LIFE.REDISCOVERED: Why I quit social media for good

Last month, I quit social media for good.

I’d tried many times before, but I was only ever able to take temporary breaks (like this one). Completely eradicating myself and the blog from social media always seemed a tad extreme, yet, for many years, social media has had a vice-like grip on my attention. Which is not surprising, considering social platforms are addictive by design and are basically digital cocaine (just read this, this, and this).

My decision to quit social media was sparked by an Instagram Terms of Service update in December 2020. I’m the kind of person who reads medication side-effects inserts and insurance Ts&Cs, yet, before this particular update, I’d never read any social media platform’s small print. I just clicked ‘agree’ and carried on with my life.

That changed on 20 December 2020. Actually, I’ll need to backtrack a little: the initial spark to my social media obliterating flame-thrower was ignited by Facebook South Africa, exactly two months prior. On 20 October 2020, I was contacted by a Facebook South Africa employee via an Instagram DM; she told me that Jozi.Rediscovered would be perfect for an upcoming Facebook city travel guide project – would I be interested?

[I won’t go into the fact that it was unpaid, and that Facebook Inc. has a current market cap of about $775 billion – I digress].

I was interested, yes. I have a little blog in the Grand Scheme of Blog Things, and it felt like a big deal that Facebook South Africa had taken note of its social media presence. Plus, the Department of Tourism was involved, so it seemed legit.

Oh, young, 37-year-old grasshopper.

I was asked to create a few write-ups on places in Jo’burg, as well as provide photos. When I submitted the content, however, I had to sign a ‘marketing release’ form (on behalf of a local marketing agency, who shall henceforth remain nameless). Me being me, I read the small print:

“[marketing company name] is the sole and exclusive owner of all rights in and to the content and the Project, and all elements thereof (including, without limitation, the copyright thereto) subject to my pre-existing rights, if any.”

“[marketing company name] may collect my personal data in the form of my personal details (including my name, address, etc.) and, where relevant, sensitive personal data plus still images of me, in connection with the Content, Materials and Project. I hereby acknowledge that [marketing company name] requires, and will process, such data as necessary for the performance of this Release. This may include sharing this data with Facebook South Africa and production partners. [marketing company name] may store my data until it is no longer necessary for the purposes for which it has been collected.”

I was shocked – there was no way I’d relinquish the rights of my content and allow my personal (sensitive?) data to be shared with Facebook South Africa – all sans a cent of South African ront.

So I crossed out two-thirds of the agreement and sent it back, expecting not to hear from Facebook South Africa ever again.

A few weeks later there is a mail in my inbox from Facebook South Africa, asking if they can have my address, as they want to deliver a physical copy of the guidebook as a ‘thank you’. I’m confused: I ask about the disagreed-agreement I’d sent back. I’m told everything was received and all is good on their side. I think it’s weird, but I give them my address and shrug it off – they have the agreement so I guess it’s ok.

A few more weeks pass and a friend tags me on Facebook. She alerts me to the fact that Jozi.Rediscovered features in a section of a new Facebook city guide. My eyes scan some of the comments under the tagged post and it’s like I’m watching a car crash – except I’m the driver and everyone has stopped with their hazards on to have a proper look. Comment after comment mentions how bad the guide is put together: it’s riddled with typos and countless facts are incorrect.

Not to be dramatic, but I want to die. I visit the online version of the guide: “a complete and utter disaster” doesn’t even come close to describe the carnage. Changing correctly supplied information to outright factually incorrect copy takes special talent, and I have no idea what happened. I immediately phone my contact at Facebook South Africa, as well as the marketing agency (who were responsible for putting it together). The agency was wise to ignore my calls and messages. I ask my Facebook South Africa contact if the agency was on crack when they put the guide together and she laughs nervously. I demand that any information affiliated with Jozi.Rediscovered is taken down immediately. Like, with immediate effect.

