The Industry

What It Means to Delete Facebook

We talked to a bunch of people who tried to quit. Here’s how a few succeeded—and what they learned along the way.

Animation: a twitching Facebook app logo
Animation by Slate

Facebook is closing out a bruising 2018 filled with high-profile scandals. It started with additional fallout from Russian election meddling and soon included misinformation, Cambridge Analytica, security breaches, and a shady opposition research firm. A new report published just this week found that Facebook may have let major companies bypass its usual security rules.

This cavalcade of damaging news spurred the #DeleteFacebook movement, which gained traction on Twitter and extensive media coverage. The hashtag appeared more than 10,000 times in two hours on the day the Cambridge Analytica story broke in March and has found new life with each passing scandal. Mistrust of Facebook has reached new heights. An Axios poll found that Facebook’s favorability dropped 28 points from October 2017 to March 2018. A number of celebrities declared they were leaving the platform this year: Will Ferrell, Cher, and Elon Musk, to name a few. Just this week, veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg joined the movement. But what about regular people trying to break free?

Slate spoke with a small group of people who had publicly declared they planned to #DeleteFacebook. Most were successful, though some find themselves back on the site from time to time. Their stories demonstrate that reducing exposure to Facebook does not necessarily mean deleting an account, but that taking the extra step makes it easier to avoid falling back into the trap.

Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, joined Facebook around 2006 when it was still only available at about 30 colleges. “Well into the 2000s, I was still typing thefacebook.com,” he said. Musgrave deactivated his account near the beginning of this year. He had become perturbed by the misinformation that was spreading on the site during the 2016 election, and then even more so by the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

Since then, he’s largely been visiting sites like Twitter to stay connected. “At this point I don’t think about Facebook,” says Musgrave. “Reading about Facebook in the news is like reading about VKontakte [a Russian social network] or Sina Weibo [a Chinese social network].” He’s visited Facebook once in the past year, to check if his friend had a baby.

The fact that this recent wave of Facebook deletions and deactivations was motivated by ideological, rather than personal, reasons may explain why people have been able to resist urges to return. Eric Baumer, an assistant computer science professor at Lehigh University, has found in his research on Facebook “non-use” that people who cite concerns about data privacy in relation to corporations or the government as their main reason for quitting are likely to stay away from the site. Meanwhile, those who wanted privacy from people they know online are more likely to return. “Oftentimes questions about why people should delete their Facebook accounts are framed in terms of privacy,” Baumer said. “However, that single word glosses over a lot of complexity.”

Most of the people interviewed by Slate said they had already been weaning themselves off the social network, or hadn’t been using it that much in the first place, which likely allowed them to transition more easily than people who tried to quit cold turkey.

One of the most common concerns people have with deleting their accounts is losing touch with friends and even family; one of Facebook’s stated missions is, after all, to “connect the world.” (The pursuit of this goal happens to dovetail with the lucrative business of data collection and ad targeting.) Those who spoke to Slate for this story found that it has in fact become more difficult to keep up with certain acquaintances since deleting their accounts.
“There are definitely people who used to be a part of my Facebook, folks from college and high school particularly, with whom I have fallen completely out of touch,” said Musgrave. “It’s easy to slide into a few months of not thinking about John and Nick or Alice.”

However, if there’s a will to keep in touch with a certain person, there’s usually a way to do it. “My friends didn’t forget about me because I got rid of Facebook,” says Jon, a data scientist. “In fact, I reach out to them more directly.” This more direct mode of interaction, Jon finds, tends to cut down on the urge to compare oneself to one’s friends. But there has been a cost: He said he’s lost touch with international students who attended his college.

Rick Malchow, also a data scientist, said that deleting Facebook has allowed him to figure out which relationships were really worth maintaining. “One wonders how much of the Facebook stuff is really more than skin-deep,” he said. “Other than talking with immediate family, a lot of this stuff is really superficial, and you could just do without.” The only aspect he does miss is being part of an online community focused on the conservation of the Gulf Coast, where he used to get news on local events like oil spills.

It’s worth keeping in mind that there are many people who aren’t able to leave Facebook or significantly minimize their presence on the site, even if they have hang-ups about the way the company conducts its business. As Slate’s April Glaser has previously argued, the option to delete one’s account is a privilege that small businesses, activists, and other constituents don’t have to pursue since their work requires maintaining as public a profile as possible.

