What I learned from 18 months off of Google and Facebook platforms
from Studio Morrow's Thoughts on Things
We’ve all thought about deleting our Facebook or Google accounts at one point or another. We imagine the peace of mind we’d have without constant WhatsApp notifications, or the what we could do with the hours we spend watching Instagram Stories and YouTube videos we can’t even remember. But few actually go cold turkey. In 2018, I did.
I spent the year and a half between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2020 off all Google and Facebook platforms on my personal devices.
The impetus for this decision came from watching Christopher Wylie, the digital strategy mastermind at Cambridge Analytica, give a fascinating and horrifying talk at Business of Fashion’s VOICES conference about how he’d weaponised fashion brands to help elect Donald Trump president of the United States.
I work in media and advertising, and Wylie’s presentation outlined how he had quite literally weaponized the type of digital strategy I do every day, in a way I’d never imagined possible. It gave me goosebumps.
In the month’s prior, I’d become increasingly aware of how deep of a stranglehold Google and Facebook had on my data. Their geolocation tools knew where I lived, my phone number, who the most significant people in my life were, anything I’d bought recently, where I was flying to, and hundreds of other data points.
Without a shadow of a doubt there are insights that analysts with access to my Google and Facebook data could glean about me that I could not tell you about myself.
Not to mention how deep of a stranglehold they had on the industry I work in. As fellow strategist Dan Hartley pointed out when I chatted to him about this, “How can I knowingly recommend to clients not to use these platforms when they have the user base that they do. There is no alternative to the 2.9billion people on Facebook.”
Ultimately though, it was Jaron Lanier who solidified my decision. His articulate argumentation in books like “Who Owns the Future” and “You Are Not a Gadget” gave me a way to express everything that had made me itchy about Google and Facebook for years.
Watching his visionary and prescient plea for remaking the internet was the thing that finally got me to delete my accounts.
He argues there are two reasons to delete social media:
“One of them is for your own good and one is for society’s good. For your own good, it’s because you’re being subtly manipulated by algorithms that are watching everything that you do constantly and then sending you changes in your media feed and your diet that are calculated to adjust you slightly to the liking of some unseen advertiser. So if you get off that, you can experience a clearer view of yourself and your life.
The reason for society might be even more important. Society has been gradually darkened by this scheme in which everyone is under surveillance all the time, and under this mild version of behavior modification all the time. It’s made people jittery and cranky. It’s made teens depressed. And it’s made our politics kind of unreal and strange, where we’re not sure if elections are real anymore, we’re not sure just how much the Russians affected Brexit.”
This was a compelling enough reason for me as an individual to get off social media, but as somebody who works with brands and has the power to influence advertising decisions that brands make, it felt crucial.
I wanted to see if getting off social media could help me find alternative platforms that I could direct my client’s ad spending toward, even if I’d have to position those platforms as innovation opportunities or a way to put their media money behind their brand purpose. Any incremental benefits on my mental health would be a bonus.
So I set out on my course and hard deleted my Google accounts, my Facebook accounts, and as much of Apple as I could wean myself off of (an overly ambitious choice as somebody who exclusively has Apple devices).
-I permanently deleted my Gmail account.
-I switched to an account on my own private domain that I hosted on KolabNow, which I ran through Outlook
-I replaced my Chrome browser with Brave.
-I turned my settings within Brave to program my search engine to DuckDuckGo instead of Google.
-I used Citymapper instead of Google Maps.
-I permanently deleted my personal Facebook, Instagram & WhatsApp accounts
Given that I work as a brand strategist, I maintained dummy accounts for my work so that I could still test run new features and do research for my clients, but I didn’t have any friends or follow anybody. At the time I was working at VICE Media and our work emails ran on the Google Suite, WhatsApp was our primary means of team communication on my work phone so I couldn’t opt out of those either, hence why I’ve labeled this a personal experiment.
My first learning came right away:
Learning #1: It’s really hard to fully delete Google & Facebook accounts
Google & Facebook do not want you to leave their ecosystems. They make it super challenging to even find the link to hard delete your accounts, and when you do there’s lots of begging you to stay and asking if you’re sure (but like REALLY sure) multiple times.
