#DeleteFacebook: Users always have the option of disconnecting—right?

Assistant professor, University of Toronto

Want to #DeleteFacebook? You can try.

Deleting Facebook is easier said than done.

These are examples of headlines written after the news about Cambridge Analytica harvesting the data of 50 million Facebook profiles. These suggestions do not speak of getting rid of Facebook, Inc. – the company and its business models – but rather they question the possibility for an individual decision to stop using Facebook’s services.

Yet at least implicitly, campaigns such as #DeleteFacebook also threaten the company. Regardless of users actually leaving the site, privacy scandals and threats like #DeleteFacebook reflect on the company’s stock price. In the aftermath of the news, Facebook was said to lose $60 billion in market capitalization and its stock faced the worst week since 2012. Mark Zuckerberg took actions posting an ad in several British and American newspapers explaining the reasons for the data breach and explaining how they would respond and change their practices. “I promise to do better for you,” Zuckerberg said.

In Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds I argue that the threat of users leaving the site gives us a needed opening to re-think how our relationships with Facebook are being designed. The current discussion of what would be better for Facebook users circulates around regulation of data and controlling the access to one’s data. But if we start from the difficulty to #DeleteFacebook, instead of the problems of data and privacy, we quickly see that our data is not Facebook’s product—our engagement is.

#DeleteFacebook as an expression of revolt against Facebook is not the first of its kind. Facebook has often received criticism when the users have felt they are no longer in control of their social media engagements and what takes place on the site. In 2010, a group of dissatisfied Facebook users organized a Quit Facebook Day. Out of 450 million Facebook users, thirty-one thousand users decided to leave the site that day.

The users potentially abandoning Facebook also became the target for other social media sites. Diaspora in 2011 and Ello in 2014 started marketing their services as an alternative to Facebook. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold,” Ello said, positioning its service against Facebook.

The suggestions to download one’s Facebook data in order to see what the site knows about you were also happening before the most recent data leak. In 2015 artist Liam Scully produced over 1,000 drawings on top of his downloaded Facebook data. The name of the exhibition: Digital Suicide.

For a decade, different artists and tactical media groups have been playing with the ideas of detox, digital suicide, and making the act of leaving Facebook a performance. Seppukoo.com gamified digital suicide giving users points based on how many of their friends followed their lead and deleted their Facebook account. Web 2.0 SuicideMachine removed users’ Facebook friends one by one, transformed her profile picture into a noose logo and changed the password making a return impossible.

If Facebook abstention demands measures comparable to taking one’s life, it is no wonder that its use has been described as an addiction. In 2017, Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, suggested that users should take a break from the site. Facebook is built to engage users in dopamine-driven feedback loops, he argued. “Quitting Facebook isn’t easy. Facebook is engaging, enjoyable and quite frankly, addictive. Quitting something like Facebook is like quitting smoking,” the organizers of Quit Facebook Day had already declared.

But #DeleteFacebook does not only let us consider our relations with the platform. Quite on the contrary, the moments when users plan to leave Facebook are not only feared by the company but also anticipated in the designs of the platform. #DeleteFacebook as a threat, as a potential, shapes how the platform changes and evolves. If you try to deactivate your Facebook profile you see images of your friends “who will miss you.” At every moment, the platform pulls you back and engages you more.

If you want to know what user engagement really looks like you do not measure how many times people log in to their Facebook accounts, how many links they click, or what is the number of videos they create. User engagement is what you get at when “Nothing” is an answer to questions like what did you do when you heard that Facebook accounts of approximately 30 million users were hacked in September? or What did you do when you heard that sensitive personal information including a phone number, recent Facebook searches, and location history was leaked?

This notion of user engagement does not explain but needs to be explained. It is at the heart of Facebook’s business and it is shaped against projects like #DeleteFacebook. As illustrated in its Annual Report of 2015: “If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.” #DeleteFacebook for Facebook, then, is a known problem of how to keep users engaged, and its proposed solutions are intensification and expansion of relationships and services.

Digital suicide as a concept speaks volumes of how integrated Facebook has become to users’ lives beyond data and its regulation. Research in the North American and European contexts show that to quit, one needs strong social networks outside social media; otherwise, one may become the outsider in their social circles and events. But it is also said that for the citizens in many other countries, Facebook is the main access point to the internet and the only means to communicate with friends from a distance. Facebook has become a lifeline.

“There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future,” Mark Zuckerberg noted in 2012. In 2012, the company was becoming publicly traded, and in 2017 it exceeded the $500 billion mark, becoming the fourth most-valued company in the tech business. The world disconnected from Facebook is and was a world not yet connected. Hence, Facebook is developing drones, satellites, and technologies that would help to anchor their services around the world not only as a website people use but also as an infrastructure used to access those sites. More engagement.

Expansion of user engagement, one of the mechanisms that both stops existing users from leaving and engages more users, has made Facebook a global player; it operates across and beyond national borders and so must the attempts to regulate it. Because not everyone can quit. And this is the new feature in the #DeleteFacebook discussion, a viewpoint that was lacking from the earlier critiques. Fear of missing out is no longer the reason that prevents digital suicides; Facebook has a much deeper role in how our societies are organized.

Being on Facebook is no longer only a lifestyle choice but also a question of politics. The Cambridge Analytica revelations imply that mundane actions such as Facebook Likes can be turned into politicized mechanisms used to influence decision making. But there is a political level at stake here that exceeds national elections and individual decisions. With 2 billion users, Facebook has become the medium of the masses and its users are no longer a community but a population without geographical limitations. How population remains under its control is the key question for Facebook’s survival. And to ask that question we need to move the focus from individual engagements and personal privacy to the biopolitical and geopolitical engagements of the 2 billion.


Tero Karppi is author of Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds. Karppi is assistant professor at the University of Toronto and teaches in the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology and in the Faculty of Information.

“Through its clever structure, Disconnect affectively lures the reader as Tero Karppi tells a convincing story of how social media sets the tone, mood, and modality of our everyday existence. Compellingly written, this is a must-read modern tale of engagement and disconnection.”
—Zizi Papacharissi, author of Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics

Disconnect is a timely, theoretically rich assessment of Facebook as platform and assemblage.”
—Amit Ray, Rochester Institute of Technology

Disconnect could not have come at a more important time. Tero Karppi’s nuanced writing brings out the rich complexities of social media life and disconnection. This must-read book shows that walking away may not remove Facebook’s presence in our lives, but it reveals the limits of social media in our world and the business models that are built to keep us connected.”
—Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

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