When Facebook and its family of apps experienced a daylong malfunction last week, millions of people got a taste of what life would be like if the social network were out of their lives for good.
I can tell you more about that: I permanently deleted my Facebook account five months ago.
So what has happened in the aftermath?
The social network’s long-stated mission has been to connect people so that we can live in a more open world. But after being off Facebook since October, I found that I did not feel less connected and that my social life didn’t suffer, even though I was no longer seeing status updates and pictures on my News Feed.
My friends and I continued making plans over email and messaging apps. So did my family. Same old, same old.
There were some differences, though — including some strange experiences with online ads. Facebook has long used information that it collects on its users to target people with the most relevant ads. So after a few months of deleting the social network, I began seeing random ads pop up on sites like Instagram (which Facebook owns). Among them: promotions for women’s shaving products, purses and bathing suits.
Instagram might have started thinking I was female, but my wallet thanked me. I realized I was spending considerably less money on my usual guilty pleasure of buying clothing and cooking gadgets online because I was no longer seeing the relevant Facebook ads that egged me on to splurge. Over the past five months, my online shopping purchases dropped about 43 percent.
So what about FOMO, otherwise known as a fear of missing out, typically induced by social media? That is often one of the biggest reasons people are afraid to quit Facebook. What if they didn’t see that post about an outing with a distant friend? Or a party invitation shared on the social network?
For me, it turned out that without Facebook, there wasn’t much I really missed out on — except targeted ads. Here’s more of what I learned.
I don’t miss my ‘friends’
Over the 14 years that I used Facebook, I accrued about 500 friends. Most were former classmates whom I had lost touch with.
In my real life, I have about 20 friends I talk to on a regular basis. So when I finally deleted Facebook, the fallout was underwhelming.
Those same friends kept in touch over iMessage, Signal or email. We still get dinner or go to the movies together. I can think of one friend who exclusively used Facebook Messenger to communicate — we email now and talk less than we used to, but when we meet in person we are as close as we always were. And I can’t remember the last time I attended an event that I was invited to via Facebook, so I never had a case of FOMO.
I can also tell you what I absolutely don’t miss about Facebook: the people who frequently posted online quizzes, political news stories or their thoughts about current events on the site. Occasionally, there were funny or interesting posts, but ultimately most were time wasters.
Recently, I also started reading more books. Could it be because I’m no longer expending my energy reading Facebook?
Advertisers gave up on stalking me
Brands have long been able to target us with ads through Facebook’s tools. You might see an ad on Facebook for a watch, for instance, because a watch company used the tools to upload your email address and leverage other data that the social network has on you — like your age or the fact that you follow Timex’s Facebook page.
When you browse sites outside Facebook, the company can still track your browsing activity to help brands serve you targeted ads. After visiting a website for a pair of shoes, for example, you might see an ad for those shoes — or similar ones — when you go to another site.
The social network uses a variety of approaches to collect information about web users. One involves Facebook pixel, an invisible tracker that brands can embed into their websites. When you load a website for a brand, Facebook pixel sends information about the device and its browsing activities back to the company. The social network can then use that information to help brands target you.
When I deleted Facebook, I wanted all of that ad targeting to go away. So not only did I erase my Facebook account, I also installed tracker blockers on my computer browser and mobile devices to prevent advertisers from using web cookies and invisible tracking pixels like Facebook’s. (For instructions on how to shake ad targeting more thoroughly, see this previous column.)
The extra steps worked. The onslaught of targeted online ads stopped.
“If you have the tracker blocker and deleted your Facebook account, you’ve exited,” said Gabriel Weinberg, the chief executive of DuckDuckGo, which offers internet privacy tools including a web browser that blocks trackers.
Facebook says it does not build profiles on people who are not on the social network, nor does it serve targeted ads to them. “Sites and apps send us information about the people who visit them, regardless of whether that person has a Facebook profile,” the company said in a statement. “If you aren’t a Facebook user, we don’t know who you are and don’t build any kind of profile on you.”
Advertisers still have methods other than Facebook to chase me around, but there are economic reasons for them to give up. With Facebook’s tools, it was relatively affordable and effective for them to track and target me. Without those, it gets a lot more costly.
“You might be too expensive for them to chase,” said Michael Priem, the chief executive of Modern Impact, an advertising firm in Minneapolis.
My spending dropped. A lot.
Facebook has often defended targeted ads by saying that internet users are annoyed when they see irrelevant ads. I disagree. Yes, the ads I now see have nothing to do with me — but the benefit was watching my spending drop immensely.
About a year ago, I recall shopping on the site for Taylor Stitch, a men’s clothing retailer. I looked at a coat and closed the window after deciding not to buy it. Then over the next weeks, an ad for that coat loaded on Facebook, inside Instagram and on other websites. Guess what happened? I bought it.
After deleting Facebook, I have more often canceled online purchases after asking myself: Do I need another plaid shirt, frying pan or cocktail shaker? The answer was always no. And as there is now nothing to change my mind, my credit card remains sheathed.
I opened Mint, the budget tracking tool, to get a clear picture of how much I was saving. From October to mid-March, I spent about $341 on clothing and $1,100 on Amazon purchases.
That was a significant drop from my internet shopping sprees before I deleted Facebook. From October 2017 to mid-March of 2018, I spent $1,008 on clothing and $1,542 on Amazon. Gulp.
Instagram thinks I’m a woman
For years, I saw ads on my personal Instagram account for men’s boots, briefcases and video games. Now, I’m getting ads for products like women’s razors and brassieres.
I have a theory for the change, which Facebook didn’t dispute: Having no Facebook account means Instagram is missing big pieces of accompanying information about who I am and what I like. So it may be lacking signals to serve the correct ads.
And because my fiancée and I both run our dog’s Instagram account and interact with it from our personal accounts and our own devices, some wires may have been crossed and Instagram now thinks I’m female. (Instagram does not require people to share their gender when signing up for accounts.)
That’s a bit odd, but I’m not annoyed. Instead, I find the irrelevant ads amusing. At least they give me ideas for future gifts.
Orignially published in NYT.