doing without

I snapped two days ago. The rage at Mark Zuckerberg’s road-to-Damascus conversion to encrypted small-group communication as the future was enough to see spots. It’s not even a week since we found that Facebook is using 2FA phone numbers for search and advertising. Yesterday, we found out Facebook Messenger was shot through with holes. The number of flaws, hacks, and deliberate misuses of personal data strongly suggest that it would be smarter to let R. Kelly manage a Chuck E. Cheese than to let Zuckerberg’s company administer “privacy.”

And in my rage, I deleted the Instagram app.

That’s not nothing. A Yubikey let me dump Google Authenticator. I still have IMDb, but it’s never been logged into, and I could use it on the web as easily. StreetView and Translate were tossed until and unless I need them again. Without Instagram, my phone is suddenly completely 100% free of any Google, Amazon or Facebook code. And it felt like a tremendous relief. The underlying accounts still exist, of course, but they can be cleaned up at leisure, and if I’m not logged in and using them, they can’t collect any more than they already have.

Only problem is that “already have” is a big item. Instagram for about seven years, I suspect. Facebook largely from 2009-11, I suspect. Google, well, who knows, even if I mostly eschewed their services after about 2008 or so. In a lot of ways, the horse is out of the barn and the barn has burned down, and I’m just walling off the ashes. It might feel good for a moment at a visceral level, but it may not be sustainable in the long term…because of Instagram.

There are three categories of people I see on instagram. One are the handful of businesses or famous people (in whatever measure of fame) who don’t follow back, which is fine, whatever. I don’t think I’m going to miss any of those. Another are the people tangentially swept in through Twitter or as incidental friends-of-friends, who are all right, but not germane to this part of the discussion. Then there actual friends. People I know in person. People I’ve met, people I’ve got drunk with in New Orleans or Anaheim or London, people who would be friends of mine with or without the Internet…if they lived within 50 miles.

But that’s the trick. The list of people I know well enough to count as my own friends who live within less than an hour’s drive is not a very long list. Seeing the people commemorated in my tattoos almost universally means flights, not driving. The circumstances of our place and time mean that everyone who used to be part of our loosey-goosey dining club twelve years ago has moved to another county altogether, if not to another state or another continent. And when I say everyone, I mean literally every single person I followed on the original Vox without being married to, every person who was on the original blogroll of this site – I can name one human being from that era who still lives in or adjacent to our town outside my own house, and she might well be on the move herself soon.

What I missed the most in the seven year black hole that served as “college” was the social bits. I had a girlfriend – two, in fact, and my life would have been richer for having dumped either of them within the first couple months – and for the most part my social life was mediated entirely through them. There were abortive attempts at bonding with the guys on the 4th floor of the dorm in my freshman spring, there was exactly one postgame basketball party ever sometime in my sophomore or junior year, there were times that first year when I would go around visiting other people in their rooms between 3 and 5 of an afternoon, and in grad school there was actual esprit de corps and an incipient team-hood…that ran on the rocks because I had to keep driving back to Birmingham every weekend. The thing I wanted most out of college since the age of 5, the prospect of belonging, didn’t happen. And by the time the smoke cleared, I’d been to school for seven years and left with zero friends to show for it.

So for the last twenty-some-odd years, it’s mostly been done over the internet. I’ve known people from my DC years since before I moved to DC, because our prior acquaintance was what got us all to DC in the first place. We’re scattered all over the country (if mostly still around the East Coast) but we’re still in touch, and our community has migrated from listserv mail and a command-line chatroom to LiveJournal in the early oughts to…well, here you have the problem. It’s impossible to get away from Facebook when it has become the default mechanism for remaining in touch with people you don’t physically see. We have a Slack instance, and that works fine as a replacement for the old chat space, but it’s not everyone and it’s not everything. Even Instagram wasn’t comprehensive. There are people I want to stay in touch with, people I wish I was more in touch with, and yet short of committing the 21st century’s unpardonable sin of picking up the phone and demanding time for synchronous communication in a busy world? It’s not 1989. Sitting on the phone for hours is right out. Personal blogs, IM, alternative services have all gone by the boards.

If you want to keep up with your old friends, you have to be on Facebook.

This is where the back end of the most recent season of The Good Place hits me – the notion that there is no way to get to the Good Place, that it is impossible to live ethically under late capitalism, that pace Kashmir Hill there is no way to use the Internet in 2019 without paying a toll to the mega-giants. If you can live with AWS on the back end, you can use Slack and Signal and maybe get by. If you can deal with Verizon (still), your Flickr account is probably still there from 2005 and you may even have a few friends still populating their feeds via IFTTT from Instagram. But trying to get everyone to use something other than a Facebook property is impossible, because everyone is on Facebook. Everyone. I’m trying to think of a single person in my life who I know is not on Facebook – even my relations in Alabama – and I don’t think I can.

More to the point, where were my old friends on the Internet anyway? Where are the people I knew in DC, or locally during the Apple years? Mostly not on Instagram, actually. Very few on Twitter, in any participatory fashion. A lot of them were on Flickr, as it turns out, and their last posts are so far distant that the site actually says “ages ago” rather than parse a period of time longer than 119 months. Their personal blogs return error messages when I click old bookmarks. Unless you’ve kept in enough touch to have them in a personal Slack, or in some group chat within Signal or iMessage or (cringe) WhatsApp, your only option for contact is…

Yeah. That.

Which is the problem. I can sort of put together maybe the people I knew through a combination of Instagram and Twitter and other personal stuff onesie-twosie, but I still don’t have everybody. And when most people have jobs and children and lives, how much easier to just have a one-stop app for everything? It may be the worst app in mobility, one that crushes your battery and has a terrible UI, and the service in back of it may be harvesting your data and selling your identity to anyone who wants it and could be undermining democracy and facilitating murder around the world, but that’s where the baby pictures are.

And look back at that bit about work and kids and the like. At age 47, you largely meet new people through work or through your kids. I don’t have kids, and I have made serious choices about keeping work in a box separate from my real life, and…how do you meet new people at this age when you’re married and settled? The article I keep going back to on this topic hammers home the point that the easiest way to make new friends is to rekindle your relationships with the old ones. But how are you most likely to reach the old ones when they live over the hill, or in another state, or on another coast? When they aren’t on your street, or in your town, or in your metropolitan area?

And here’s the dagger: what good does it do to stand up to Facebook? It’s well documented that even if you never created an account, never logged in, they probably still have your data, gleaned from your friends who let their contacts be uploaded and have the app still harvesting data from other sources. You can cut the cord, wall yourself off, deny yourself access to the Beast of Menlo Park and all its pomps and all its works and all its empty promises…but it still has access to you.

So that’s where we end up. Your choices are to stay and participate, and be mined for your information and have your privacy whored out to any entity willing to pay, and be inundated with Russian bots and fake news and whatever the algorithm decides and maybe even have your view manipulated so Facebook can experiment on you, and never just be able to see a linear chronological timeline of your friends’ posts, and basically be treated with a slot machine that will give you a moment of human connection one pull in ten. Or you can eschew Facebook, be exploited anyway, and not even have the one-in-ten chance of remaining in touch.

Welcome to 2019. You can stand up to the monster, or you can have friends, but if you know how to do both, comments are open.

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