My second learning came within a few hours:
Learning #2: There is no YouTube alternative.
Not even close. Daily Motion, Vimeo, Vevo are all kind of fine if you know that what you’re looking to watch is on there, but for the breadth of YouTube content, or clicking on links friends send you, there’s just no other platform out there that does what YouTube does.
This was the first concession I made in my experiment. YouTube would have to stay.
After a few days, I was in for another sucker punch:
Learning #3: Cutting off Facebook will make it annoying to use anything you’ve ever connected to it in the past
Cutting off my Facebook & Google accounts immediately made Tinder
and most other dating apps unusable.
I had Spotify linked to my Facebook, which necessitated re-linking it to my personal email.
Basically anything you’ve ever linked up to your Facebook or Google account may end up not functioning, or requiring you to essentially rejig the whole thing again.
The next learning was something I hadn’t considered:
Learning #4: Location sharing on messaging depends on Proprietary Map Apps
When I first started my experiment, I tried to spend as little time on Apple platforms as I could. I quickly realized that friends who were used to sharing locations were accustomed to being able to geolocate their friends quickly.
This functionality only works if you have access to Apple Maps or Google Maps.
My friends and I both found ourselves frustrated when I wasn’t able to share or follow a location, so Citymapper was the next thing I let go. After a couple of months it just wasn’t tenable, so I went back to Apple Maps.
The next few learnings came in as more of a surprise
Learning #5: A lot of email and search functionality you rely on as standard is actually Google functionality
People just assume you can open email attachments, or edit google docs, or join Hangouts.
I was irritated when after a couple of weeks KolabNow prompted me to upgrade to attached or receive the attached files I wanted.
The cloud storage you’re used to accessing for free on Google when you attach large files to emails is actually a Gmail perk they can offer users given their scale of their ad revenue, which they make by selling advertisers access to the data you give them for free by using services like Gmail and YouTube. One of the many things you can file under “if the service is free, you’re the product.”
You get accustomed to being able to search for restaurants and having all that information populate at the top of your search result. Or do an image search based on an existing image.
Google’s engineers have spent decades optimizing functionality we’ve become so used to having on email and search on a daily basis, we tend to assume they’re basic internet functions rather than proprietary Google features. Not having access to that functionality is way more frustrating than I’d accounted for.
Learning #6: Hard-deleting your accounts can take a toll on friendships, especially long distance ones
Google & Facebook do not make it easy to communicate to people that you’ve deleted your accounts and are not simply ignoring them.
I tried to alert as many of my friends as possible that I was going to be doing this experiment, but some didn’t receive the message.
Frustratingly, if you WhatsApp somebody who’s hard deleted their account, there is no indication that the account has been deleted. Worse still, your text appears like it has been sent, and your friend’s picture still shows up as if their profile is active. To reiterate, I didn’t just delete the app off my phone, I did a hard delete meaning I should not have been reachable on the service.
Similarly, on Instagram, when you try to look somebody up who has hard deleted their account, there is no indication their account no longer exists. If you don’t know better, you might assume you’ve been blocked. There is no “deactivated” label – I’m assuming this is by design.
By the time I’d reinstalled WhatsApp, Google and Instagram I had to spend quite a bit of time mending friendships with friends in the U.S. who’d assumed I’d been ignoring them for nearly 2 years (I hadn’t been back to the states in that time period, which didn’t help). I even missed one of my good friends and his partner when they came to Amsterdam on account of it.
With all this doom and gloom, I feel remiss not many mention the overwhelmingly positive learnings from the experience:
Learning #7: It’s much better for your mental health
I felt so much peace in my head knowing I wasn’t going to have notifications on Instagram or a stories feed to mindlessly thumb through.
I’m definitely addicted to my phone so having a full break from that was pretty great.
Another really positive thing…
Learning #8: You learn who your ride or dies are
My fiancé and I first started to get to know each other long distance.
