“Oh, the NSA! It’s such a travesty! I am ashamed of our government!” you type into your Gmail IM box.
You are being an idiot.
Or at the very least, you are unaware of the irony of using web services created by Facebook and Google and Twitter, etc. — even as you complain that your privacy is being ripped to bits by Facebook and Google and Twitter, etc., via the U.S. government. I know, because I’ve done it too — we all do.
If you actually care about government surveillance, the very first step you should take is stopping your use of social media. This is not hard to do. You can go totally cold turkey and barely notice it.
If you really want to get serious about counter-surveillance, you can use Tor, Hushmail, and other such technologies. Again, these are designed to not be difficult.
If you want to go all the way, you can ditch your smartphone. This takes some adjustment, but it’s absolutely possible to live an organized life without a bleeping, blooping connection to all the worst parts of the Internet.
And if you do all this, you’ll gain something very valuable: Privacy.
If you think about it from a purely financial perspective, privacy is one of the most sought-after facets of human existence. People pay huge sums to live in houses surrounded by tall gates and acres of land. Private jets, restaurant buy-outs for a dinner for two, all kinds of space and seclusion: Privacy is the ultimate luxury.
Online privacy can be had for such a small price by comparison. All you have to do is stop. It’s entirely passive.
So why are you still standing at square zero, complaining loudly but making absolutely no progress?
I think you’re afraid. It’s fear of missing out. You’ve bought into the idea that without social media, you’re not connected, and that thought terrifies you.
Let me share a few thoughts on my escape from social media addiction and mobile cord-cutting. I hope they embolden you to make a few courageous choices. A few is better than none.
Stopping the cycle
Oh, I used to be the worst social media whore in the world. Part of how I started to build my career involved spouting off on Twitter at every hour of the day and night, mucking up the web with half-baked opinions and a healthy sprinkling of swear words. And when I worked at Mashable, I racked up Facebook’s limit of 5,000 “friends.”
If anyone is going to tell you about quitting social media, it should be me.
Today, I do not use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or any other social network. I didn’t delete my accounts (impersonators really suck), but I’m logged out and radio silent across the board.
Twitter was the first to go. This happened about nine months ago; I realized the service had become a medium for some of the worst tendencies all of us have: personal attacks on strangers (I was often on the receiving end), bragging about our exploits (I was usually on the giving end), or just killing time better spent on adult pursuits.
In saying goodbye to Twitter, I felt like I had firmly shut a public window into my private life. No more would random douchenozzles be able to hit on me or tear me to shreds — I simply stopped listening and stopped talking.
Next to go was Facebook, about a month ago. I emailed my close family and friends, telling them how best to get in touch with me; I explained my choice to my small-ish collection of online friends and acquaintances; and I logged off. Haven’t looked back. Again, I started to like the feeling that I could do something without the world needing to know about it. I started valuing in-person interactions so much more. I cared less and less about other people’s validation and opinions of me.
And one by one or in small clusters, the other services fell by the wayside, too. I’ve logged off, and in doing so, I’ve opted out. I find new things to celebrate every day — the mental calm, the sense of accomplishment, the balance.
Best of all, I have so much freaking free time, man.
You see, all these services are explicitly designed to keep you reading, watching, sharing, clicking, and playing. Marketers and product people pore over metrics such as clickthroughs, the amount of time you spend on each page, how “engaged” you are with other users and types of content. The end goal is to get more of your time and energy into that product.
By kicking the company-cultivated addiction to social media, you’re opening yourself to a world of hobbies and interests and pursuits. I’ve had time to record songs, read books, find new music, go out with friends much more, plan a pretty spectacular conference, exercise every day, and cook dinner just about every night. You worry that your life will seem empty and disconnected without those online tools; your fears are 180 degrees from the truth. You’ll end up feeling more connected and fulfilled by interacting with the real world.
And all without anyone monitoring you, measuring you, or selling to you.
Let’s get back to that smartphone thing.
In 2011, I went for six months with a landline — no mobile phone at all. I made calls from my house and from my desk; in very rare circumstances, I’d borrow someone else’s phone. I used a one-page city map to get around, and I re-learned how to make plans, find directions, and check business hours before I left my house.
Without the leaden responsibility of an always-on connection to social networks, work email, etc., I felt totally free to appreciate the world around me. I saw more, did more. I meandered through new parts of town, I wasn’t distracted from conversations.
Then, I got married to a developer. So much for the plan. I compromised on his constant requests to “please just get a damn phone” with a QWERTY Kyocera, a feature phone. I could call and text; while the carriers could monitor and triangulate, it still didn’t have me on email and Twitter all the time. Its camera was absolute crap, so I was appreciating the world around me rather than trying my hand at being an amateur photographer every living second.
Again, the sense of privacy was wonderful. It didn’t feel like isolation, but my life got a lot quieter without a stream of push notifications buzzing in my purse and the pursuant knowledge that these companies I once trusted were following me everywhere.
Privacy is not important to everyone. Not everyone gets pissed off and paranoid about government spying on civilians. Teens especially don’t seem to care much about it. And it’s no business of mine to tell you that your privacy should be important to you on any moral grounds.
But I do ask you to consider whether it’s hypocritical to share this article on Facebook. In fact, I dare you not to.
Log off. Opt out. And don’t look back.