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Digital Literacy

Digital Detox 2020/8: De-FAANGing Facebook

bird reflected in a pool of water

by Joe Antonioli, Senior Curricular Innovation Strategist, DLINQ

Facebook and the other FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) have been learning about us through our posts, purchases, media consumption, and browsing habits for many years. These companies are grabbing our attention strategically, even while company executives are “limiting — and sometimes outright banning — how much screen time their kids get.” Facebook has become the largest social media platform, making it an essential communication platform for many people. This makes it hard for us to think about breaking our relationship with Facebook, even as it breaks our trust over and over again.

Reflecting on my own experience, I wondered how I came to a place where I felt like I could not abandon Facebook. My early use was intermittent at best. On January 12, 2005 a group of students encouraged me to create a Facebook account. On March 24, my first post was a “¿Qué pasa?” reply to “holla” on my timeline, demonstrating my lack of understanding of youth slang. My next post was on January 28, 2006, when I let my network know that I had accepted a position at Middlebury. On December 6, 2006, my participation in Facebook turned (photo)graphic when member of my collegiate a cappella group posted a photo from a reunion and tagged me. It was shared with everyone that did and did not attend, a dual message of “Remember this joyous moment,” and “See what you missed?”

Two years after Facebook extended beyond educational institutions, my 89 year old grandmother (now 100!) was one of the first people in my family to create a Facebook account. She was living in Arizona and saw it as a way to be connected with the rest of her family who were living in the Northeast U.S. That year, Facebook sent me a reminder of her birthday. I called her and we talked about what was happening in our lives. The day after her birthday she sent a mass email to the family to share what she had done on her birthday, including a “lovely phone call from her eldest grandson.” Replies from the family included jibes of brown-nosing and sucking up.

The next day I started receiving friend requests from our family members and my Facebook use picked up considerably. Reunions. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Every recurring event allowed Facebook to capitalize on our need for connection. Facebook became the way that we stayed in touch with people we saw infrequently in-person and Facebook used our attention and connections to collect our data.

Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us that Facebook could be irresponsible with our data. We also found out that Facebook was used to influence our elections, in part by using Facebook’s data-based advertising system. The onslaught of information and misinformation appearing on our Home pages overwhelmed us.

As a result of how irresponsible and toxic Facebook had become, some people disabled their Facebook accounts. But that was not an option for many of us.

Facebook connections have spawned communities. We share and debate ideas with colleagues in our posts. Parent networks talk about school policies. Musicians connect with each other to spark collaborations and small businesses create relationships with their customers and patrons. We are giving and receiving important first-hand information.

We have created connections using digital services and disconnecting from these services would feel like we are disconnecting from our communities, our friends, our families, and our lives. The cost of using these services is the loss of privacy; the cost of not using them is the loss of community.

My colleague, Brenda Ellis, and I talked about this conflict after last fall’s Activists and Allies CryptoParty. Neither of us felt that we could abandon our activity on these platforms. Our lives require that we continue our presence in these spaces. Could we take steps to remove the pieces that were harmful–to de-FAANG them? This would be a targeted digital detox, and as Dr. Jeni Henrickson writes, “digital detox [is] a kind of in-between space — not a complete silencing of the digital, but rather an opportunity to remove all things ‘toxic’ while retaining digital elements that I personally find joyful or helpful.” Brenda and I got together to discuss some small steps we could take to diminish the attention that Facebook was grabbing. We will share these steps at a future Cryptoparty. In the meantime, here are some initial steps you can take.

Take Action

  • Find out what Facebook knows about you by accessing and downloading a copy of your data. The dates and activities at the beginning of this article all came from a download of my Facebook history. Use this information to change the privacy settings on your posts and inform how you engage on Facebook going forward.
  • Clean up your Facebook account by untagging yourself and others from photos, deleting old data (such as photos from more than one year ago), and reducing publicly available data. Instructions for doing these decluttering tasks are available at Tactical Tech’s Data Detox.
  • Change your Ad settings. I had just started a new lease on a car and dealer ads started popping up in my Facebook feeds. Adjust your ad settings to limit the ads that are presented to you (and the data used to inform those ads).
  • Create and manage groups to limit who you see and who sees you. I keep a Friends & Family group, as well as a Penalty Box. Stay in touch with your connections while choosing the posts that these connections can see.
  • Facebook’s data collection also happens when you are visiting other websites. We are using plugins like Ghostery to see and manage what sites are collecting information and sharing it with Facebook.
  • Contain Facebook’s tracking by accessing Facebook only on your computer browser and removing Facebook apps from your mobile devices (where Facebook has access to a lot more data about you, like your contacts, location, text messages, and more). When using Facebook on your browser, consider using a browser add-on that prevents Facebook from tracking your visits to other sites (like the Facebook Container add-on for the Firefox browser)

Brenda and I will be hosting the DeFAANGing Facebook Cryptoparty on Tuesday, March 3rd at 3pm in the WIlson Media Lab, LIB 220. We’d be happy to help you and hear your thoughts on how to manage Facebook, and share ideas for future De-FAANGings.

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BONUS EDITION: Considerations for Using Digital Tools to Support Executive Function
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