No Digital Tax on Friendships


Relationships need friction, thought, interaction, care, love and action; our relationship actions should not be steered by how well a company can make money for advertisers. To tie ad content to human relations is intrusive. I conducted a personal experiment to see what it means to remove my dependency on the big two and realized that the platforms are less important, and easier to leave than I expected. I will disable my Facebook account in the beginning of July 2019, as a first step towards account deletion.

Increasing privacy concerns

I wish for a modern variant of social, akin to email but for digital social collaboration and sharing - maybe on the blockchain using dapps and backed by the the Interplanetary Filesystem. It will naturally be a challenge to build such a social protocol securely with privacy in mind, but not impossible. I think of a social standard, as universal and distributed as email, and not tied and monetized by a single company.

Reasons to leave

Google and Facebook offer services where the largest portion of their user base is not customers. In exchange for our personal data and ad space on our screens, they offer access to one of the most fundamental parts of being human: to communicate with loved ones. I realize that while it’s convenient to automate parts of how we build human relationships, we should not do it on platforms that are built for a different purpose, where our use is a means to another end.

I find Facebook overrated

I am inspired by privacy concerns. Nat offered helpful perspectives and insights in his “Yes, You Should Delete Facebook” article. Several friends have expressed similar issues with Facebook. A brave few of them resisted Facebook in the first place. Their non-use of Facebook shows that the platform is not that important after all.

She unsubcribed to updates from all her Facebook contacts, and as a result got an empty feed and no distractions.

A good friend of mine figured out a great way to get value from Facebook without the clutter - She unsubcribed to updates from all her Facebook contacts, and as a result got an empty feed. I applied the same trick. There is little that I miss from the newsfeed/social panopticon.

Back to basics

It is no longer worth it to have a Facebook account, especially when I weigh it against the privacy intrusion downsides. Perhaps a monetary subscription from a competing social service could be worth consideration, but I doubt the feasibility as I assume there would be too few users willing to pay to create a viable network effect.

At the moment I rather have the extra friction and time spent to connect meaningfully with friends and peers. To have to actually connect and interact consciously, and not mindlessly scroll and do the easy likes and expected commentary as I often find myself doing on social - and to sacrifice time for it.

Subscribe with money or with data

There is no such thing as a free lunch. “Free” digital services have a significant amount of strings attached. Most of all, our personal data is used or sold as part of the service provider’s product offerings - to their customers. The worst offenders are the singularly ad-powered digital giants, with Google and Facebook being the most visible of them. A company needs revenue to keep it’s operations up. While Google enjoys revenue streams from some products, most of it’s revenue is ad-based, Facebook is almost completely ad-driven.

Ad-placing based on intent

Ad-based offerings get more valuable for ad-buyers when ad match relevant viewers better. In aggregate it translates to how well they can shift our behaviors towards ad buyers’ intended outcomes: increased sales, awareness, vote shifting and more. With the impressive increases in data analytics capability over the last decades, ad-targeting has become very finegrained, down to single individuals. Aggregate online interations is modeled across websites to understand our “consumer” behavior and intent. Ad brokers have scary-detailed profiles of us individuals to help advertisers. They allow ad buyers and web site owners to track us as individuals, with a precise idea of our wants and needs - even when we have no relationship or accounts with web site owners.

Risks with personal ad-tracking

Facebook and Google are fiercest of the ad tracking networks. Companies leverage their insights through ad-placing and analytics solutions, to understand how to best interact with customers. This has many advantages as customers, however the pervasive surveillance brings very detailed profiles of citizens, that are too easy to access for nefarious uses. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a major break of trust, and not even done by hackers. Another consequence of the deep knowledge about us is that content we see is filtered and narrows our perspectives. We are in general fed more of what we already have shown interest in, resulting in less novelty and experience. The deep knowledge that the giants have about us is both creepy and useful.

I chose to leave

I made my choice. I refuse to be a product that my digital service providers sell to their customers. I instead seek paid, or ad-powered services where privacy is a core pay off the business model, as with Duck Duck Go. I start my journey with a reduction in my dependency on Google and Facebook services. They get replaced with alternatives that have sound incentives and revenue models. To have an aligned incentive model means that my service provider works to make a difference for me as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. Data about me is not a commodity that I want to have sold on the digital bazaar.

I made my choice:
I refuse to be a product that my digital service providers sell to their customers.

Implemented changes:

  • Google G Suite (free) is no longer my Mail Exchange. I have switched to a local provider with whom I have a web hosting agreement FS Data (my email accounts still need to move out of Google though)
  • Google Search was replaced with the DuckDuckGo search engine in all devices, as I view their business model as sustainable from a privacy perspective, and they manage to make money too.
  • Facebook Social Engagement - the like, share and contact links are removed from my homepage and blog posts, as a part of removing my dependency on Facebook. They are in part replaced with Twitter embeds on shared articles.
  • Whatsapp content and account deleted
  • Facebook Pages and Messenger Chatbot was migrated to Slack for Cato, our bot that says please and thank you in relation to watering our plants at home.

No content-based targeting: We will not use your email, chat, files or other personal content to target ads to you.”
- Satya Nidella

Next steps

There is likely still a lot left to do, I have less strong options about LinkedIn and Twitter. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft, and I see it as hopefully headed in the right direction. I still may have a concern about it. Twitter seems better managed and does not seem to track you as widely across the web, please comment if you see it differently! (Updated 2020-12-18, a year ago I completed most items, an Google Analytics is still pending the planned website update!)

  • DONE Facebook Social Pending deactivation and later deleted
  • DONE Download my Facebook content and store locally
  • DONE Delete Instagram
  • DONE Replace Facebook Messenger with Signal
  • DONE GMail A relevant alternative needs to be found, I am likely to go back to Office365. Satya Nidella is clear on privacy, and goes on record to say that they have “No content-based targeting: We will not use your email, chat, files or other personal content to target ads to you.“, that feels promising.
  • Still open Google Analytics To be replaced with a self-hosted website log management solution for that does not rely on social profiles.