Reclaiming Privacy

Leaving Facebook

Facebook be gone. These are my parting thoughts about all things Facebook. For some reason we start it off with discussing how Facebook and Zuckerberg essentially do not pay taxes. Then of course privacy (what else?) and other aspects how Facebook is not good for your mental hygiene.

Facebook and the Taxes

I have been wanting to leave Facebook for quite a while. But I did not want to go without some words about the why. Thus, I did not leave until…well, to the point you are able to read this here. The last serious attempt of writing this blog post dates back to early December 2015. Back then, Zuckerberg had just announced that the birth of his daughter was such an incisive event that he seemingly donated 99% of his wealth to charity. The media attention about his aim to build a better world for his daughter was enormous. So weird timing for leaving Facebook.

Apart from the media echo (a term accurately describing that most media forward information in an unreflected manner), there exists a more critical article that suggested less philanthropic motivations for the deed. Some amusing findings in this article are that the founded company (an LLP) is actually pretty much “an ordinary company” that can make a profit, can be used for lobbying and so on. To quote a more leftist article:

this “‘donation’ is actually just shifting wealth from one account to another tax-free one under the guise of ‘charity’.

Facebook uses the famous “Double-Irish” for avoiding to pay taxes on a large scale (e.g., they paid as much as 4,327 GBP in the UK in 2014). Okay, so if Facebook (like all other Tech giants like Google, Amazon, Starbucks and so on) barely pays any tax, then it is only consistent that its owner should not pay too much tax either. Sarcastic remark from a Berkeley professor on the Zuckerbergs’ goals declared in the latter accompanying the donation:

I applaud their emphasis on ‘promoting equality,’ but that starts with paying one’s taxes.

Early in 2014, Zuckerberg appeared “to be cool with paying taxes”.

Facebook, Privacy and DIY

But I digress. Naturally, choosing to leave Facebook is not about the tax avoidance strategies of said company or its owner. If you start to choose companies based on ethical standards, then you will quickly run into the problem of what to use and where to buy at all. Actually, I fall into that boring 48% category of people that leave Facebook because of privacy concerns.

I will not examine privacy policies here. I think, everybody agrees that there was a point, when Facebook did not have much respect for your privacy. In the heat of the initial rise of Facebook, Zuckerberg may or may not have declared that the “age of privacy is over”. Since that attitude took off in the industry, it has been revised into something like “we can still do what we want with their data, but maybe we should not force them to make their data publicly available”.

Ever since the Big Data Harvest started, I had trouble buying into the superficial merits offered to me. And that comes from a man who in the past could be easily convinced that OSes like Plan 9 are worth a try just because they bring the Unix philosophy to their purist conclusion. Sure, services like Twitter or Facebook offer nice-to-haves, but the advantages never really justified the complete and utter measurement of my mind as being conducted by the various data harvesters. Did you know that Facebook even analyses the posts that you do not publish?

And I have sympathy for those which regard it as a good deal. You get so much for free. To me, it has always been conceptually wrong to give up control over your data. There are so many things that are conceptually superior but have no or loose market share, just because nobody earns money by offering it.

  • Why do I need to subscribe to Youtube channels or Facebook pages, when there is nothing wrong with RSS?

  • Why use the Facebook chat if there is the decentral Jabber which you could theoretically host yourself?

  • How has been inferior to Twitter?

  • Why use Gmail if you could host email yourself? Luckily, email is a product of the good old less commercial times of the internet. You are not tied to one provider as it is the case with social networks (just imagine you needed three different mail accounts for being able to communicate with your friends and colleagues which use all different providers).

  • I would even go so far as to ask why use github when it is really no hassle to set up a git repository on your server? Okay, that one went too far, surely social coding is a great thing for the open source community.

The list goes on and concludes with

  • Why use Facebook, when there is a similar decentralized service (called diaspora) where you are in control and which you could host yourself. Because Facebook has FarmVille? Sorry for the outdated reference, I have no clue, what is hot on Facebook nowadays.

I understand that do-it-yourself (DIY) is not an option for every one. But users should not trade away their freedom for a candy bar without considering any alternatives and complain later that a big tech giant does something evil.

Facebook’s Past and Future Numbers

Despite all of this, Facebook has always been doing immensely well and will continue to do so. Just have a look at their stock price at the time of this post:

Yet, I am wondering whether the majestic tree is not slowly rotting from the inside. Facebook had its 1,000,000,000th user a while ago, but naturally growth has to stop eventually. As of end of 2014, the monthly growth was 0.64%.

