When it comes to the Internet, there are five companies that tower over all the rest. They are known as GAFAM: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. In terms of market capital, they are the five most valuable public companies in the world, and much of that is because they have almost total control of our online lives. As we will see later in the series, it is impossible to avoid them completely. But you can limit their access to your online life, which is our main goal. To that end, we will start with the smallest of the five: Facebook.
According to the New York Times, about three-quarters of Americans use Facebook every day.1 While it is seen as being most used by older Americans, it is heavily used by all ages. It is the parent company of WhatsApp (with 2 billion users worldwide) and Instagram (with 500 million daily active users).
Facebook has ushered in a new level of connectivity with friends and family, but it also has a dark side. A 2016 study showed that the more time you spend on Facebook, the less happy you will be. Envying your Facebook friends can even lead to depression in some cases.2 Its negative impact is so common it has birthed a meme. Your boyfriend just dumped you, or your wife wants a divorce? Hit the gym and delete Facebook.
Facebook gives the impression that it is easy to delete your account. They even have a help page showing you how to do it step-by-step. But even Facebook says that this will only deactivates your account for about 90 days. Your account will only be deleted if it stays completely inactive during this time. You might think you just need to be patient, but Facebook takes a broad view of what “active” means. For example, Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp. If you continue to use these apps, then your Facebook account isn’t inactive.
Even if you do happen to avoid all things Facebook for three months, much of your data is still not deleted. Facebook intentionally makes it very difficult to remove everything. So much so that several folks have written browser plugins and scripts to automate the process. But that’s a topic for a future post.
Another problem with deleting Facebook is that many people need to use it. Your employer may require it, or it’s a way to keep in contact with Grandma. Facebook is difficult to leave because it has become so integrated into people’s lives. If you are not ready to completely leave Facebook, there are still things you can do. Most importantly, you can limit the information Facebook gathers about you.
This is where things get easier. The first thing you can do is to log out of Facebook when you are not using it. Not only will this help mitigate Facebook snooping, it will also add a hurdle to using Facebook. Is it really worth logging in to post that cat picture? The more you are logged out, the more you get comfortable with not using Facebook at all.
Even when you are logged out, Facebook will still gather information on you. When you visit a web page, you’ll often see social media icons. They let you share the page on social media with a simple click. But they also identify you and send that information back to Facebook. As you surf the web, those icons tell you Facebook is watching. It knows what pages you view, and what sites you most visit.
To stop that from happening, you probably need a new web browser. If you aren’t using Firefox, now is the time to start. This will let you use an add-on called Facebook Container. What Facebook container does is create a virtual browser for Facebook. All of Facebook’s cookies and history stays in a single container. When you are logged out of Facebook, those little tracking icons on websites get blocked, and Facebook can’t follow you on the net. It isn’t perfect, but it goes a long way toward limiting Facebook’s grasp.
You might not be ready to hit the gym and delete Facebook, but you can download Firefox and log out of Facebook. It’s a small step, but small steps is how we will get there in the end.
Nicas, Jack. “Does Facebook Really Know How Many Fake Accounts It Has?.” New York Times (2019). ↩︎
Appel, Helmut, Alexander L. Gerlach, and Jan Crusius. “The interplay between Facebook use, social comparison, envy, and depression.” Current Opinion in Psychology 9 (2016): 44-49. ↩︎