The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leaving Facebook? Easier said than done.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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Beth Wanamaker was done with Facebook for good after the 2016 election. Sure, it was fun in college, when it was all party pictures and cheeky posts on her friends’ walls. But once it began its evolution into a killer of time, then relationships (“I would honestly rather not know some of my relatives’ opinions on politics”), and then even democracy itself, she left the platform, certain she would never return.

But the 36-year-old communications professional in Ann Arbor, Mich., realized some of her photos were only stored on Facebook, so she periodically “would reactivate to like, find a funny picture of a friend on their birthday or something like that, and then I would immediately deactivate my account,” she says. “I did not want to get sucked back in.”

She got sucked back in.

It happened in 2019, when Wanamaker had a baby, and was up, alone, for late-night feedings.

“I was so bored. I felt like I had reached the end of the Internet,” she says. “I’d read all the books I wanted to read. I would watch, oh my God, I watched so many shows on HGTV.”

And when there was nothing left to watch, the siren call of former classmates and past co-workers and so-and-so from that one conference five years ago proved too irresistible to ignore.

“I’m just going to look around for a couple hours to see what’s going on, and see what’s on this dystopian hellscape,” is what she told herself. Sure, Beth. A couple hours turned into days, which turned into joining a Facebook group for local moms, and then an active Buy Nothing group, which turned into still being here, 2½ years later, even though she disapproves of pretty much everything the company has done recently.

Which is a long list. Here’s a quick summary from the Facebook Papers, a trove of leaked documents: The platform fomented the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, fueled covid misinformation, prioritized “angry” emoji reactions to circulate provocative and violent content in users’ feeds, fueled hate speech and violence in India, and chose growth over safety. Internal research found that its sister platform, Instagram, makes body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls. And then there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal from the 2016 election, the antitrust lawsuit last year, a 2019 data breach, and the PTSD its content moderators developed after reviewing horrific images every day. Now the company has changed its name to Meta, keeping the original name for the website, moving on with its plans for what sounds a lot like total brain domination.

The takeaway from all of this? Facebook is bad! Nevertheless, more than 2 billion of us are still there — some reluctantly, some enthusiastically. Because even though the platform is a cesspool of toxicity, there are reasons to stay. Maybe it’s the only way you keep in touch with your aunt. Or find out what’s happening in your hometown. Or catch up with gossip from your high school friends. That’s Facebook’s trap: The emotional connections are inextricable from the algorithm that keeps us clicking against our own best interests.

You’ve decided to quit Facebook. Here’s how to migrate your online life elsewhere.

“I kind of hate Facebook, but also can’t cut ties,” says Abbie Grotke, 54, of Silver Spring, Md. She’s still here because it’s the easiest way to keep in touch with family living abroad, and certain friends.

“We don’t talk all that regularly. So like, cousins and things like that, some photos and then lighthearted news,” she says. “I would probably just email them. But it’s also — they’re all there.”

We’re all there, which is why it’s hard to leave.

Kathy Delgado, 55, is a Los Angeles importer of French antiques. Though she describes Facebook as “a very toxic place,” many customers buy things through her Facebook and Instagram business pages.

“I made three sales this morning,” she says. “If you don’t respond in a timely fashion, people spend their money elsewhere.”

Tori Matejovsky, 40, of Wolf Point, Mont., says Facebook is “not even fun anymore,” but she’s trapped, because “That’s where everything is,” including critical information about her children’s schools, like weather closings. “They might send out a text, but they put it on Facebook first.”

Those are practical concerns. But what about the emotional ones? The love/hate for Facebook runs deep among millennials of a certain age, who joined the platform in the mid-aughts and have chronicled their lives there ever since. They can’t quite bear to part with an archive of their burgeoning adult years: from keggers to graduation to first job announcements to big “relationship status” updates. It’s like a digital scrapbook — one that now happens to be mixed up with people’s furious political rants and cringey “Minions” memes.

“I just wanted the college [email], the dot edu, so I could have a Facebook,” says Laura Lape, 33, of Fort Worth, Tex. “I remember getting my acceptance letter while I was a senior in high school and then going to the computer lab at my high school to set up an account.” She friended upperclassmen at random. She updated her status when Facebook still prompted people to do so in the third person. She never thought that 15 years later, she’d find the site “sketchy.”

Aside from the Facebook Papers’ findings, studies have found that spending time on Facebook “negatively correlates with mood,” and that it causes “constant social comparison to other network members, which triggered jealousy, anxiety, and other negative emotions.” People who reported being concerned about time they wasted on Facebook “were more likely to be extroverted, neurotic, and anxiously attached.”

Hence, the recent spate of “I quit” announcements that have been flitting across people’s news feeds. (“This is not an airport, you don’t have to announce departures,” is inevitably someone’s reply.)

