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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

After years of ridicule, my Facebook-free status is now a source of envy – like it or not

I get the sense that people are becoming weighed down by the unending demands of their social-media profiles – and that they are ever so slightly envious of my Facebook-free existence

Three friends in Barcelona
Three friends in Barcelona

I am ahead of the curve, for once. A decision made many, many years ago, for which I have been endlessly ridiculed, has finally paid off. Not that I was ever anything but steadfast in my decision not to set up a Facebook account.

It just seemed totally incomprehensible to most other people on the planet that I would be so, well, anti-social. Initially, people thought it was an act of rebellion – that I was trying to make some kind of grand statement. Not so.

Then the cajoling began. I was informed, repeatedly, that it would be so much easier for everyone else if I did the decent thing and joined Facebook. Eventually, I became something of a novelty – a relic from a bygone era that was in equal measures fascinating and perplexing.

But in recent months, I have noticed that my decision is increasingly being greeted with begrudging respect.

I get the sense that people are becoming weighed down by the unending demands of their social-media profiles – and that they are ever so slightly envious of my Facebook-free existence. And this week? Well, this week, following reports that Facebook allowed third-party apps to extract the personal data of more than 50 million of its users and their friends, I will admit that I am feeling ever so slightly smug.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook weathers this storm. In truth, most people have little interest in following my lead. Much of this is driven by a fear of missing out, a weakness in the human psyche that social-media platforms are particularly adept at exploiting. And I won’t deny that you do miss out on some things when you dare to eschew the tantalising, far-reaching tentacles of Zuckerberg and Co.

I have been excluded from social events because people sent out Facebook invites, but forgot to let me know. There are baby pictures and wedding pictures and even family pictures that I have never seen, because no one thought to send them to me or, perish the thought, show them to me in person. I am always the last to hear about big events in the lives of my closest friends, am never in the know when it comes to celebrity gossip, and generally miss out on all of the best memes.

There is the argument that because we live away from home, Facebook is an important aid in ensuring that we are actively involved in the lives of those closest to us. This is the one argument that I might pay credence to, although I suspect Facebook encourages passive rather than active engagement in our human relationships.

Why bother making a call and having a real conversation if you already know everything that your best friend has been up to this week? If you have access to a steady stream of pictures and videos of your nephew’s every waking hour, perhaps there is less impetus to make that trip home and see him yourself?

I hope I don’t sound like a zealot.There is no grand existential reason why I never joined Facebook. I just never really saw the point. I spend my day looking at a screen and sifting through information, trying to work out what’s important and what’s not. The last thing I want to do when I go home is more of the same.

I already have a perfectly respectable number of friends and didn’t see the need to increase that number one-hundred-fold. My feeling is that if I have lost touch with people over the years, there’s very likely a reason for it. And if people really want to find me in this internet-driven age, it’s not that hard.

What the Cambridge Analytica crisis has really highlighted is the issue of privacy. On a macro level, every day, people around the world are voluntarily giving up mountains of information about themselves, with no thought to how that data may be used, now or in the future.

On a micro level, people seem to no longer be able to discern between what should be made public and what should be kept private. There seems to be scant understanding that divorces and breakdowns and outpourings of grief don’t always need to be played out in front of an audience. And at the other end of the scale, who do you actually imagine is interested in what you had for breakfast?

In December, months before anyone had even heard of Cambridge Analytica, a former Facebook executive came out on record to say that he thought that the site was having a negative impact on human society.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who was vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011, told The Guardian that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

Indeed, people have forgotten that “likes” are not a valid form of self-validation, and followers are not the only measure of personal success.And, most importantly, when you look behind the screen, it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway.

It will be interesting to see whether Facebook users will vote with their feet (or fingers) following this latest betrayal of trust.

All I can do is vouch for the fact that you can lead a happy, fulfilled life, even if it is Facebook-free.

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Read more:

Amid fresh scandal, Facebook users should take start to protect themselves

Facebook users are demanding answers. But it may be too late

UK politicians say Trump campaign data firm misled them over use of Facebook profiles

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