what people think. We’ve all checked those likes, looked at our stats, and spent several painstaking minutes crafting what to say next.

It’s a cycle. You announce how uncaring you are, and yet by virtue of you saying you’re leaving you betray how much you actually care. So here I am, writing a whole essay on my unceremonious exit. I have decided to delete my Facebook. Hear me out.

The erudite observer would immediately point out that Facebook owns Instagram, so what’s the point of deleting one’s Facebook and then promptly migrating to Instagram? If you have one, you might as well partake in the other, as they are becoming more inextricably linked by the day. Data is the name of the game and it’s nigh impossible these days to utilize the internet without unknowingly handing over some sort of data about yourself over. You can’t escape it.

It’s how they make money. I’m not absolving Facebook, but I’m also not absolving the user.

Those people are right. Facebook owns Instagram and moving from one to the other won’t do much for your privacy. I agree, but I also put forth that Facebook has far outlived its usefulness. The agreement I made with Facebook when I signed up just isn’t worth it anymore, and if a product isn’t producing value for the consumer, well we all know how that should end.

In this Big Data world we live in, the constant assessment is whether the privacy you exchange for a product’s usefulness is worth it. With regards to Facebook, I’ve always tried to hold two competing notions in my head. First, I care about privacy in my use of Facebook, and second, I find Facebook useful to my life. I learned quickly though that Facebook and privacy don’t mesh. The more private my Facebook becomes, the less useful it is and vice versa. It’s not strictly their fault. It’s how their business is built. It’s how they make money. I’m not absolving Facebook, but I’m also not absolving the user.

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a major pivot to a more privacy-centric system in a lengthy blog post outlining his vision for the company.

“In a few years, I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network. We’re focused on making both of these apps faster, simpler, more private and more secure, including with end-to-end encryption. We then plan to add more ways to interact privately with your friends, groups, and businesses. If this evolution is successful, interacting with your friends and family across the Facebook network will become a fundamentally more private experience…People expect their private communications to be secure and to only be seen by the people they’ve sent them to — not hackers, criminals, over-reaching governments, or even the people operating the services they’re using.”

Anyone who knows Facebook knows that this vision laid out by Facebook’s founder is surprising. The company does not have the best track record when it comes to privacy. Rather than list them all, both Wired and Buzzfeed have been kind enough to come with a big list of all of Facebook’s privacy scandals that have occured up until December 2018. These lists don’t even include storing millions of passwords in plain text, or whether or not they were warned about Cambridge Analytica ahead of time or any number of other snafus that have happened since.

Unfortunately, I’d argue most of Facebook’s users don’t care too much or even know about Facebook’s hiccups along the way, and while I pride myself on keeping up-to-date with all of the drama, Facebook’s missteps are not the sole reason for why I am giving up on years of commitment to this social media giant. It’s not even the major reason.

The main reason why I am giving up my Facebook, full-scale deletion, is that I realized Facebook is simply not a good use of my time.

Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

It’s a seemingly obvious realization. The natural response would most likely be some form of “duhhh”. The thing is though that I’ve tried to quit Facebook before many times. I always do it quietly. My mom always calls asking where my Facebook went and everyone gasps when I tell them I don’t use Facebook anymore. No matter what, I always come back though, convincing myself of some use case down the road, like getting in contact with a long lost friend or getting that dream gig off a job’s group I follow or promoting my own content.

Then, when I inevitably reactivate my account, what I always discover is that my friends and acquaintances just aren’t that engaging on social media. The stories and pictures and posts that I see might be interesting when told in person, but online they are something else. Couple this with rampant fake news, people making inane announcements, and memes, and I can feel my IQ dropping lower and lower. It’s like the worst bits of Thanksgiving dinner mixed with a root canal while having the talk. It’s terrible.

Facebook should realize that the vast majority of users will stick with you if your product improves your life in meaningful ways.

All this isn’t necessarily a full indictment of Facebook though. In a lot of ways it feels like the natural progression of a company continuously caught between a rock and a hard place. The weird thing is though that if all of the above wasn’t true, if Facebook was genuinely working to connect people in meaningful ways that actively served its users’ lives, then all of these privacy scandals probably wouldn’t weigh so heavy in most users’ minds. I might be willing to keep making that bargain with Facebook.

Which is why it’s all the more surprising that Zuckerberg is making this switch to privacy. This vision runs completely counter to how the company has operated for a decade. Facebook has proven time and time again that they can’t do privacy. The question becomes then what should they do if not that?

