Two years without Facebook

I completed 2 years without having a Facebook account a couple of days back on my birthday. I wouldn’t say the experience was perfect, but still it did me more good than bad. A lot of people use Facebook under the guise of staying in touch with a lot of people, but do they actually stay in touch with people through Facebook? I don’t think so. The stream of updates on Facebook is heavily clogged by photos, videos, messages from apps and meaningless likes from people whom you just know and nothing more. And more often than not, knowing about the lives of other people via Facebook often unleashes bouts of depression caused by comparing our lives to theirs based on whatever they have posted, however true or false that maybe. I am glad to be free from such emotional baggage. I also believe that connecting with people in real life does more good than pretending to do so on pseudo-social networks.

Often, the fact that it is a social network and you are not talking to people in person, makes you say things that you would never say in person. Apart from that, it takes a lot of effort to filter out just the content you want to read. Previously when I was on Facebook, there used to be a “Status updates” filter which used to filter and show just the status updates from people. But that was removed after some time and Facebook started to use various algorithms to determine what content to show me and what I would like to read. Unfortunately the intersection was almost always empty for me. As Facebook never deletes anything, all my activities on the site can always be traced back to me. Right to be forgotten is very important to me. So I am glad I quit Facebook.

Since the primary revenue for Facebook is via advertising, it is always trying to find more about users to show them targeted ads. As a result of this, Facebook wants to be everywhere on the internet trying to track all your online activity which in my humble opinion is nothing short of stalking. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, all the information is associated with a shadow account which will be merged with your account if and when you create one on Facebook. I don’t want to give them any of my data any more. I use browser plugins to block all Facebook social content and other forms of tracking. If someone who knows me really wants to share something with me, it is very easy to find ways to get in touch with me instead of just broadcasting on Facebook and hoping that I see it. I am very active on Gmail chat and prefer having one on one conversations with people once in a while.

You might be thinking that Google is as evil and it makes no sense for me to ditch Facebook and use Google’s suite of products where you are the product being sold. I totally agree with that point and I have thought about self-hosting those services on my server using something like Sovereign, but I haven’t managed to find the time and motivation to get it done. Google has made such a move a bit more difficult by abandoning XMPP federation which means people using their own XMPP chat servers cannot communicate with the users using Google’s chat. Since I have been unable to abandon Gmail, I am fairly active on Google+ for now. I don’t like how Google is forcing it on all users with Google accounts.

Google+ is fast becoming the omni-present evil that wants to know more and more about your activities. The latest in the series of moves in that direction is the compulsion of using real names with all Google accounts and using +1’s of users and showing them as advertisements/recommendations with their photograph to other users. To mitigate it, I try to use Google search engine in private browsing mode without being logged into any of Google’s services whenever I can.

Having an Android device gives Google a lot more chance to mine data about my life, but I am doing my best to avoid it by using Cyanogenmod and its Privacy Guard. I did try to use my phone without any of Google’s apps, but had to give up due to the need to install a few apps which are found only on the Google Play Store. Being very paranoid about installing any app on my phone and denying it the permissions it doesn’t need has helped a bit, but it is not fool-proof.

You might also find me active on Twitter. I believe Twitter at least tries to be a social network and with the 140-character limit on messages, there is not as much spam as in Facebook. I have a lot of friends on Twitter (still just a fraction of the number of friends I had on Facebook) who do post a lot of content that I find interesting to follow. While I also use Libre alternatives like Diaspora, StatusNet, Pump.io, I don’t have my friends there and with not a lot of people there on those social networks, they often end up being ghost towns.

Services like Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp have become the latest fad and they have a large number of users using them with the smartphone boom. While the ideas behind those services might be unique and trendy, they have a dodgy track record and privacy terms. Snapchat provides a way to send ephemeral picture messages to other users of the service, but do we know for sure that Snapchat isn’t archiving all the messages sent using its platform and selling them to advertisers? Isn’t it creepy what they could do with all the data? WhatsApp has had known security and privacy issues (like uploading the address books of users to their servers) for a long time and still people use it because they just want to appear trendy and don’t care enough to appreciate the harm.

When I talked to one of my school friends a few days back, he told me that a lot of our classmates were having a fun group conversation on WhatsApp. While that made me feel bad about missing on getting in touch with classmates, I was never going to get tempted to install such a thing and use it. For the sake of my privacy, I consider it a reasonable sacrifice to miss out on all first-hand conversations and get to know about them late from someone who participated.

If you are someone who cares about privacy, do consider quitting the use of privacy-invading social networks and mobile apps. I know that it could be very difficult for most people, but at least give it a try, If you are skilled enough, you can even try creating open source alternatives based on open standards. While you might face failures initially, remember that every long journey starts with the first few steps forward and don’t give up.

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