Some of you (possibly none of you) have noticed that I’m on indefinite hiatus from Facebook. I don’t want to say that I’m abandoning it outright – for one thing, it’d make things awkward if I ever come crawling back, and for another, it’s not actually possible to completely delete a Facebook account.

I thought it might be worth jotting down why I’m doing this. There are two main reasons; one is personal, one philosophical.

Facebook makes us think surveillance is normal

For many people, myself included, Facebook has supplanted email as a way of communicating. You can argue about whether email was ever all that private, but the key difference is that Facebook just isn’t, and unlike email, there is no way to secure it.

Facebook works hard to give the impression of privacy, but anything you say there is just between you, the person you’re talking to, Facebook’s staff, and Facebook’s partners in commerce and intelligence. And its surveillance is done in such an invisible, blasé fashion that we don’t even consider it. We should be outraged, but we’re not. The service it provides is so convenient that we don’t even think about the ramifications.

For me, the line was crossed when Facebook began suggesting new Friends for me based on research conversations I was having outside of its service. There was simply no legitimate way it could have deduced connections between myself and these people – not even the old “oh you’re in their phonebook” argument applies.

This brought me hard against the fact that literally everything you do online is subject to analysis by someone. Since the primary way we digitally interact is now our phones, not our desktops, that means everything you do on your phone is subject to surveillance, a sphere that we have traditionally considered private. In retrospect, that’s probably because our phones haven’t always been portable computers, and it’s taking us a while to adjust.

There are many reasons to want your communications to be private – your intent doesn’t have to be criminal at all. If I, for example, wish to write my wife a message explaining exactly what I’m thinking about doing to her after we get the kids to bed this evening, it’s no one’s business but ours – nor should it be.

I began wondering how I could send a genuinely private message, and it suddenly dawned on me that I probably couldn’t. Facebook is out, clearly. If you so much as have it installed on your phone, then voice calls are out too – so are SMS and email, because the Facebook app reads those, as does WhatsApp (owned by Facebook).

And it’s not just Facebook – pretty much every app by Google does this too, as do a whole slew of “free” apps, unless you take extraordinary measures to prevent it.

I’ve decided to stop participating. By continuing to use these services, I’m saying that I’m ok with living in a society where surveillance is ok. It’s not. And we need to stop pretending that it is just because it’s convenient.

Facebook is changing how we speak to each other

This one is a little harder to articulate, but I’ll try.

Facebook’s business model, in a nutshell, is rather like e-Tolling: getting people to pay for something that used to be free, and probably still should be. When you post something to your wall, its potential audience is severely restricted – only about 20% of your Friends and Followers will see it. In order for it to reach more eyeballs, you need to pay Facebook – the more you pay, the more people will see your post.

But this model only works if Facebook can deliver the eyeballs they’re charging for, and to ensure that they can, they keep you glued to the site for longer by optimising your News Feed, showing you only most interesting things your Friends are posting. That sounds good in theory, but the method they use to work out what’s cool has some unintended consequences in the real world.

Here’s how it works when you aren’t paying. Anything you post will reach a fifth of your Friends – typically the people Facebook knows you interact with most often. If those Friends instantly Like and/or Share the post, then Facebook assumes that it must be at least casually interesting, and they show it to a couple more people. If those people Like it too, they widen the audience again, and so on.

But if the first group doesn’t respond to the post, then it dies right there – clearly it was dull, no need to bore the rest of your Friends with it.

So what’s the problem? Sounds like good quality control.

Well, what Facebook is doing, indirectly, is training us to only post certain types of content. Wedding photos do well. Baby photos do particularly well. Celebratory posts about our successes are always greeted with Likes and Comments of congratulations.

Posts about sad things, not so much. No want wants to Like a post about being depressed – the language makes it seem insensitive, and besides which, other people’s problems just aren’t entertaining. If you want the endorphin reward of having your posts Liked – which equates to the validation of your Friends – then you’d better post things they’re going to enjoy, because if you don’t, you’re going to be ignored.

Consequently, your Facebook news feed is now an endless river of smiles, success, and elegantly posed selfies. As an aside, having your interest limited only to Liking things makes Facebook a terrible place to have any kind of serious discussion at all.

The consequences can be extreme. Last year I learned that someone I was at high school with had taken his own life. “Bollocks,” I said, “I’m Friends with him on Facebook, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.”

I pulled up his profile. It was true, he was dead. His wall is a litany of sorrow and loneliness, un-Liked by anyone. Certainly, I hadn’t seen a single one of his posts.

I am not saying Facebook killed him, that’s ridiculous. I am, however, saying that the way in which Facebook encourages the pretence of happiness definitely contributed to his growing sense of isolation.

Facebook purports to be a mirror of your offline social circle. It’s not.

In many ways, it fills a lot of the same emotional needs that interacting with real human beings does, but it does so in calorie-free way. We feel like we’re engaging with people, but we get none of the mutual benefit of actually spending time with each other. We are reduced to voyeurism, consuming only a canned and edited highlights reel of our acquaintances’ lives, duped into thinking this is the real thing.

A return to real relationships

I’m tired of having digital pretend relationships with pre-posed people. Facebook is a great way to rediscover lost connections, but it’s a terrible way of relating to them. On a personal level, I need to change that.

For me, the way forward is to disconnect from social media, at least for a time, and return to direct interaction with the people I care about. And when I have to talk over digital mediums, I’m going to use trustworthy encryption, because I refuse to accept that it is normal for our most mundane conversations to be subject to surveillance and scrutiny. I invite you to join me.

The encryption solution I’ve settled on is incredibly easy and user friendly – so much so that it really should be one of the first things you install on a new phone. It’s a suite of tools by Open Whisper Systems (read more here:, and what it’s called depends on what your phone platform is.

On iOS, visit the App store and install Signal Messenger. On Android phones, visit the Play store and install TextSecure. You’ll also need to install its sister application, RedPhone.

TextSecure/Signal is functionally a clone of WhatsApp, but its encrypted end to end, and unlike WhatsApp, it’s open source, so you can be sure that it isn’t backdoored. Also unlike WhatsApp, it doesn’t demand permissions it has no business having. Best of all, using it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your other favourite insecure apps (WhatsApp, Facebook, etc). It’s just that, if the person you’re chatting to is also a user, the conversation will be encrypted by default.

It also supports encryped voice calls. You know how in the movies they always say, “Let’s switch to a secure line”? This is that. Also, it won’t eat your cell minutes, it’ll use data instead.

If you’ve read this far down, there’s a good chance that you’re someone I’m interested in staying in touch with. I encourage you to do so. Come find me in the real word, though.