The content is swiftly removed and there is no online trace of Jozi.Rediscovered’s involvement. Apologies ensue, but Facebook leaves a bad, bad taste in my mouth.

Let’s fast-forward to 20 December 2020.

I start coming across news articles about an Instagram Terms of Service update. I’ve never really looked at Terms of Service updates on any social media platforms, but this one finally gets my attention.

These are some of the terms that caught my screen-overstrained, astigmatic eye (‘we’ refers to Instagram):

“You hereby grant to us a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings). This license will end when your content is deleted from our systems.”

Thanks to this 2018 article I understand this, but initially I had no idea what was going on here. While Instagram says that you are technically the owner of your content, this clause gives them plenty of free rein. Digging into this particular term also reveals four important things (and marks the beginning of my decision to quit social media):

1. Instagram owns all the rights to my content; when I hit ‘accept’, I gave over my consent and they can do whatever they like with it.

2. These TOS are nothing new.

3. Facebook has the same terms, but longer (what a roller coaster read that is: 1-star, do not recommend).

4. The reason why Facebook South Africa was fine with me crossing out half of the agreement was because I’d already agreed to all the terms by virtue of Jozi.Rediscovered having a Facebook page and Instagram account. LOLZ! Joke’s on me.

“A non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license” means that Instagram has all the rights of the original owner of the content. It’s not an exclusive licence (so they’re allowing you to use your content; how kind of them) but if you’re, say, a photographer, and you sell an image that you’ve posted on Instagram under an exclusive licence, that image would violate the ‘licence’ that Instagram has so kindly given to you. I doubt Instagram actually enforces this, but it’s the principle – by using Instagram, you give over your rights.

Instagram can give away or sell your content (that’s the “sub-licence”): they can license a user’s content to any third party, for free, without your permission or payment. Instagram can also take a user’s content and let another company use it for a fee – which Instagram pockets. Instagram can use your content for their own purposes and edit, modify, copy, or do whatever they want with it – and give away all these rights to a third party (it’s “transferable”). Looking at it another way, by using Instagram (or Facebook), you give away any rights to the content you post in exchange for using the platform for free.

Let’s talk about privacy.

 “We receive and analyze content, communications and information that other people provide when they use our Products. This can include information about you, such as when others share or comment on a photo of you, send a message to you, or upload, sync or import your contact information.”

When you first signed up to Instagram, you likely gave the app access to your phone’s entire contact list (this is the reason you see friend suggestions; the same goes for Facebook). But, doing so also allows the app to have a more targeted understanding of your social activity across both Facebook and Instagram. We don’t like it when our phone numbers get passed on to third parties, so why is it ok that Facebook has full access to them? Remember, you’ve probably given them permission to do so, anyway, when you allowed contact syncing at sign up.

[To remove your synced contacts, tap Delete All within the app settings. Your contacts will be re-uploaded the next time Instagram syncs your contacts unless you go to your actual device settings and turn off access to contacts].

But, wait, there’s more. Instagram also monitors your location-based information by tracking your device’s signals, like Bluetooth, nearby Wi-Fi access points and cell towers, and, depending on your permissions settings, Instagram can see your exact GPS location. The app also has access to your IP address, cellphone number (and the numbers of your entire contact list, as discussed), and who your internet service provider is.

Plus, Instagram can view information about other devices that are nearby or on your network.

One would assume that a phone app would just need certain permissions to gain access to one’s mobile device. But no. Instagram also has access to your smart TV or Bluetooth speakers, or whatever else is on your network. They state that they can just “view information” about the devices but I don’t buy that.

“Advertisers, app developers, and publishers can send us information through Facebook Business Tools they use. These partners provide information about your activities off Facebook—including information about your device, websites you visit, purchases you make, the ads you see, and how you use their services—whether or not you have a Facebook account or are logged into Facebook.”

