Quitters Never Win: The Costs of Leaving Social Media

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Forget Lolcats. If we quit using sites like Facebook, we'll miss opportunities for self-expression, personal growth, learning, support, and civic exchange.

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Simple solutions have been proposed to help users cope with the vulnerability of disclosing information on the social web. These remedies are clear and decisive, but they demand significant trade-offs -- perhaps greater sacrifice than typically is acknowledged.

One such option, which Farhad Manjoo, the technology columnist at Slate, bluntly spelled out in a two-word article, "How to Stay Private on Facebook," is "Quit Facebook." Manjoo offers this security-centric path for folks who are anxious about the service being "one the most intrusive technologies ever built," and believe that "the very idea of making Facebook a more private place borders on the oxymoronic, a bit like expecting modesty at a strip club". Bottom line: stop tuning in and start dropping out if you suspect that the culture of oversharing, digital narcissism, and, above all, big-data-hungry, corporate profiteering will trump privacy settings.

Another path is that pursued by Wall Street Journal journalist Julia Angwin who just deleted her 666 Facebook friends. She's lost faith in the service's capacity to safeguard what privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum calls "contextual integrity" (here meaning a respect for the informational norms of certain groups or friends).

Crucially, Angwin pursued this option as a last resort. At first, she deliberately muddied her profile by "burying good data (my actual relationships) amidst bad data (people I didn't know)." Alas, the tactic -- which is only one of the many ways to obscure information -- rendered Facebook unusable. Now, Angwin plans on keeping a bare-bones profile. She'll maintain just enough presence to send private messages, review tagged photos, and be easy for readers to find. Others might try similar experiments, perhaps keeping friends, but reducing their communication to banal and innocuous expressions. But, would such disclosures be compelling or sincere enough to retain the technology's utility?

The other unattractive option is for social web users to willingly pay for connectivity with extreme publicity. This privacy-abdicating path is fueled by the sense that "the way to approach Facebook and all other sites on the Web, actually, is to think of them as a public forum, as a place where if you post something, potentially everyone you know and everyone beyond everyone you know will be able to see it." In other words, go this route if you believe privacy is dead, but find social networking too good to miss out on.

Sensible as these choices seem -- especially given the increasingly blurry line between private companies and law enforcement -- the increasingly popular framing shouldn't be accepted as a practical user's guide to social media realism. While we should be attuned to constraints and their consequences, there are at least four problems with conceptualizing the social media user's dilemma as a version of "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".

First, abandoning the social web is not a surefire remedy. The efficacy of abandoning social media can be questioned when others are free to share information about you on a platform long after you've left. Even those who have quit the social web have an interest in the preservation of its obscurity.

Second, while abandoning a single social technology might seem easy, this "love it or leave it" strategy -- which demands extreme caution and foresight from users and punishes them for their naivete -- isn't sustainable without great cost in the aggregate. If we look past the consequences of opting out of a specific service (like Facebook), we find a disconcerting and more far-reaching possibility: behavior that justifies a never-ending strategy of abandoning every social technology that threatens privacy -- a can being kicked down the road in perpetuity without us resolving the hard question of whether a satisfying balance between protection and publicity can be found online.

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Presented by

Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger

Woodrow Hartzog is an assistant professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.

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