A Month of Reflection | 3 | Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

by Glenn on November 3, 2018

We were on a family vacation back in June. My father-in-law took his three daughters and one grand-daughter and their husbands(!) on an Alaska Cruise. At our stop in Victoria, B.C., we popped into Munro’s Books, a really delightful independent bookstore, a cathedral for books, really, with some of the most unique, beautiful, and sophisticated wall hangings I’ve ever seen (visible in this photo I found here). The artwork is by Carole Sabiston, who specializes in textiles. It was there I found Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

The title was certainly provocative. This is not a long book, just 146 pages and it didn’t take too long to breeze through it. But the scale of what he is suggesting is massive. The central question of the book is,

“How can you remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behavior?”

His Ten Arguments are these:

1. You are losing your free will.

2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.

3. Social media is making you into an a******.

4. Social media is undermining truth.

5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.

6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.

7. Social media is making you unhappy.

8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.

9. Social media is making politics impossible.

10. Social media hates your soul.

Lanier refers to “social media empires” as “behavior modification empires.” You are not the customer, “you’re the product.” Especially when the app is free, there is a price being paid and we are the ones paying it though we may not be aware how.

We put our thoughts and images and memories into an app on the internet. Among the many problems for Lanier is that these thoughts, images, and memories aren’t transferable across platforms. You can’t move them somewhere else. And even if you could, you would be leaving behind the people who you engage with and who engage with your content. At the same time, these companies are bad actors and the only way to get them to change is for masses of people to quit entirely. Lanier argues,

“To free yourself, to be more authentic, to be less addicted, to be less manipulated, to be less paranoid . . . for all these marvelous reasons, delete your accounts.”

Clearly, Lanier has thought this through. He suggests a clever acronym for social media, “BUMMER,” which means, “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” He contends, “If you use BUMMER platforms, you’ve probably been changed at least a little bit.” He describes six moving parts of BUMMER, but here was one disturbing thing about using these apps:

“Everyone is placed under a level of surveillance straight out of a dystopian science fiction novel. . . . Spying is accomplished mostly through connected personal devices—especially, for now, smartphones—that people keep practically glued to their bodies. Data are gathered about each person’s communications, interests, movements, contact with others, emotional reactions to circumstances, facial expressions, purchases, vital signs: an ever growing, boundless variety of data.”

That is disturbing, to say the least. It gets worse. This data is being used to manipulate us in ways we are probably not even aware of. Actually, this whole book is  disturbing. Ultimately, Lanier’s arguments for me were compelling enough that I did close my social media accounts.

It was easy to let go of Facebook. I don’t think I ever made a single post. I thought it was the creepiest one for loads of reasons. For example, one day at work, a co-worker and I were talking about how nice a pizza would be for lunch. Not ten minutes later, there was an ad for pizza in his Facebook feed. I would say it was coincidence, but on another occasion, I mentioned a car problem related to tires. He mentioned a local tire company. Like before, an ad for a tire company, in this case the actual company that he mentioned, popped into his Facebook feed. We assume somehow we were heard. How? I had a similar experience with Instagram and was alarmed to think that I was being spied upon. It was gross.

I closed my Twitter account as I felt self-conscious and ridiculous trying to be clever for a handful of “followers” and was too cheap to invest the time (and perhaps money) to accumulate more. (It’s interesting—I don’t have any expectations that anyone is going to read this or anything else I write on my website. Perhaps because of that I have less emotion attached to creating and posting it. I want to write. I do write. And some of the things I write I put on my blog. But there’s no internal drama around “Will anyone ‘like’ this?”)

Instagram was the hardest one to close. I had a hundred followers (obviously nothing compared to Gal Gadot’s 25 million) and received likes most times I posted anything. Of course posting came with the pathology of “needing” to check to see if anyone had “liked” what I posted. That was pretty gross. Every once in a while I have a feeling of wistfulness, thinking I was on the inside when it comes to the lives of people I followed, most of whom I didn’t know. But that also felt at times like voyeurism, which isn’t good. What is gone, though, is that compulsion throughout the day, whenever there was a pause, to “check” Instagram.

I see the great need of my life these days to focus, to concentrate on things that matter deeply to me, reading and writing for starters. For me the social media platforms are distractions from that attention. It’s not always clear that these “free” have no cost but they come with a price.

My next task is to figure out life without Google, particularly Gmail.

Of course, now that I’ve gone through the book again to see what I marked, I learned that an app I’m now required to use for work, WhatsApp, “is part of Facebook; even if it sometimes feels like any other texting platform.” Hmm. Do I have to quit work to quit social media?

And I also haven’t thought about the implications of using services like Uber, where Lanier notes,

“We’ve taken as a fact of nature that if you want the benefits of an app like Uber—using the latest tech to improve coordination between drivers and people who need rides—then you must accept that a few people will mostly own Uber and some of them will become obnoxious oligarchs, while drivers will have less security than old-fashioned cab drivers, and riders will be spied upon in humiliating ways.”

Thoughtful living requires thinking through the implications of our actions. It feels like we’ve created a binary “click on this” world. Things are up or down, only, which means they lack nuance. Politics certainly feels that way. I suppose I would like to inhabit a “consider this” world, instead, thinking deeply about things rather than simply reacting to them.