While many people experience Facebook® as a supportive technology that enhances their lives, it poses a troubling dilemma for those of us who do not want Facebook to mediate our personal relationships and influence our personal lives and selves:

  • Not having a Facebook account has significant costs if it prevents us from participating in groups or events that choose to be hosted on Facebook.
  • Having a Facebook account has significant costs because it seems to inevitably allow Facebook to insinuate itself into our personal relationships, like an unwelcome chaperone. (As soon as anyone sends you a “friend” request, Facebook is already affecting your relationship with that person, whether you accept, reject, or ignore the request. And that’s just the tip of a big iceberg.)

I’ve resolved this dilemma for myself by finding a way to effectively turn off Facebook’s “friend” feature.  There is no direct or obvious way to do this, but it is possible. But first, why might you want to do this?

Why to be Friendless on Facebook

Facebook.com says “Sign Up. It’s free and always will be.” This sounds like a good deal… until you realize that you’re not Facebook’s customer, but their product. Then it starts to feel creepy, as if a fox were offering to look after your hens for free while you’re on vacation.

The real deal is that you get to use Facebook in return for letting Facebook mediate and influence your personal relationships, life, and self however they see fit – for example by filtering whose updates you see, deciding which new “friends” to suggest to you, and who to encourage to “friend” you.

Technology that mediates personal relationships has enormous power to be helpful – and to be harmful. It is therefore incredibly important that it be set up to always put its users’ interests first.  Unfortunately, Facebook is not.

As a publicly traded corporation, Facebook is legally obliged to maximize shareholder value.  Its does this primarily by using its knowledge of, and influence on, its users and their personal relationships to create products for its customers – advertisers.  (If it were to become a cooperative, like REI for example, I might consider letting it mediate my personal relationships.)

If you’re currently granting Facebook (for free!) the privilege of mediating your personal relationships and influencing your personal life and self, do you really feel comfortable with the deeper and longer-term implications of this – for yourself, your true friends, and our collective social environment?

How to be Friendless on Facebook

  1. Get your “friend” count to zero, either by creating a new account or by “unfriending” everyone. (Be sure to explain to them in advance, with a link to this article, why you’re doing this, so they don’t take it personally!)
  2. Configure “Settings / Privacy / Who can contact me? / Who can send you friend requests?” to “Friends of Friends“. Voilà!  You’ve effectively turned off the “friends” feature.

You can also encourage your actual friends to migrate with you to an alternative social network that is set up to put its users’ interests first – such as diasp.org.

Being hard to use is one of the most common ways in which technology fails to support its users, so making your technology easier to use is always a good thing, right?

Well… No. Not always. In some cases, making tech harder to use than it needs to be can be extremely helpful.

Why? Because our long-term goals and short-term motivations often conflict. Our long-term goals are almost always the ones needing support, and sometimes a great way to support long-term goals is to make it harder, not easier, to satisfy short-term motivations.

For example, how often do you want to check your email?

To support my long-term goals, I’d like to check email a few times a day, focusing most of my time and attention on projects I already know are important to me, without being distracted by curiosity about my inbox.

However, my short-term motivations urge me to check it many times an hour, every time I get that itchy feeling of wondering what might have arrived in my inbox since I last looked.

I decided it was time I made my own tech more supportive of my long-term goals by making my smartphone harder to use for checking email.

But how?

I turned off automatic notifications, so my phone no longer gives any indication that new mail has arrived through blinking lights, status icons, etc: I only see whether new email has arrived if I actually launch the email app.

That was a step in the right direction, but it was still too easy to scratch my inbox itch.

What else could I do? I needed to be able to use my smartphone to check email. I just didn’t want it to be quite so darned easy!

Then it occurred to me: This is like parenting my self. Just as I store tempting cookies out of sight and out of reach of my young children, my aim here is to put my email inbox further out of reach of my short-term motivations.

This connection to the idea of parenting gave me the key to an effective technological solution: A simple Android app locker app.

I’ve successfully made my smartphone harder to use for checking email. Now to launch the email app, I have to enter a long password – easy for me to remember but just tedious enough to support my long-term goals by blocking my short-term motivation to scratch my inbox itch.

What about your tech? Are parts of it too easy to use? Would an option to make those parts harder to use make it more supportive?

Tech that’s supportive is not only useful, easy, and pleasing, but also helps users flourish.

That means it actively tries to support positive psychological states and traits such as clear thinking, self-discipline, focused attention, and a strong sense of purpose, and does its best to avoid triggering negative psychological phenomena, such as impulsiveness, apathy, or prejudice.

When technology is not supportive, it’s often because it’s clumsy and it’s sometimes because it’s evil.

Clumsy technology lacks people-skills.  It’s awkward and unhelpful to interact with, and sometimes even downright harmful, but out of incompetence, not malice.

Evil technology uses people-skills to benefit its creators and/or choosers at the expense of its users.  Like a con artist, it may undermine your well-being without you even knowing that you’re less well off than you should be.

As has been true for milennia in human-human interactions, people-skills can be used to support others or to exploit them.

Sometimes people rationalize evil technology by claiming it’s supportive.  Sometimes people unintentionally create or choose evil technology, sincerely intending it to be supportive.

Most often, though, people create or choose clumsy technology, because when they think about tech, they think about functionality and features, forgetting how much the impact of tech comes from how it interacts with and affects people.

If your desire is to make your technology more supportive, less clumsy, and less evil, we’re here to help.