More on Why I Left Social Media

In May of last year, I wrote about why I left social media. This was a quick piece, written in the afterglow of finally deleting my Twitter account. It captured many of the main reasons for my quitting social media, though without much detail. In this piece, I'll expand on these arguments and present a few more.

Leaving the mall

Commercial social media is like a shopping mall. It’s entirely possible to have a constructive conversation in one, it’s entirely possible to have a fruitful political debate at the food court, but it’s not why the mall is built. It’s not what it’s for. What it’s for is commerce. Anything more is a happy byproduct.

When I joined Facebook in 2007, it felt exciting. I was among the first wave of high school students to join a site that was previously only available to college students. The main interface was your profile and the profiles of your friends. There was a "wall" where friends could write comments, akin to the back page of a yearbook. There were groups, where people with common interests could share ideas and interesting links. And there was the "poke", which could be a flirt or a prank, depending on who sent it. That really was it for some time.

In the early years, it was an extension of high school. Like a spare period where you're still hanging around killing time. I was part of a group of kids who liked The Beatles. We'd take turns posting an obscure lyric and it was a race to see who could name the song first. My friend Ryan usually won.

What we didn't realize until years later, when the "newsfeed" became the default view, is that Facebook was actually a mall. We went there because it seemed like a convenient place to gather, and for a while, Facebook was quite happy to allow the teens to loiter. But like any mall that needs to make a profit, if you hang out in the food court for long enough, chances are you'll be kindly asked to fuck off somewhere else.


Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

Of course, Facebook doesn't want you to go anywhere else. But they are going to slowly squeeze attention out of you until you forget why you came in the first place. That attention nectar is the product for their customers, the advertisers.

Cory Doctorow sees the social media platform business model as a progression towards "enshittification." In the early days, the users think it's a magical place. They make friends, share information, and generally have a good time. The social media company collects a large pile of data on each user: what they like, dislike, where they live, who they're attracted to, etc. They create a social graph to show connections between people and preferences. Advertisers, attracted to this data gold mine, pile on to the platform, trying to drive as many sales as they can. Through this process, the network grows until it's nearly impossible to leave, both for the users and advertisers. If all your friends are on Facebook and you decide to quit, how will you know when the next group event is happening? If you're a media company and decide to pull all your content from Facebook, good luck driving new traffic to your site.

I really enjoyed using Facebook when I first joined. It was a great way to connect with friends, old and new. The pivot to the newsfeed disrupted my experience while being a bonanza for advertisers. I remember in the early days of Twitter, as dissidents were using the platform to organize protests during the Arab Spring, pundits were hailing it as a great tool for global democracy. Ten years later, the platform was used by an American president to lead an uprising at the US Capitol.

While interesting, I don't really care about the business model of these companies. I hope they all fail. What really drove me to rethink my relationship with social media was the enormous amount of my data they have, how they intend to use it to provide their "service" to me, and finally, my calculation of the cost (loss of privacy) to the benefit (being seen).

Are you outraged yet?

... [T]hink about a supercomputer pointed at your brain trying to figure out what's the perfect, next thing to show you that's on one side of the screen. On the other side of the screen is my prefrontal cortex, which evolved millions of years ago and is doing the best job it can to do goal articulation, goal retention and memory and sort of staying on task, self discipline, et cetera. So who's going to win in that battle?

In the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential election, I saw a lot of Donald Trump videos on Facebook. I read a lot of articles about the despicable things he's said and done. If you had asked me to list the things I cared about most in this world, Donald Trump would not come to mind. But Facebook knew the truth. I thought more about him than a lot of other things. I revealed my preference through clicks and likes, and even my scrolling patterns.

Facebook did what it was designed to do: show me articles that I would click and drive advertising revenue. The only side effect was causing me mental anguish. If it were just me, no big deal. But it's everyone, and that means societal-level angst and polarization.

It's not a fair fight. Our brains can't adequately process the amount of information spewed by social media platforms. We can't resist the temptation to give in to the outrage when a supercomputer on the other side of the screen knows exactly what will trigger us next. What's more, there's no shared experience on social media. No one's feed is the same. We're not all drawing conclusions from the same data. No wonder we can't agree on political issues.


[Think] these crooks tapped your phone to not have a file on you?

  • Run the Jewels, Talk to Me

Facebook knew me better than I knew myself. Who knows how much data they had and what they would do with it? Maybe that information was disintermediated, anonymized and hard to link directly to me. Maybe they only had good intentions. But accidents happen. Data breaches are a daily occurrence in the world of centralized technology platforms. I didn't want my personal information and likeness to be leaked haphazardly.

Privacy is selectively revealing yourself to the world. Few people wish to stay completely anonymous. I write on this blog to reveal something about myself to others. However, I retain full control over this outlet. I choose what gets out. I don't mind if an AI company trains their model on my writing, but I don't want them to train it on my voice or physical likeness. I have less to fear than a celebrity. But I have more to fear than any celebrity 25 years ago. This risk is unacceptable to me.

I don't engage in illegal activity, but what if something I do now legally is deemed illegal in the future? For example, I am active in learning about and using Bitcoin. Am I expected to believe that social media companies would protect my personal information from the government if Bitcoin-related activities are made illegal in the future? If the government asks them to jump, their only question will be, "How high?"

Looking to the future

A company can't own the protocol, platform, and interface all in one. The protocol layer must be free.

  • Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder, via a note on nostr.

Despite what I said above, I believe there is value in connecting people worldwide for online conversations. The Twitter effect during the Arab Spring was real. The main risk of social media is centralization and misaligned incentives. The users just want a place to share ideas. The social media companies need to keep the lights on, and the only way to do that is to monetize user data. As legal corporations, they need to abide by the laws of the countries in which they operate. This means large-scale censorship is trivial.

Just like the key features of the internet and email are based on open and permissionless protocols, social media must do the same. People need a way to transmit information by relay, where the relay is a small server not owned by a corporation and only holds a small amount of user data which has been propagated on other relays, too.

Notes and Other Stuff Transmitted by Relays (or Nostr for short) is an open platform for social media (and other stuff). Anyone can operate a relay from their home. Notes are signed using public/private key cryptography and transmitted to at least one relay on the network, ideally a half dozen or more. There are dozens of clients that interact with the Nostr network and they allow users to sign their own notes and decrypt the notes of others. Many clients offer a Twitter-like experience where the notes from users you follow are organized chronologically.

Notably, there are no ads and no algorithms. Most of the relays and clients are free, but this will change. The popular iOS client Damus offers a "Damus Purple" subscription, paid monthly or annually by bitcoin. Some of the bigger nostr relays offer subscriptions for access to ensure your notes are seen by most people.

Someday, nostr relays and clients may have ads and recommendation algorithms. We may see similar deleterious effects as we do with centralized social media. The difference is, because the protocol is open, there's an escape hatch. You'll never be sucked in, forced to trade privacy for convenience. There will always be another option, whether that's paying for an ad-free service, turning off algorithms, or even creating your own client.

I'm not very active on Nostr, mostly because social media is not how I want to spend my time. But I'm glad it exists and I know that it can be an important tool for the world. Use it wisely.

Recent posts