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Boycotting digital monopolies like Facebook is harder than it seems

You may have heard of the #DeleteFacebook campaign, but you, like me, are probably among the vast majority of Facebook’s nearly 2 billion users who probably won’t actually follow through. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even has the data to prove it, telling The New York Times yesterday that he hasn’t seen a “meaningful number of people” deleting their accounts.

Amid the ongoing data privacy scandal surrounding the Trump-connected firm Cambridge Analytica, tech critics and users alike are revisiting the concept of leaving Facebook and extracting ourselves from one of the world’s most pervasive advertising empires. The decision to delete Facebook boils down to two questions: 1. Has Facebook lost the necessary trust to be a steward of our personal information? And 2. Is the company’s grip on online and offline life too great to ever reasonably walk away from?

The answer to the first question is probably yes, while the answer to the second is even more grim: for most of us in 2018, Facebook feels too big to leave. No other company in history, besides perhaps Google, has claimed so many users across this vast a digital footprint. And unlike Google, Facebook, has no legitimate competition when it comes to the primary services it provides. In effect, Facebook is a monopoly: it owns huge swaths of online life, to the point that even Zuckerberg now agrees that maybe it’s time it should be regulated by the federal government.

All of that means that while the company somberly undertakes a public relations campaign to repair its image, assuage its critics, and weather calls for a boycott, the Facebook machine continues to churn. A monopoly is a very difficult thing to stop.

For one, Facebook is free. Facebook doesn’t sell a service to its users, but rather sells access to its users’ attention via advertising. With no monetary exchange involved for the vast majority of Facebook users, the company is able to maintain the illusion that nothing of value is changing hands. That makes the effect of a boycott feel more ambiguous, and could result in users deciding to keep their accounts open.

Resistance to the #DeleteFacebook initiative is likely rooted in a mix of user indifference and apathy, but also a genuine concern that leaving the Facebook ecosystem would deprive one of the valuable internet services and tangible social connections to friends and family. About 68 percent of US adults use Facebook, and more than two thirds of that number check Facebook’s website or mobile app every single day.

Much of this activity involves mindless scrolling through the News Feed and its prolific notifications. But over the years, Facebook has kept its grip on the social networking market by becoming a genuine and valuable service to many people. The network you curate on Facebook, while it could be easily replicated in a spreadsheet or a plain old notes app, is often an invaluable resource for people both professionally and personally. Losing that resource means losing tangible social connections to people we care about.

So when people are debating what it means to leave Facebook — why it may be hard to do so, or why it could be considered a privilege — what we’re really talking about is a cost-benefit analysis that tilts heavily toward what someone loses when they leave Facebook. Though studies have indicated that Facebook use leads to unhappiness, the #DeleteFacebook campaign is largely grounded in ideology, or at the very least in posturing for others. If you quit, you can rest easier knowing you’re not being tracked and profiled and advertised to quite as aggressively. But what you give up in exchange is access to valuable services like Instagram and Messenger. That’s a trade most users aren’t willing to make.

We’ve seen a platform backlash and boycott of this variety play out before. A year ago, ride-hailing giant Uber faced a backlash over its repeated and flagrant abuses of trust and corporate malfeasance: a perfect storm of Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s viral post about sexual harassment, to CEO Travis Kalanick’s tarnished reputation, to a surge pricing episode in the midst of immigration protests at airports.

#DeleteUber led to more than 200,000 canceled accounts at the boycott campaign’s peak, sending a clear signal that Uber’s arrogance and disregard for the public good would not be tolerated. One year later, Kalanick has been ousted from the company and the makeup of Uber’s business strategy and ownership structure has changed dramatically.

But Facebook is a different beast. Uber had a convenient alternative in Lyft, a near-identical product with a better ethical track record and fewer problematic executives. For those who didn’t want to use ride-sharing at all, our society has innumerable ways to move from A to B, from taxis to public transportation to cycling to walking, and so on. For heavy Facebook users, there is no such substitute: for many users, following through on a boycott would require substantial changes to one’s social and cultural behavior on a daily basis.

That’s not to say that you can’t, or shouldn’t, delete your Facebook account: it lets you exercise what little leverage you have over the company. You can go through the admittedly cumbersome account termination process, download an encrypted messaging app like Signal, and sign up for Instagram with a throwaway email address. Your friends and family will still be out there in the real world. But for many people, Facebook and its ecosystem is the online analog to the real world, and deleting yourself from that space comes at too great a cost.

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