After meeting once in person through a mutual friend, I got her number and we started texting.
When she asked if we could switch to WhatsApp from SMS and I replied, “I don’t have WhatsApp, can you download Signal?” That probably should have been the end of our relationship.
Instead she replied, “what’s Signal?” I sent a link, she downloaded it, and she became one of a handful of other people (shout out to my mom) who downloaded it, which made it way more special when we communicated there.
To this day I think that period where we were communicating via Signal strengthened our relationship. Especially long distance, having a sacred little online space that’s not constantly interrupting you with message notifications from other people like WhatsApp created an intimacy that’s rare on digital platforms.
The biggest and most depressing learning I took away from everything is…
Learning #9: We are not conditioned to live in a world without Facebook & Google
The biggest flaw in Jaron Lanier’s advice to just hard delete your social media is that we live in a world where everybody around you, from your work, to your friends, to even the apps you use every day EXPECT you to be on Google and Facebook platforms.
People use the argument all the time that we used to live without Google, Facebook and smart phones as a way to explain how easy it should be to log off.
But back when people had landlines, the expectation was that you’d only be reachable when you were home.
Now, if somebody sends you a WhatsApp and you don’t respond, they send you a Google doc to co-edit and you can’t open it, they ask you to attach a small PDF and you have to send a WeTransfer link, it disrupts their expectations of how that interaction should be to a degree where if you don’t know people really well, it can throw a wrench in your relationship.
I wish I could say I found amazing alternative platforms to direct clients towards, but the reality is that I didn’t.
The only alternative I use to this day is my Brave browser, which is phenomenal, and refreshingly, pays users 70% of the ad revenue that they specifically generate in “Basic Attention Tokens,” which can then be redeemed for cash.
I fully abandoned my experiment in Spring of 2020, ironically in the wake of a yoga retreat. I’d made so many nice friendships on that retreat I could no longer bare to ask this group of 30 people to all download Signal and hope they’d open it so we could keep in touch.
If there ever needed to be living proof that Google & Facebook are monopolies that need to be broken up, I am it.
As somebody who tried in earnest to find meaningful alternatives, I mostly learned doing so would mean living what without exaggeration feels like a digitally ascetic life. Asking teenagers to do this is a non-starter.
I do believe that Jaron Lanier’s pleas are warranted.
For our own good and for society’s good, we need to get off Facebook & Google.
I just don’t believe it’s realistic to expect we can do it ourselves. We are past the point of return. These platforms are so clearly monopolies that they are now woven into the very fabric of our every social interaction. We can say we’re responsible for making these companies as big and strong as they are with our ignorant acceptance of the convenience they offer. But my take on it is a bit less self-effacing. I think it’s hard to ask individuals to accept anything else than the convenience these platforms offer when the alternatives have all been either swallowed up by Facebook & Google or aggressively elbowed out by them.
Worse still, unlike the phone companies of the past, these utility providers are tracking our every move and using it to get rich by selling our data to advertisers, most of whom themselves wish there was an alternative to this sordid exchange.
And there is.
We just need the government to create it rather than putting the onus on individuals.
Our communication lines are made of quicksand and if regulation doesn’t step in, I’m fairly convinced we’re headed straight to the bottom.
The life rafts we talk about when we talk about deleting our accounts don’t exist anymore.
As always, feel free to respond, even if you mildly disagree :)
Please enjoy this month’s selection of 3 things I liked on the internet:
My friend Nadia Piet asked 'an AI' (= a custom-trained + tweaked StyleGAN2 model) to imagine what the next Daily Paper collection would look like and the result came a little too close for comfort
Doja Cat partnered with Girls Who Code to turn her latest music video, “Woman,” into an interactive coding tutorial.
As if we needed another reason to hate Zuck, his 1,380-acre oceanfront Kauaʻi estate is displacing Native Hawaiians. Eat the Rich.
(via Roxane Gay’s excellent The Audacity substack)
Thanks again for joining me, I’ll catch ya in 2022 (terrifying) xx