“One of the things that I thought was a little bit troubling [about #DeleteFacebook] was this idea that it might at some point become one’s moral responsibility to delete their account,” Baumer said. His research has found that Facebook is often crucial for those who are socioeconomically underprivileged. They might not have the financial resources to travel to visit family in other countries or have access to a car that would allow them to see friends across town. Some people can’t afford phones and thus use Facebook at public libraries to find jobs and keep up with contacts. “People who have lower incomes are not being invited to company parties where these connections happen,” he said.

In 2013, Baumer and other researchers at Cornell University sent a questionnaire to more than 400 Facebook users and found it’s often difficult to clearly identify who does and doesn’t use Facebook: “Results show the lack of a clear, binary distinction between use and non-use, that various practices enable diverse ways and degrees of engagement with and disengagement from Facebook.”

Though this study was conducted before the current Facebook temperance movement, the dynamic still holds. Facebook is the fourth-most-visited site on the internet, so it’s difficult to completely avoid contact with it. Indeed, the people who spoke to Slate described various degrees of withdrawing from the platform.

Filmmaker Richard H. Perry, who quit Facebook in the spring in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, told Slate that he’s been able to promote his projects on Twitter and Instagram. However, he still occasionally needs to contact people for his work through Facebook. “There are definitely some vendors that only, or mainly, operate on Facebook,” he says. “I’ve created, like, a little fake account—it doesn’t have any friends or details—just so I could reach out to someone and ask them to send me an email.”

Musgrave deactivated his account and has largely refrained from using it, but still finds himself hesitant to take the final step of deleting it completely. Deactivated accounts can be fully restored at any time, while deleted accounts have most of their data wiped from Facebook’s servers. “There’s a chance that Facebook might at some point just have a revolution and become useful again,” he said.

Multiple sources said that they deactivated their accounts before completely deleting them, which helped to ease the transition. However, even deactivation can be difficult for people who use Facebook for authentication purposes. Nicole, a writer, said that she tried to quit, but soon found that she had a “hundred or more” apps that were linked to her account. “I don’t want to start over with all those services, so I guess I’m on Facebook forever until those services move on to other login options,” she said. She now has a skeleton account with strict data controls that she only uses for login convenience and to allow distant acquaintances to contact her. “I want to leave Facebook, but everybody is on Facebook. … It’s very hard to find alternatives that have the same reach.”

The fuzzy distinction between use and nonuse may also help to explain why we haven’t seen a mass exodus of users from Facebook. The company reported in its third-quarter earnings call that its user numbers have remained relatively stable, instead of dropping as investors had feared. “You might be better served by thinking about it in terms of renegotiations or rearrangements … rather than just asking, ‘Are people deleting their Facebook accounts?’ ” says Baumer. “Probably not, but there’s probably some substantive change occurring.”

Those who have ceased or significantly cut down on their Facebook use do seem to have found suitable alternatives to the platform. While some note that it’s been difficult to find an alternative to Facebook’s Events function, which has resulted in a few missed parties, most of the platform’s other services are replicable elsewhere. “Now I use stuff like Slack and Signal, and I’ve convinced my friends to join me, but not necessarily to get rid of their Facebooks,” said Jon, the data scientist. The most popular alternatives, though, seem to be Twitter and Instagram (a subsidiary of Facebook), which have both dealt with many of the same defects as Facebook.

Indeed, transplanting one’s social network onto another platform may be a way to maintain the relationships that were originally fostered on Facebook. Jeri Ellsworth, the CEO of an augmented reality startup, said she spent the year trying to migrate her considerable number of contacts—around 5,000 friends on her personal page and tens of thousands on her public figure page—to a different service. She encouraged followers to try out social networks like MeWe, a site that offers an initial amount of free storage and then charges users for additional upgrades. Some of her friends weren’t happy with the decision. “One person was like, ‘I put hours into commenting on your posts, and you’re just going to delete them,’ ” she recalled. The complaint didn’t sway her.

The people Slate spoke to have mostly or partly kept their #DeleteFacebook pledges. For others, reducing Facebook use may be a more realistic goal: gradually using the platform less and less, and encouraging contacts to use different platforms to help ease the transition. “It’s not even like ripping off a Band-Aid,” says Musgrave. “You won’t even notice as you’re doing it.”

And yet because of Facebook’s pervasiveness, it’s still probably too early to make any definitive conclusions about the endurance of the movement. “One of the things that I’ve seen is that people will deactivate or delete their account and then literally a year and a half, two years, three years later have some reason that they need to go back,” says Baumer. “If you assume that Facebook is going to continue to have the longevity that it has, that’s entirely possible.”