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.

Daniel Solove, the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, gets at the problem of scale in Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security when he takes the issue to its absurd conclusion in discussing the limited protection of the Fourth Amendment, which also has limited applicability to information shared with others:

So don't use a credit card. Don't have cable. Don't use the Internet. Don't use the phone. Don't have a bank account. Don't go to the hospital. Don't have a job. Don't rent an apartment. Don't subscribe to any magazine or newspapers. Don't do anything that creates a record. In other words, go live like a hermit in a mountain or cabin.

The third problem is that the "just leave" response is predicated on the questionable idea that alternative social technologies will voluntarily protect their new users in areas their competitors did not. To the contrary, social media users might face similar obscurity risks regardless of the medium they choose. Indeed, if your current social network has no obligation to respect the obscurity of your information, what justifies believing other companies will continue to be trustworthy over time? And, what happens if your newly chosen service subsequently raises red flags?

In the aggregate, if we acquiesce to the idea that structural protections that exist at the time of disclosure are meaningless, the ability to choose social technologies will become meaningless because no offered structural protections will be reliable. Sticking with the opt-out procedure turns digital life into a paranoid game of whack-a-mole where the goal is to stay ahead of the crushing mallet. Unfortunately, this path of perilously transferring risk from one medium to another is the direction we're headed if social media users can't make reasonable decisions based on the current context of obscurity, but instead are asked to assume all online social interaction can or will eventually lose its obscurity protection.

The fourth problem with the "leave if you're unhappy" ethos is that it is overly individualistic. If a critical mass participates in the "Opt-Out Revolution," what would happen to the struggling, the lonely, the curious, the caring, and the collaborative if the social web went dark? What would a social media blackout mean for youth -- and, indeed, the rest of us -- whose identity and beliefs are shaped by experimenting online? And what of those who feel compelled to stay, due to valuable networks complied and curated over time?

We aren't identifying these problems to dissuade users from exercising their right to abandon social technologies they feel uncomfortable with. A robust expression of consumer preferences could lead to improvements for users wishing to share information privately. Our point is that there is a middle ground between reclusion and widespread publicity, and the reduction of user options to quitting or coping, which are both problematic, need not be inevitable, especially when we can continue exploring ways to alleviate the user burden of retreat and the societal cost of a dark social web.

Ultimately, it is easy to presume that "even if you unfriend everybody on Facebook, and you never join Twitter, and you don't have a LinkedIn profile or an About.me page or much else in the way of online presence, you're still going to end up being mapped and charted and slotted in to your rightful place in the global social network that is life." But so long it remains possible to create obscurity through privacy enhancing technology, effective regulation, contextually appropriate privacy settings, circumspect behavior, and a clear understanding of how our data can be accessed and processed, that fatalism isn't justified. If we lose reliable obscurity protections, individuals and society as a whole will bear the cost. Forget Lolcats. We'll miss opportunities for self-expression, personal growth, learning, support, and civic exchange.

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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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