And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

On deleting Facebook and being human again

The topic of deleting a Facebook account has been written about in depth in various other places, so it’s with hesitation that I begin this entry about my own experiences with it. However, in a post-Social Network world, the site may have beefed up its “please stay!” technology in order to retain newly-sceptical users. In this article I want to explore just how they do it.

I’d been meaning to stop using Facebook for quite a while now. Having joined during 2005 as the site was just taking off (and I was just beginning my university life), it was a good way to kill the rather large amounts of free time my eight-hours-a-week English degree was leaving me with. Fast-forward to 2011, however, and I’m finding my free time severely limited and my default reaction of clicking the ‘FB’ bookmark to be less and less rewarding.

Discussions with colleagues also informed the decision. A fantastic article by Jemima Kiss made a real impact on me when it compared heavy internet users to slot machine addicts, always pushing the button in the hope of something new and exciting. While I’d hardly describe my Facebook usage as an addiction, I certainly agreed with the notion of being conditioned into hitting the refresh button in the hope of distraction. Another work friend mentioned deactivating her account, only to be dragged back in when she continued to receive emails as her friends tagged her in pictures and updates.

After this, my resolve was set. I’d tie up some loose ends, save anything important, and direct everyone to my newly-launched personal domain which contained all my contact details. This done, I duly typed my dramatic-sounding “I’m deleting my Facebook account” status update and began the process.

Somewhat annoyingly, I wasn’t able to remove the account there and then. There are a few applications I’ve made that use my account as their admin user, and I can’t delete them. I didn’t want to leave my account intact so I made the painful steps of creating a new, secret account, just for these applications. Immediately after creating it it began – with spooky accuracy – showing me my friends and family, without me giving it any indication of who I was beyond an email address I had never used on Facebook before. I hadn’t even used my real name.

Next I had to transfer ownership of my applications to this new, fake me. This proved to be profoundly frustrating. Facebook now require application developers to be “verified”. Fair enough. I verified my new, fake account using my phone number. I still wasn’t verified. I had to resort to entering my credit card information, which finally saw me verified and able to switch ownership to the new account. Now I could actually delete myself.

The “deactivate your account” page is a melodramatic affair. The top half of the page is devoted to five randomly-selected friends, pictured with you where possible, with headings like “Annie will miss you”. Tugging at your emotional heartstrings as it subtly predicts your inevitable loss of contact with these friends and acquaintances, it begs you to reconsider, your finger hovering on the “Close account” button.

Below that comes a series of checkboxes asking why you’re leaving. Rather than this being some kind of exit survey for Facebook’s data monkeys, it actually turns out that it’s a kind of smart-arsed solution merchant. If you select the box saying “Facebook sends me too many emails” it pops up some text explaining how to reduce the amount of messages you receive. If you click the “I don’t find Facebook useful” you’ll be given tips on getting the most out of the service. And so on, for a dozen possible grievances.

Once again, they’re relying on your wavering intentions and trying to sway you back to the dark side. It’s obvious that they don’t want to lose customers – why would they? – but the way this plays into your emotional reliance is quite telling of how the site operates. By suggesting that when you remove your account, you effectively remove your friendships with these people, it betrays Facebook’s single-minded view that social networking only ever exists online.

Not an hour after completing my deactivation was I back on the site. I’d googled around and realised that my account wasn’t actually removed, but was just dormant. As soon as I logged back in, all my stuff would be there again. Finding an obscure link on a help page, I was able to permanently delete my account and data, request no more emails from Facebook, and, interestingly, download a single .zip file containing everything I’d ever done on the site. I assume this was added in response to Google’s challenge that Facebook’s data stays within their system, and it was a nice touch.

Inside the zip file was every photo and video I’d uploaded in neatly-organised files, and an enormous HTML file with every wall post I’d ever received and every message someone had sent me over the 6 years of using the site. It was laid out to resemble a typical Facebook page – even when you’re accessing your data, they’re still trying to tempt you back. Reading old messages from friends sent years ago I smiled vaguely at memories and even thought about clicking on their name to see what they’re up to – this is how they get you.

The most important thing for me in all of this is to remember to keep perspective. That idea that you should use Facebook to keep track on these people doesn’t really work for me any more. I found my feed swamped with people whose boring minutiae I didn’t care for at all. Facebook’s answer would be “remove those people from your friends list”, but I have a better one: remove yourself. Facebook isn’t a meaningful way to share. My best friends post updates and photos every day and I read them obediently, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard their voices in months and didn’t really know what they were up to. Sure, Joe is growing a chilli plant and Sarah is going to Australia, but how are they doing? What’s making them happy? What’s making them sad? How can I be there for them? Facebook doesn’t offer us answers for any of those things.

This now means that the onus is on me to make the effort socially to keep my relationships strong. And I’m glad, for once, not to surrender control to technology. Some things need a warm-blooded, absent-minded, stubby-fingered and fiercely alive human being to work best. Bye bye Facebook.