Jennifer O’Connell: ‘I have finally deleted my Facebook account’

I still cringe when I think about my first Facebook post. It was 2007, and I kept hearing about this public messaging board which allowed you to “poke” people and to spy on their conversations. It all sounded silly, pointless and invasive. Naturally, I was totally on board. The first thing I did was send a joke about toddlers and peas to my best friend. Or that’s what I thought I was doing. Instead, I posted it on the timelines of everyone in my address book. Mortified, it took me about another year to try again. Now, of course, I wish I had just stayed away.

You can’t say we weren’t warned that Facebook was a privacy cataclysm waiting to happen. But everyone who tried to tell us was met with an onslaught of total apathy. Sure, Facebook’s privacy policy – which in 2008 cheerily stated that “we are not responsible for circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures contained on the site” – was troubling. And yes, admittedly, the bit that announced “we may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook,” did sound sinister, when you thought about it. But why would you think about it too hard when you had another set of honeymoon photos to flick through?

Black and white
Nobody paid too much attention to the line, either, that stated “Facebook does not screen or approve Platform Developers and cannot control how such Platform Developers use any personal information”, but it was there, too, in black and white. But you see, if you didn’t have anything to hide, the conventional wisdom went, you didn’t have anything to worry about. Then the conventional wisdom got distracted by the fact that Suzanne had posted a photo of her new boyfriend. Who would be interested in my data anyway, we reassured each other, and . . . oh look! Another fun personality survey! Sorry, what was I saying?

For years now, in survey after survey, consumers have claimed to have profound and growing fears about privacy, about the prospect of our private data being mined by Facebook, Google and Twitter. But these companies have been comfortable ignoring our concerns because our behaviour has always suggested precisely the opposite.

The worst part about the Facebook revelations is that it all happened in plain sight. Not only was it not illegal, it wasn’t even a data breach. While we were playing Candy Crush, our private lives were packaged, exploited and sold to the highest bidder, and we didn’t even lift our heads from our phones to protest.

I started to feel uneasy about Facebook during the two years I lived in Silicon Valley. I remember getting a tour around the verdant 40,000sq m campus in Menlo Park, past the woodwork shop and the vintage video games arcade. The guy who was showing me around pointed out where they were building “apartments for our people to live”.

“So they’ll work on campus, they’ll eat on campus, they’ll socialise on campus and now they’ll sleep on campus?” I asked. I wondered whether maybe that was kind of unhealthy. Creepy, even.

My guide looked right at me, and for a moment, his megawatt smile faltered. When he first worked there, it reminded him of the Dave Eggers book, The Circle, he said. Then he started talking about the opportunity to connect the world’s people, and I stopped listening.

I was left with a vision of Silicon Valley as a place populated with insular, hyper-privileged, modern takes on company towns – places engineered so that employees, profit and groupthink could flourish in glorious tandem, untrammelled by the concerns of the outside world, whose citizens’ lives they were shaping in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

Lazy and apathetic
Of course, I’m as lazy and apathetic as the rest of the one billion. It took me until two weeks ago to actually delete my Facebook account.

If you’re still deciding whether or not you should do the same, my advice is to weigh up the potential losses and gains. Losses: Convenience. The illusion of connection. The regular dopamine highs you get from sharing. If you’re a small business, you might need Facebook to advertise, but recent changes to its algorithm made that more difficult anyway.

In the gain column, there’s your privacy. Your children’s privacy. Some superficial threads of friendship will snap, but you might be encouraged to start weaving more meaningful ones.

For me, the most compelling gain turned out to be time. The average user spends 50 minutes a day on a Facebook-owned app. That’s roughly the same time as our grandparents’ generation spent praying. If you were to reclaim even some of those minutes you could make a meal from scratch or have a power nap or write the first words of your future bestseller or go for a walk. You could have a proper conversation. You could learn a language, or dust off your paintbrushes or your football boots. Or you could do the one thing that most appals our tech overlords, a prospect that horrifies them beyond measure – you could nothing at all.