Essays on Technology and Culture

The Unbearable Difficulty of Opting-Out

A couple of years ago, in a fit of pique and a desire to clean up my data trails, I nuked my LinkedIn account. I wasn’t using it, I never liked the company, and it felt like another leech on my mind. I had recently started a new job after a year working for a Fintech startup that required a LinkedIn account—it was the major method we used for social sign-on—so that made me doubly interested in nuking it. All was fine with my LinkedIn-free existence, until I started to get restless, and look for another job.

Interviewing at a Redacted Consumer Technology Blog for a Social Media Coordinator role went well… until I was asked about my lack of a LinkedIn profile. It looks really bad for someone who is ostensibly a Social Media-slash-Community Manager person not to have a profile on the Largest Professional Networking site or whatnot. After I got home, I scrambled to put together a new LinkedIn profile, though not without grumbling as I did so. Once I had some connections and a profile, my job search turned around almost immediately, though I didn’t get the job with the Blog.

It’s getting harder and harder to opt-out of services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. We can choose not to use them, in much the same way that we can choose not to have indoor plumbing, but it won’t be easy or comfortable. When the vast majority of my friends and family use Facebook as their primary method of communication, what is the alternative? I am not going to be able to drag all my friends with me to a competing platform I can trust, assuming there is one. Most of them don’t know about the alternatives, and even if they did, odds are they don’t give a damn. And why should they? The privacy and security minded among us have been raising a fuss for nearly a decade now without much effect.

We claim “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” It’s true. Social media companies make their money by collecting our personal data, chopping it up, and selling the resulting sausage to advertisers with barely a token amount of obfuscation. It doesn’t make a dent. People are more afraid of hackers than they are of the companies that have access to their data. It’s only a matter of time before someone cleverly social-engineers their way into Facebook or Google’s database and gets away with a chunk of user data that will be disseminated over the Dark Web. It will be a dark day for the Internet, especially if they also get away with data on the profiles these companies have collected upon us. I just hope Have I Been Pwned? is using some heavy-duty caching when it happens.

So everyone stays on these services, and people like me would would prefer not to are caught up in the web of social obligation that these companies depend on. Because of this, I can’t just pull a Louis C.K. and quit the Internet. They’ve become the de facto plumbing of the Internet, and how do you opt-out of plumbing? At least there’s reasonable alternatives to most Google services—the majority of my searches go through DuckDuckGo these days—but as mentioned before, any alternative to the social plumbing online is either just as bad, worse, or so obscure as to be useless. How many of your Facebook friends are on Diaspora? Who is still posting to App.Net?

When does it become easier to just give in to corporate surveillance and the misery of tracking and ads if you want to keep in touch with the people in your life that you care about? When does it become worth giving in if you want your existence to be known for a career, for your art, for anything?

If I had the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this.