Photo by ev on Unsplash

Great question. Mark Zuckerberg, if you’re reading this, here are my suggestions. I’d argue that it should be the opposite. Facebook needs to emulate Google. Google freely acknowledges its information-driven business model. They know exactly where you are at all times, but people still flock to them because they deliver quality, generally secure products. The usefulness and convenience of Google usually outweighs any qualms to be had about their privacy practices. They claim security and ads that track you and people love it.

Facebook’s whole model is data-driven. They should realize that the vast majority of users will stick with you if your product improves their lives in tangible, meaningful ways. When that’s not the case, that’s when consumers get nit picky, and this is why a pivot to privacy fundamentally won’t work.

Facebook has data on billions of users world wide. It’s estimated that a fourth of the world’s population uses Facebook in some capacity. Imagine what good could be done with that amount of connection and some investment. While stopping the bad actors that utilize their site to spread odious information and content is important, equally if not more important is promoting the good side of Facebook.

If Facebook really wanted too, they could easily pivot into becoming a strong instrument for change, utilizing their data to benefit their users and society greatly. If they really put serious effort and money into building out a variety of quality tools for people to become more informed, make targeted meaningful connections, discover great new places to visit, and be able to support meaningful local journalism, that could go a long way, especially considering the scandals they have been mired in over the past years.

1. Civics

They experimented a little bit in this area, but they could go further, developing easy accessible tools to inform and nudge people to be active in their communities. Last year, Linley Sanders wrote in Teen Vogue that, “an estimated 31% of eligible people ages 18–29 voted in the 2018 midterms.” While this is up from the last midterm elections in 2014, there is still a long way to go to match the voting turnout of older swaths of the population. Julie Beck and Caroline Kitchener wrote in The Atlantic last year that, “Young adults have had the worst turnout of any age group in every election since the U.S. Census Bureau began keeping track of voter-age data.”

Knowing this, Facebook could utilize it’s knowledge to let people know in advance when and where elections are being held in their local area, where and how they go about registering to vote, what the issues are in each users community, who their representatives are at every level, where and how do they contact their representatives, and what issues are important to them. They could especially focus on encouraging and signing up young people of all perspectives to participate in their elections.

If Facebook was able to implement just these tools and nothing else, it would go a long way in promoting an informed citizenry and build an immense amount of goodwill in governments across the globe. Facebook eschewing the usual role that tech companies take as a passive, neutral observer and embracing the role of active, neutral informer would be gamechanging.

If they wanted to go further, they could sponsor and host townhalls, develop non-biased education tools on the importance of civics and staying informed. They could actively seek out ideas from their users and promote conversation on a wise-range of topics, anything to keep meaningful conversation happening on their platform.

Because the dual danger of fake news is not only that it misinforms but that also most users are woefully uninformed. This puts Facebook and others constantly on the defensive, but if Facebook instead went on the offensive and took on the role of promoting meaningful conversation instead of just resigning itself to deleting hateful speech, it could make a real difference. Bradley Jones, writing for The Pew Research Center last month wrote that, “Republicans and Democrats have been moving further apart not just in their political values and approaches to addressing the issues facing the country, but also on the issues they identify as top priorities for the president and Congress to address.” Facebook actively bringing people together to tackle the world’s most pressing issues seems like a noble goal in closing that widening gap.

2. Applying for a Job

I was freelance for more than a year. I can attest to how frustrating it is to look for a job. I’ve paid for sites that have done nothing to help me find a job. I’ve applied to dozens of jobs without ever hearing back. I’ve become infuriated seeing sites that offer paid promotions for job applicants. It honestly seems like extortion to me, not to mention that your application will most likely be dismissed for it even reaches a human. In case you don’t believe me though, here are some fun statistics. According to Top Resume, 80% of jobs are not posted online and more than half of candidates are eliminated from the online job search by applicant tracking systems. In additions, referrals generally account for about a third of all outside hires.

All of this makes for a frustrating experience, and why some would argue applying to jobs online is a waste of time.

Facebook could do so much here to help make the job applicant experience smoother and better, but still deliver quality candidates to job seekers. Apart from buying LinkedIn from Microsoft and making it better, Facebook could easily move into the job aggregator space and be able to do it a lot better than any of its competitors.

