Essays on Technology and Culture

A Faustian Pact with the Social Devil

Like many tech-savvy folks, I quit Instagram over the terms of service fiasco. It was the last straw after recent updates had left the app unstable, often crashing after merely taking a photo— the main feature of the thing. After Instagram sold out out by Facebook, I mused on the price of free apps, but opted to keep with the service, with a wait and see attitude. Thankfully, Flickr was there to catch the fall, having been Frankensteined back to life with a new, non-sucky iPhone app. I quickly paid for a year of Flickr Pro to cement our rekindled relationship.

I’m a bit behind, but I recently read Ryan Block’s reasons for quitting Instagram, and it reminded me of the Faustian pact we make, when we sign up for any free service. The diabolical favors we get from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any of an (un)holy host of services is that we get to connect with people, often people we want to connect with, for the price of giving up our soul privacy. Some of us have a harder time turning this deal down than others.

Ryan Block’s willingness to just up and shut down his Facebook and Instagram accounts with little regret has me envious, and his story of old, zombified social networks harassing him from beyond the grave is familiar. But, Ryan’s not the only one turning things off. Thomas Brand dropped a lot of social networks, recently, and a bunch of other services as well, opting to stick, exclusively, with App.Net. [1] Patrick Rhone isn’t leading the charge, but predicts 2013 will be the “year of opt-out.” I sort of hope he’s right, but as it stands now, I can’t opt-out of a lot of this crap.

All my friends, and all the technology-savvy members of my family are on Facebook. My job requires a LinkedIn profile. I paid for an account on App.Net, but most everyone I want to communicate with or hear from is on Twitter. When all of your friends and co-workers are completely up-and-up, tech-savvy people with the sort of money to blow on paid social networks, it’s easy to uproot yourself, draw the line in the sand, and say “I’m going to live here now” without worrying about all the people you left behind. Chances are, most of them are where you are too.

It’s probably no coincidence that in an industry as fairly monocultural as technology journalism (From The Magazine, subscription required) that the services tech journalists use are generally monocultural in makeup. Please don’t assuming I’m making the same case as those who say App.Net is a symptom of “white flight”. The case I’m making is that when your circles consist more of technology oriented people, you can afford to be a bit more cavalier about how you associate with them.

Back here, on terra firma, we have to go to where the action is. When the people you care about exist only in those places that you have to give up a part of yourself to join, the choices are either to give up that pound of flesh, or snub them. I don’t say this lightly. I already quit Facebook once, and they dragged me back, kicking and screaming, for more. Right now, I’m getting far more out of Twitter and Facebook than it feels like they’re getting out of me. App.Net is still waiting to be worth the $36 I paid for it.

The party won’t come to me. I don’t have that kind of sway over the people I care about. Instead, I have to go to the party. I’ve made the deal with the devil, and I’m okay with that, but it’s the devil I know. It’s also the devil all my friends know. That makes a lot of difference. For me, price of disconnection is worse than the price of connection.

And yes, that is how they get you.

  1. I’ve nothing to say about the other things Brand gave up, such as the iPhone and MacOS at home, except “better him than me.”  ↩