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) issued a news release last week that he will “deactivate his Facebook and Instagram accounts until both its parent company and Congress make substantial reforms that protect our children, health and democratic values.” (The release notes that constituents can reach out to him via Twitter, phone, email, snail mail and, helpfully, fax.)

Jaden Perkins, 21, of Omaha, posted on Aug. 13 that he was leaving Facebook, where he had been active since the eighth grade.

“I am making the conscious decision to permanently delete my Facebook account as I see very little benefit of using this platform any longer,” he wrote. Two months later, he was back, with a post that began “LIFE UPDATE!!!!!” He was starting a political podcast.

“Even though I’ve been trying to grow that audience on other platforms, Facebook is my largest audience,” he told The Post.

Or you could post that you’re leaving, and give everyone multiple ways to contact you, and hear . . . crickets.

“I made a post on Facebook saying, ‘I’m done,’ ” says Shadrach Stanleigh, 55, of New York, who gave friends a grace period, and alternate contact info. “No one has reached out to me through any other means.”

He’s not asking for pity. Rather, Stanleigh thinks it’s an example of how Facebook has made us all lazy communicators: “Maybe people just get so conditioned to it when they can just send a direct message in lieu of a phone call or an email,” he says.

That's also why the tech accountability group Kairos is easing people into its Facebook Logout campaign, which encourages users to log out Nov. 10-13. The goal isn't to get people to leave Facebook permanently, says Mariana Ruiz Firmat, executive director at Kairos and a Facebook user. It's "to get Facebook to change its policies and practices so that it is protecting users' privacy."

“It’s not a light ask to ask people to log out or even think about logging out because we have a lot on these platforms,” says Jelani Drew-Davi, Kairos’s campaigns director. The campaign has helped people prepare practically — by showing them the steps to log out, something many people have never actually done before — and emotionally.

“Is it someone’s birthday during that time? Do you want to send them a card instead of writing on their wall? Or do you have something that you need to pick up from your no-buy swap group? Like, maybe do that before the log out,” says Drew-Davi.

Or you could just quit and overcome the FOMO. Jamie Mangrum, 35, of Largo, Md., used to be a self-described “avid user.” Her relationship with the platform became unhealthy, she says, when she found herself “seeing that what other people were doing was kind of like, a commodity for me,” and comparing herself to her peers constantly. So she quit. Ten years ago. And hasn’t looked back.

Robin Givhan: The whistleblower came to advocate for humans over algorithms

Yes, she’s missed more than a few invitations to parties that were organized on Facebook. And it made her sad, she says, to think about people she might never see or hear of again. People she might forget, and who might forget her. The little updates on loved ones’ lives she would miss.

“I had to be okay with that for my own peace of mind,” says Mangrum. “I knew that if I was intended to know that information, if I was intended to understand it, it would have come to me.”

That’s Lape’s logoff fear: being forgotten. The Texas mom’s posts on Facebook are basic family updates.

“It’s just kind of a reminder,” she says. “Hi, it’s us, we’re alive. We have kids. They’re doing great. Don’t forget about us.”

If a Facebook news feed is a collection of all of the people in our lives, there’s a certain comfort in knowing how those people are doing. How else will you know when your high school chem lab partner has a third kid? Or that your former hairdresser has become an “energy healer?” Or that your neighbor just took a lovely trip to Greece? Having a Facebook-only relationship doesn’t preclude you from getting a fuzzy feeling when you see that someone’s kid learned how to walk, or sparing a thought for them when you see that their grandpa died. Even if all you did was click that huggy-heart reaction button.

Yes, we lived many decades without knowing quite so many things about so many people, and that was fine, and we were fine. And some people would be happy to return to the blissful days of not having to waste any brainspace on the relationship status of your sophomore roommate’s friend who came to your Halloween party once. But for others — maybe the more sentimental among us — going back to that ignorance feels like a loss.

“Maybe that’s a little bit of what ties me to it, is just a bit of my own personal history, and all the people I’ve met along the way that I may not remember their names or have much direct contact with them,” says Lynda Laughlin, 44, of D.C. They remind her of who she used to be, and how far she’s come.

It makes real-life interactions easier, too. When Delgado’s father died, she posted about it on Facebook as an efficient way to not have the same sad conversation several dozen times.

“When someone says, ‘What’s going on? You don’t want to jolt someone on the spot by saying, ‘Oh, my dad just died,’ you know?” Acquaintances who saw it online offered their in-person condolences. “I found it all extremely comforting,” she says, and not just when she was grieving. “Even with the birthdays, to have people all reach out.”

Is one day of birthday wishes worth 364 other days of bad takes and antivax posts and political disinformation? A few hours after she spoke with a reporter, Wanamaker wrote back with a status update: “So I just deactivated my Facebook again.”

Godspeed, Beth. Maintain your resolve. See you again, in a few months, or years.

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