A lot of the job searching on Facebook stems from user-led groups, which is fine, but I think with some serious investment from the company itself that little slice could be grown exponentially. Imagine if there was one database, developed by Facebook, that any user could submit a job posting too. It could be catalogued with specific metadata. Any user could then search this database and it would populate automatically based on geography and relevance. All the info would be there, and job posters could even be rated based on the quality of the jobs they’ve posted. Job applicants could receive feedback from the people they apply to through this database. Facebook could even make a profit here, leveraging its massive size to get companies to pay to put their jobs on Facebook or even pay to promote certain job postings. It would be the most comprehensive job board on the planet.

If Facebook wanted to go further they could even offer resume-polishing resources, interview training, public speaking training, basic computer skills training, professional connection and network events. Essentially, they would be combining the job application and job training experience into one.

If this was successful, Facebook would create an extremely compelling reason for users to stay on their platform and for others to join. Facebook could engender copious amount of good will from a whole generation of young professionals that would be grateful to Facebook for helping them find their next gig.

3. Long Lost Connections

If Facebook really wanted to embrace its data-driven intimate business model, snapping up all these DNA history companies wouldn’t be a bad idea. Facebook already has a treasure trove of information on you, why not more? If Facebook could trace the lineage of its users, I think that could add a lot of value in producing more meaningful connections as well as making existing relationships even more special.

The immediate benefit is being able to find lost relatives or learn about one’s past. A lot of users would be intrigued by this just because the casual person only really knows the bare minimum of their history. Facebook could create a world map that shows the migrations of its user‘s ancestors over time. They could outline the lineage of famous dead people or notify people if they have meaningful relation to a public figure.

If Facebook wanted to take it a step further, they could partner with archaeologists, sociologists, and anthropologists and really turn the lens upon ourselves. I’m sure plenty of scientist would jump at the chance to tinker, experiment, and model with Facebook’s data. Verifiable vetting would have to be done both by Facebook and probably a regulatory body, but the potential for pattern discovery, simulation, and experimentation could be tremendous. Who knows what could be learned from scrutinizing this data to its full potential?

4. Travel

Facebook is in most every country. They should take advantage of that, essentially converting various users into empowered travel agents. With a focus on connection and experiences, Facebook could curate various travel experiences in different countries that are essentially verified by the users that live there. If Facebook was really ambitious, they could even take on users, paid by Facebook, to act as tour guides for the areas that they live in, essentially becoming the modern equivalent of a travel agency.

With some research they could act as an information service for various countries too. This could fold back into cultivating an informed user base. They could promote people-focused stories and info that reveals the best in Islam, Christianity, the right, the left, minorities, immigrants, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia, etc., ignoring the politics of governments altogether.

5. News

Two words. Local. Journalism.

A lot of places in the U.S. and all over the world are becoming news deserts. Facebook could easily provide a cheap online alternative for many up-and-coming journalists, laid-off professional journalists, or independent publishers.

According to Katerina Matsa and Elisa Shearer, writing for The Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media. Conversely, they go to show that most social media news consumers expect the news there to be inaccurate.

This gives Facebook a lot of leeway in first delivering on quality content for their users and creating user confidence in the content that they see. Facebook could go a long way in supporting the efforts of local and independent journalists. Whether that’s through monetary support such as small grants or loans or through social support like providing information to keep people informed of news and the journalist’s personal efforts are important. They could feature certain local journalists and outline communities that are doing cool things all with a bent on positivity so as to avoid the appearance of partisanship. For any Reddit users, I envision a mix of /r/UpliftingNews and /r/Futurology.

Taking this route would replenish a lot of social good will the company has lost over the past few years. They could look like a savior whilst making Apple look bad, and depending on how it’s implemented they could create a viable, effective option for proper news sources and journalists to get their stories out. It would help counter the prevalence of fake news and potentially create a more informed user base.

I say all of this to point out that Facebook is far from what it could be, and that’s why I’m leaving. Right now, Instagram does what Facebook has been doing better. Instagram feels way more personal when interacting with not only my friends and family, but also celebrities, politicians, companies, influencers, brands, and more, essentially all the people in my orbit.

What Facebook needs to do is stick with its data-driven model but pivot in the opposite direction. Go big, Talk about the big ideas. Engage people on a large scale. Promote community-wide conversations. If Instagram is personal and Whatsapp is private, Facebook should be the big interconnected web that is us. Facebook is connection on a grand scale and all the implications of that.

Until Facebook realizes this, you can count me out for the time being.

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