How #DeleteFacebook screws over women
Why are we targeting the one social platform that actually supports women’s emotional and unpaid labour?
“You’ve got to delete Facebook.”
This is the message I’ve received for the past month, both directly and indirectly, from the many friends and colleagues who share my commitment to online privacy and my delight at seeing Facebook’s longstanding data abuses finally capture significant and sustained public attention.
I’m sure that many of those who’ve encouraged me to #DeleteFacebook — or who have done so themselves — assumed I’d be sympathetic to the cause. After all, I’ve recently shared my own experiences of working in the Facebook data-gathering trenches in a piece for The Verge and fantasized about building a better Facebook on JSTOR Daily. And while I’m not surprised by any of the latest Facebook revelations, most of which were all too familiar to me from working with Facebook data myself, I share the collective outrage over Facebook’s long-standing exploitation of its users’ data.
But no, I’m not going anywhere. And I’m getting really tired of being told I should delete Facebook, and especially, being told that by men.
Because #DeleteFacebook feels like yet another situation in which we are shaming women for using a tool that makes our unpaid and emotional labor easier.
I work full time. I’m a parent. I have an autistic kid.
Guess what? That makes it really hard for me to stay in contact with my friends and family. That makes it really hard for me to make social plans, or go to parties, or join support groups. In fact, it makes it hard for me to access just about any of the offline support and resources that can notionally address the stress and challenge of parenting a special needs child.
Facebook has made all of that a hell of a lot easier. I can maintain something like a circle of friends, even if we rarely see one another or even manage to schedule an actual phone call. I can build and maintain warm relationships with colleagues, in a way that feels analogous to going out for after-work drinks or attending office parties (two activities I had to give up years ago). Perhaps most crucially, it’s through Facebook that I’ve found the parents who are grappling with similar kid challenges, and who are able to share resources and support with one another.
And now I’m supposed to apologize for using Facebook to do that, because it’s a data-gathering, privacy-invading nightmare? Uh, so is half the Internet. But I don’t see anyone telling the boys that they should give up Twitter or LinkedIn or Google.
Sure, Facebook is among the worst of the worst when it comes to privacy. But the reason Facebook has so much data to exploit is because it has offered something that no other social network has quite managed to accomplish: a platform that uniquely mirrors the structure and patterns of social interaction that women have created, nurtured and depended on for millennia.
You can see that success in the demographics of Facebook’s user base. Every time I log into Facebook, I’m struck by the fact that it’s the one social media environment where I personally see and hear from more women than men. To some degree that’s because of who’s there: the latest data from the Pew Center on the Internet & Technology shows that 3 out of 4 American women use Facebook, compared with 2 out of 3 American men.
But the real proof of Facebook’s power in women’s lives is not just in the fact that we’re there, but in the fact that we’re loud. When I worked with Facebook data in my former role as VP Social Media at Vision Critical, we discovered that 85% of Facebook updates came from the 29% of Facebook users who post 5 times a week or more. Those super users — we dubbed them “enthusiasts” — are disproportionately female, outnumbering male enthusiasts almost two to one. Most of what you see on Facebook comes from enthusiasts, and most of those enthusiasts are women.
In other words, when you log into Facebook, what you see is women doing what we have always done: chat, share, support, connect. Our families, societies and businesses depend on women building that social fabric — but now that there’s a tool that actually makes that work easier, we are told that it is the one corporate villain that we should forswear.
I wonder how many of the people currently shaming Facebook users and proudly leaving Facebook are still doing business with companies that donated to the Facebook-and-Cambridge-Analytica-powered Trump campaign, or that exploit Facebook data in their own marketing, or that make their products in sweatshops. It’s very hard to be a 100% ethical consumer, but I have little sympathy for those who are leaving Facebook — which is such a lifeline to so many — and yet continuing to do business with many companies that are equally unethical, but far less socially valuable.
I don’t want to let Facebook off the hook for the many ways it has exploited its users and our data. For all the reasons Facebook is uniquely valuable in supporting the social and emotional labor of women and grassroots communities, it’s downright disgusting that our labor is being turned into an engine of economic exploitation.
But the solution is not to abandon or #DeleteFacebook.The solution is to lock down your privacy settings, minimize your interaction with Facebook ads, and most of all, lobby for meaningful regulation of how Facebook and other platforms capture and use our data. (They’re doing it in Europe!)
In the absence of that kind of regulation, I hear lots of people — especially men people — making noise about how we need another Facebook, and I also see a handful of men (yes, only men) working away on notional Facebook alternatives (almost all of them for-profit, with those profits going to male founders and male-controlled VCs.) What I don’t see are a whole lot of men picking up the phone, or organizing social get-togethers or putting together parenting list-servs, or doing any of the other social and emotional work that women do every single day, on and offline.
So before you walk away from Facebook, think about who you are really hurting — because I can guarantee that whatever impact your individual departure may or may not have on Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook’s share price, it will be overshadowed by the impact on the people who rely on Facebook to keep in touch with you. Deleting Facebook means creating additional work for all those friends who rely on Facebook to stay in touch with you, some of whom may be friends like me: friends whose life circumstances make it very, very difficult to sustain social relationships in any other way. It means creating even more social and emotional labor for the people who always end up doing that work: women.