2021-03-15

Shifting Away from Social Media Platforms

This post is the first in a series of three posts about some changes I have been making in my personal life with respect to how I interact with online social media platforms, and how that affects this blog. The points most relevant to this blog are as follows. This blog used to have associated Facebook & Twitter accounts, and I used to share each new post on my own personal Facebook timeline to encourage others to read it. While I'm aware that a few contacts on Facebook did read my & share recent blog posts, there weren't many. Meanwhile, looking back at the Facebook & Twitter accounts associated with this blog, almost no new readership came from those, so I didn't feel too badly about deleting those accounts (after deleting each individual post), especially because the synchronization of new posts from this blog being automatically shared to its associated Facebook page didn't work for the first few months that I tried it (over 10 years ago), and then I stopped caring about that Facebook page afterwards. Furthermore, I added a lot of tools to connect this blog to social media sites over 10 years ago, when I, being in high school and then in the first & second years of college, had more time on my hands & had high hopes for this blog becoming popular online (especially in the domain of Linux distribution reviews); for the last several years, I have had neither the time nor the interest to continue pursuing such popularity contests, and I'm almost certain that I won't feel inclined toward such things again, so I have no problem with removing those connectivity features. I know there are still some widgets built into each post or page on this blog which are connected to different social media sites for easier sharing of posts, and I should remove those eventually, but simply as a practical matter (with respect to my own time), I'm less concerned about removing those right away. In the meantime, I think it is still possible to get updates about this blog via email, RSS, or Atom. Follow the jump to see why I have taken these steps for my blog and am currently undertaking similar steps with my personal presence on social media platforms owned by Facebook or Twitter.

Commentary about problems with Facebook is not new to this blog, as previous posts include (somewhat shallow) discussions of individual privacy settings, group privacy settings, and competition with Google+. In the last of those posts, I even pointed out the need to keep backups of data to personal hard drives instead of having only one copy of a given piece of data in the cloud. While I have certainly been good (for the most part) about keeping my data backed up to my own hard drives, as I continued in college and afterwards, I became habituated to using Facebook to keep in touch with people & keep up with the news (at least with respect to what would show up in my Facebook news feed), especially as they also migrated away from many other platforms; meanwhile, Google+ essentially disintegrated, and Facebook became the end-all be-all social media platform for me and many friends & relatives. I would sometimes give some thought to issues of data privacy and whether handing over my data to a company like Facebook is really in my best interests, but for a long time, I couldn't come up with a compelling reason to step away. This was because I couldn't conceptualize a way that Facebook, Twitter, or the few other similarly large social media platforms could really cause problems in my life with my data if I was prudent about what I shared, and I figured that if I had ever posted things a few years before that would seem controversial or offensive in the present day, my privacy settings online and the need for a human to dig through the social media data of a random person would make such a search somewhat ridiculous.

The events of 2021 January 6 (the attack on the US Capitol) and the aftermath changed my mind and made me believe that it is truly in my best interests to shift away from platforms owned by Facebook or Twitter, for two main reasons. First, it was horrifying to realize that my data is being used to refine algorithms that "optimize for user engagement", which in practice means showing and encouraging the spread of more divisive & conspiracy-minded content; even if I don't share such content myself, my usage patterns shape the algorithms with respect to what doesn't drive user engagement as much as with respect to what does. As I thought about that more too, I also realized that while I like being able to send messages to friends and while it would be nice to have a way to broadcast messages to multiple people at a time, I don't really care that much about the Facebook news feed anymore, and I think it is creepy that Facebook cares enough about it to "optimize for user engagement" (as a way to filter posts & thereby avoid making users see what every single one of their contacts has broadcast). Second, as much as I felt that these sites banning the previous president was justifiable as an immediate reaction for preventing the imminent incitement of another attack, I felt uncomfortable knowing that such big companies could make decisions like that essentially arbitrarily without adequate external regulation or oversight, and I felt like the claims that such private companies have a right to internally regulate who gets to posts things missed the bigger point that such companies have essentially taken over & privatized the "public square" for speech. Given these problems, I have begun the slow process of migrating conversations with friends & relatives away from Facebook & WhatsApp toward other platforms (preferring those that are open standards and aren't subject to the whims of another corporation, but recognizing, with a maturity that I wouldn't have had in my zealous high school days, that this might not always be possible). I have also become better at regularly downloading my data from those platforms so that I wouldn't possibly lose any data at the time that I decide to fully deactivate & delete those accounts. Furthermore, I recognize that while I might not be able to fully migrate away from Facebook or WhatsApp (as there may be many relatives or friends who are unwilling to similarly migrate away from those platforms), data privacy need not be a binary decision; I believe I can feel good about giving only minimal data to Facebook going forward, despite all of the data I have already given it.

The main remaining concern for me is sharing pictures with others. Facebook made that extremely easy, and while Google Drive or Flickr make that similarly simple, I don't want to be stuck with platforms whose companies aren't shy about selling my data to other companies or about "optimizing for user engagement". Thus, I am still looking for a secure cloud storage site that allows me to securely share folders of pictures with family & friends and has a privacy policy that actually respects my data privacy. This will be the topic of the second post in this series. The third post in this series will be a more fun & light discussion of some useful scripts for email archival & photo tagging that I've come up with in the process of archiving & managing my data.

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