I worked in digital marketing for the past 18 months and I quickly realised that Facebook tracks EVERYTHING. We all know that it does, but to really understand what is tracked is quite frightening – it even tracks you when you’re not on Facebook, via something called a Facebook pixel.

A Facebook pixel is a small piece of code that’s hidden on almost every website you visit; not only does it gather information about your activity (what you buy; how you interact with the website), but it also collects data to build ‘lookalike audiences’ (people who have similar likes, interests, and demographics to those who are already visiting said website). All of this information helps Facebook track you across the web so that it can serve targeted ads to you. It can even get specific: on an e-commerce site, for example, pixel data can be used to target someone who abandoned a shopping cart by serving them an ad for the same product that was in the cart, or that was added to a wish list.

Of course, on Instagram, a Facebook pixel tracks your behaviour to inform its advertising profile on you: it uses every like, save, scroll, profile view, comment, and follow to show you ads that it thinks you will click on.

And last year, this was ramped up a few more notches. In 2020, Instagram went through several changes that were ‘Facebookian’ in nature (phrase stolen from this article because it’s perfect).

Facebook Messenger was integrated into Instagram DMs, the home screen was redesigned to shift the main ‘post a photo’ button into a corner, a Shops tab was added, and, most annoyingly, in August 2020, another algorithm change was introduced to keep you in the app for longer – ‘suggested posts’. These would now display after you’ve reached the end of your feed to keep you scrollin’ with Instagram’s ‘suggestions’, aka posts that are related to the content that people already follow.

The algorithm tweak was a 180 for Instagram: former CEO and co-founder, Kevin Systrom, had originally introduced the end-of-feed notification to let users know that it was perhaps time to get off the app.

Oh, and ‘suggested posts’ are not the same as Explore; that’s another, different hook to keep you in the app for longer. Let’s not forget that Instagram was bought by Facebook for $715 million in 2012, and generated more than a quarter of the social-media company’s revenue in 2019 – $20 billion.

Instagram’s business model, like Facebook’s, is based on keeping you on the app for as long as possible so it can mine information about you, to get you to buy stuff.

For these reasons (and more), I decided to quit social media for good. By January 2021, I was done, and it felt good to get rid of all of it.

[Predictably it’s not easy to permanently delete your Instagram and Facebook accounts – they sure make it a mission; a future post will explain the process because it’s not straightforward].

I have a lot more to say on the topic – so much, in fact, that this is the first post in a series called Life.Rediscovered. This series will be about my journey running a blog without social media, what life looks like without these all-consuming apps, the very real Fear Of Missing Out, how to get off Google, my continuing battle to leave another Facebook company (WhatsApp), tools and tricks, my new news addiction (spoiler alert: it has to end), and more.

Not being on social media is taking some getting used to, I won’t lie. But it’s also freeing up more time so that I can do what I enjoy: exploring Jo’burg and writing. Here’s to less screen time, and more living.

Next in Life.Rediscovered: What life looks like without social media.

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2 comments Add yours
  1. Hi George, thanks so much for this response – I’ve actually been meaning to write a follow-up to this post because I have the same issue as you, believe it or not. I deleted everything, as you know, but I’m still stuck on Twitter, even though I don’t even have a Twitter account anymore! I get stuck scrolling manually (often through embedded Twitter links in a news article, for example), or I’ll Google search for, say News24 Twitter, and get stuck there. It’s become a problem and I put it down to a severe news FOMO; it was acute during the recent riots and looting. It’s definitely not a good use of my time… I also find that I’m using my ‘manual Twitter scrolling’ as a form of reading comments to articles, if that makes sense. I hate it and and it needs to stop. Can fully relate though. We need a support group for this particular issue 🙂

  2. Congrats! And well done! Life without social media seems frightening. I’m still trying to get there myself. I have deleted Facebook and Instagram but I’m still stuck on Twitter and Reddit. These two _feel_ less ominous to me, but I know it’s still probably not a good idea or use of my time. Getting there…

    Kudos to you!!

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