Look after the weirdos and delete everything

So apparently Facebook have had some bad press recently. What can I add to the debate, other than being smug about being 5 years ahead of the curve?

The way I describe quitting Facebook is that it’s as if a tiny little bit of your brain suddenly becomes available again. I didn’t realise that it was being taken up by Facebook 24 hours a day until I quit. If you haven’t already, and if only for that reason, quit.

If you’re worried about What Might Happen, take courage. After deleting my account, I didn’t get a single twinge of remorse. I didn’t miss a thing, although I do now have no social life (unrelated, I’m sure…)

Unfortunately for the rest of humanity currently engaged in a messy break up with an American corporation, not everyone is such a quitter as I am. I don’t mean to boast: it almost certainly has a significant genetic component. I’m just not very good at getting addicted to stuff. I had no problem cutting out my phone for a month, sugar for 3 months and aeroplanes for 8 years. No cravings, very little withdrawal symptoms – just relief and new habits.

But enough of showing off. What I’m really interested in is why now? Why are people so worried about Facebook that they’re quitting in their droves, right now?

Facebook have always been promiscuous with your privacy

Leaving Facebook in 2013 was a simple decision, inspired by exactly the fears that are such a hot topic at the moment. Believe me: plenty of people were talking about this stuff in 2013, in 2009, in 2002, and long before.

This is not news. The exploitation of our data is nothing new: it hasn’t suddenly ‘come out’ thanks to some daring investigative journalism. We all knew this stuff. Didn’t we? But what has happened is that, for some reason, outrage about privacy has exploded into the mainstream.

It’s kinda like the refugee summer of 2015…

A similar thing happened in 2015 with the refugee crisis (or conscience crisis as it should really be called). For a year I’d been writing about the growing catastrophe, travelling to and from Calais half a dozen times. Hundreds of thousands of people were already travelling from conflict zones towards Europe, millions were already displaced from the civil war in Syria alone.

But no one particularly cared. Concern for refugees just wasn’t a mainstream thing. I got blank stares whenever I talked about refugees. Blank stares that quite often shied into fear if I got too political.

People just weren’t interested. Until, suddenly, they were. Incredibly interested; fascinated even. They couldn’t resist coming up to me in the street, at gatherings, and asking for my ‘expert’ opinion. I felt like a celebrity – and an imposter. Believe me: people were talking about refugees in 2014, in 2009, in 2002 and long before I became interested. It’s always been there.

Hang on, why is this important?

I’m glad that people are deleting Facebook. I’m glad that so many people gave a shit about refugees in that summer of 2015. Some of those people, of course, have moved on to other concerns, but others changed the course of their entire lives and are now dedicated to improving conditions for refugees and asylum-seekers. Remarkable.

I’m sure that some people will turn back to Facebook in the coming months, but I’m equally sure that others will never go back to such anti-social media. For some people, this is a life-changing moment. Remarkable.

So why does it happen? The move from outsiders to insiders

It’s always grabbed me how rapidly migrant activism went from being an outsider concern to being very much the in-group behaviour. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the action; to show what they were doing for refugees. Even the Daily Mail toned down its rhetoric for a few weeks. It was mainstream cool to be in Calais.

It seems to be the same with Facebook: being out of Facebook is the in thing right now. It’s mainstream cool to be off Facebook.

Funnily enough, this in-group/out-group behaviour was a big part of the reason why I left Facebook in 2013. While most of the rest of the planet were joining Facebook to feel part of the in-crowd, there was a small but significant group of tech geeks, cypherpunks and freedom activists leaving Facebook (or who had never joined). I wanted to be part of that group, not the mainstream.

So even leaving social media is a ‘social’ act. But that geeky crowd would only ever seem cool to a certain subset of society: me and my type. To make that shift, leaving Facebook needed to become more mainstream cool. More Justin Bieber than Rage Against The Machine.

Slow vs Fast Crossover

Examining the popular growth of social movements is a lifetime’s work, but from my amateur observations there seem to be two ways it can happen: slow and fast.

The slow starts slowly, so slowly that you think it’ll never cross over. Vegans are still treated with the mild suspicion of cabbage soup, but that’s a vast improvement from even 10 years ago. And vegetarianism is in the clear: it’s made the jump (especially if you eat occasionally fish to show you’re not simply being obstinate).

The 2015 refugee crisis is an example of the (relatively) fast: propelled by sheer pressure of humanity. It got to the point where it was unignorable. Unfortunately, veganism is never going to become unignorable in the same way. Not unless the cows rise up and fart us all to the brink of extinction.

Arguably, the slower form has the greater potential for lasting social change. It’s taken decades for the quality of veggie burgers to make the long, slow march from cardboard substrate to 90% palatable, but now the edible veggie burger is here and it’s here to stay.

In contrast, the faster form might have the greater potential for individual transformation. Some of my friends who have now dedicated their lives to supporting refugees hadn’t even heard of forced displacement until 2015.

Where do unignorable social movements come from?

Firstly, the social movements that effect meaningful change emerge exclusively from tiny groups of cranks, misfits and outsiders. Conformity never changed anything. That is an important thing to note.

Secondly, what makes a social movement unignorable is the pressure of humanity, whether that’s through sheer accumulation of followers over time, like veganism, or more unfortunately through some catastrophe that forces one blob of humanity onto another blob of humanity, as in the case of the refugee crisis.

But how do we build and sustain these movements, how do we build our in-group and make it ripe for mainstream crossover? Well, it’s quite simple, actually.

  1. Make your movement sociable and fun. Humans are social animals so make and take friends and spread that open invitation. People go where their friends go; people believe what their friends believe. It’s a party, not politics!
  2. Go for the small wins. Humans like to feel like we’re making progress every day. As no one once said: ‘You can’t end borders without putting on a darn good picnic.’ Having a massive ultimate goal is good (see #3), but what keeps you going are the day-to-day small wins like not getting arrested, convincing one other person, or putting on a darn good picnic.
  3. Connect to a higher purpose. Is this actually worth pursuing? It’s not a religion, but it sort of will become one. Is it worth all the years of being in the out-group? It’d better be.
How to identify the next #deletefacebook

It’s also pretty simple to find yourself ahead of the curve on social movements. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

  1. Hang out with the weirdos, the misfits and the outsiders. Nurture them, listen to them, bear with their mania, fanaticism and objectionable hygiene. They have all the best ideas (in among the dross). This stage sounds easy, but isn’t. For starters, how do you find these people? Be catholic in your social relations; step outside your usual haunts; talk to strangers.
  2. Listen to your conscience: is this totally uncool idea actually the right thing to do and be? For me, both Facebook’s privacy policy and the principle of closed borders were sufficiently repellent to make me take action. This moment of reflection will hopefully connect you with a higher purpose, a more principled reason for being and doing. It’s also not an easy stage: how will you ever know for sure? You won’t. It’s an act of faith.
  3. If the answer to #2 is yes, then be loud. Spread the virus. Be a nuisance. Become the change you want to see in the world. This is the toughest stage of all.

May you have good luck, and always remember to take friends.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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