Google trends paints an interesting picture. As much as the stock is heading north between 2014 and 2016, the web search interest for Facebook is heading south between 2013 and 2016. Also notice that the figure contains the search relevancy of Google+ as a comparison (maybe we should switch to a logarithmic y-axis).

Well, an increasing number of people who use Facebook via a smart phone app could be an explanation. They will not query Google for “facebook login” and thus the search interest declines. “Who”, do you ask, “is really googling for facebook login rather then entering directly?” According to one hilarious happening in 2010, there existed quite a lot people googling for the Facebook login and ended up on a blog post about Facebook’s login page. Hundreds of users wrote angry comments to this blog post because they were trying to log into the blog’s administrative site (under the impression that this is the new Facebook) but could not. Call me mean-spirited, but I found that hilarious back then.

But regarding user decline: once the pendulum swings the other way, it will go quick. Researchers compared the exponential growth of Facebook to the spread of an infectious disease (we could also consider a Zombie outbreak, if you are into that). Okay, that is a bit harsh, I guess we could take everything exponential as an example like the less offensive beer foam. While I am skeptical about scientific studies about popular topics, double skeptical about news articles quoting scientific articles about popular topics (just watch this episode of Last Week Tonight) and an additional one and a half skeptical about applying models from unrelated contexts to other contexts, I do think they may have a point. The claim propagated by the newspaper quoting the unpublished study is that

[Facebook] will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.

That means by end of 2017. Okay, this does not sound too realistic given the current situation. But once the user decline starts, the effects that allowed exponential growth in the first place will work against it. Now that I have checked out the paper I am actually a bit irritated that they make no mention of the word exponential at all. Note that, the folks from Facebook themselves and others have harshly criticized this study by Princeton researches with similar arguments (i.e., there are less people googling for the Facebook login). It is not a good sign either that I could not find the published study anywhere. May be an example of bad science.

Still I stand by my statement that Facebook’s days are counted. They are facing tremendous challenges: Facebook is not the cool new kid on the block any more (most likely your parents and grandma are using it). So they have to dig out some shiny new things to entertain the youth that is eager to move on to the next Instagram/Snapchat while at the same time they have to avoid at all cost to irritate the increasingly conservative user base. And after 10 years your code base has grown up, but that means it will be beyond its prime soon.

Conclusion: Why Leave Now?

So to summarize, I have never been fully fine with the underlying data harvesting concept. In its prime, there was so much talk about how in the future many people will find their jobs via networking on Facebook. People made good money selling themselves as social media experts to companies that could be convinced that every firm that does not jump onto the band wagon will get left behind in the digital dust. No surprise, these claims were somewhat exaggerated.

But my concerns regarding Facebook go beyond the previously mentioned issues: on Facebook, there is so much more annoying behavior to be found compared to the positive things you get out of it. Just think of all that image crafting that goes on there: every one knows people pretending to lead perfect lives on Facebook, organize their life around this appearance and optimize everything for likes. Facebook does not bring us as people closer together.

I have been subscribing a lot of tech blogs recently. Blogs go beyond all that is fast and superficial in Facebook. On a blog, persons may share their technical expertise while often you also get some insight on the person behind it. And you can even use RSS. So yeah, if only one idea from this article propagates to another person, I feel much more rewarded than if ten people had pressed the like-button on my post stating “don’t dream your life, live your dream!”.

Let me close this goodbye to Facebook by coming back to the title image. It is a German newspaper article of “Die Zeit” in which the writer discussed his disappointment with Facebook being unable (or unwilling) to ban racist hate posts. It reads

Hast du das noch im Griff, Mark?

or in English

Do you still have this under control, Mark?


From: Josué V
2016-05-29 23:51
Now that you are off Facebook (and with totally valid reasons) I'll need some other way to remember your birthday... Being serious though; I understand the importance of privacy and personal information, and that's a big issue that needs to be corrected. But by being off such plattforms you are also diminishing the strenght of your voice. Sure, you have a different audience on blogs and forums, but the vast majority of people that need your insights are not regular visitors. Your opinions are as important as having the right forum to speak your mind (as creepy and intrusive as it might be).
From: Andre
2016-05-30 23:05
Thanks for your thoughts! Of course, if you want to change something, "running away" is inferior compared to "trying to change the system from within". But this is not my intention. This is just me doing my internet dinosaur thing. I fear, the struggle for privacy has been mostly lost (although data harvesters had go a few steps in the direction of their critics). And yes, if you do not follow the mainstream, you are cutting yourself from society with each ideal that you follow. One tech blog I recently came across has some interesting things about that to say.

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