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Online presence management: The story of two journalists off the grid

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Data breaches, identity theft, targeted ads that persistently follow us from one web page to another… and then there’s the average time we spend online every day. All of this shows how little control we have over the personal information we put online. So I set out on a quest to find young people who, having had enough, decided to drastically reduce their online presence. Meet Tom and Malika, two journalists off the grid.

I’m crossing Berlin in a half-empty S-bahn car when I suddenly feel my mobile phone vibrate in my pocket. I unlock it to find a Facebook message from Malika, a 24-year-old journalist from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan who I haven’t met yet. She replies to a post I made on my wall, saying she wants to be interviewed for the story I’m working on. Turns out finding someone who willingly removed him or herself from the Internet isn’t as easy as it sounds. So you can imagine my relief when I see Malika’s response, especially given I was one of her last Facebook interactions. She is planning on deleting her Facebook account, too.

Malika isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to do so. The entire world experienced a reality-check when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke out, in which data from 50 million Facebook accounts was leaked. What followed suit was a #DeleteFacebook movement in March this year, paradoxically taking place online, that has since been waning it seems. Still, people all across the globe are pricking up their ears when it comes to protecting personal data online. So I decided it was time to find out just how difficult (or simple) it is to slowly erase oneself from the Internet. Especially given that four of 2017’s most downloaded iOS apps are all owned by Facebook. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Twitter, targeted ads and treason

Journalist by profession, Malika started auditing her online presence about a year ago. When she became interested in the topic of Internet surveillance and personal data use, the young Kyrgyzstani decided to delete her Twitter account. Being a reporter, she used the outlet under the username @darklordwannabe daily to monitor the news, get in touch with various organisations and reach out to potential sources for her work. The driving force behind this somewhat radical choice was a sudden change in Twitter’s timeline algorithm. “[From one day to the next], my feed turned into a random selection of the most popular re-tweets mixed with lots of advertisements. In short, nothing I could possibly be interested in,” she recalls.

Keen on figuring out exactly what was going on with her feed, Malika dove head first into her account settings and requested a detailed record of her Twitter data, along with a list of advertisers targeting her. She carefully studied the information she received in order to understand where she stood in terms of tailored audiences.

Twitter allows advertisers to launch targeted campaigns to create “highly relevant marketing campaigns”. In doing so, the platform allows advertisers to target tailored audiences: lists of specific users, people who have recently visited their websites, or groups that have taken action on an advertiser’s app. What Malika found shocked her: “Turns out that more than half of the content Twitter proposed was absolutely irrelevant to me. This freaked me out, and I thought: ‘Okay, you make profit on my personal data and track my browsing behaviour to sell me all these things, but you’re still clueless about what I actually need.’” That same day, she deleted her account.

Uh, did you just un-friend me?

Then came Instagram. As with Twitter, Malika decided she would be better off without annoying ads and irrelevant content. That was about three and a half months ago. By then, she had already become somewhat of an expert in deleting her online footprint and had read dozens of articles on the subject. In a step-by-step explanation, Malika tells me how arduous it is to delete an Instagram account: “First, you delete all of the content you’ve ever posted. Then, you change the email address linked to your account for one that you will never use again. This will help you in avoiding any general emails or notifications [from social media platforms]. The same goes for your phone number. Once that’s done, you can actually delete the account itself.”

Malika’s sudden disappearance from Twitter and Instagram didn’t go unnoticed. Some of her friends assumed that she had blocked them on these platforms, and started asking why. “I had to explain that I simply deleted my own account, not blocked or un-followed anyone,” Malika laughs, “Some people approved of my decision, others found it strange or unnecessary. But overall, people’s reactions was rather positive.” Those who were the most supportive of Malika’s decision to disappear from the Internet, quite fittingly, were her parents, who “have always been in favour of a healthy lifestyle, encouraging me to spend less time on social media.”

When I ask her whether her professional life was affected by the decision to reduce her Internet presence, she stops for a moment to think. “I don’t think so,” she says, shaking her head. Hard to imagine that, as a journalist, erasing your online presence doesn’t affect your career. But if Malika has lived to tell the story, I’m going to have to take her word for it. Now in the final year of her Master’s, Malika looks forward to changing paths and finding another field of activity. “I really hope I will work more with data collection and analysis. I won’t have to contact anyone, and will be able to further reduce the use of various [online] platform,” she explains. At the end of the day, the young journalist says she is happy with her decision, has become “more sensible” about the way she spends her time and the way she interacts with people.

Bye-bye, Zuckie!

We get to the million-euro question: what about Facebook? It is the only social media platform that Malika has kept using, despite her mission to erase her online presence. Given the recent scandals with Cambridge Analytica, the fact that the platform has been accused of mass surveillance through its apps, I would have expected the young Kyrgyzstani to start by saying goodbye to Zuckie (Mark Zuckerberg, ed.). When I ask Malika whether these scandals strengthened her decision to eventually delete the platform altogether, she replies nonchalantly: “I don’t think so. I wasn’t surprised when it happened. The issue of personal data on the Internet is quite and, and it’s easy to make profit from it.”

Although Facebook CEO claimed that the #DeleteFacebook campaign did not have much impact on the company, the vast media coverage seems to be doing its part, at least in the US. According to a survey conducted by Creative Strategies, 9% of Americans may have deleted their accounts altogether over privacy concerns.

As we continue our Skype call, which Malika had to re-install for us to be able to chat, several Gmail notifications distract me. I apologise and ignore them, even though I know why my inbox is getting bombarded. The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has just come into force in the EU. Organisations, media outlets, companies and any other structure operating within the European Economic Area are obliged to comply, but the export of personal data outside the EU is also addressed. Emails telling me exactly how my data is being used within a certain organisation, or asking me to accept specific data usage terms are just a drop in the bucket. Still, according to the official website, the GDPR is “the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years.” It took four years to prepare, be debated and was only approved on the 14th of April 2016, before finally being enforced on May 25th this year.

Seeing my reaction, Malika offers an alternative solution to Gmail. Turns out, she switched from an ordinary email service to a more secure system with end-to-end encryption called ProtonMail a long time ago. For her, the same sensibility applies to web searches. Instead of using Google, she uses DuckDuckGo, a search engine that is said to protect users’ privacy and avoid personalised search results. Malika also chose to hop over to the “dark side” of anonymous communication, and uses Tor (The Onion Router) software, which hides the activity of its users by moving traffic across different servers. These servers are called volunteer 'overlay networks' and consist of over seven thousand relays, concealing the location and any activity of a particular user. Like an onion, you have to peel through thousands of layers to get to the source.

Unplugging for self-improvement

If Malika’s quest to reduce her Internet presence is a step-by-step process, Tom – a 26-year-old American journalist – chose a more radical approach. He has officially deleted his online footprint across all the platforms he once used. That includes Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. I got to know Tom the old-fashioned way, through a friend of mine who replies to the same Facebook post I made and gives me his email address. After communicating back and forth, I casually suggest a Skype interview. Tom tells me he prefers to communicate via email.

From 2016 onwards, Tom gradually started deleting his social media accounts. As a journalist, he used them for his day-to-day work. Like Malika, he would contact potential sources or interviewees using Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. But unlike his Kyrgyzstani counterpart, the motivation behind his decision was simple: Tom wanted to be a more productive and healthy person. “I felt I was spending too much time on these platforms and not developing as a person. I felt I would be better served reading books, exercising outdoors, having real conversations with other humans and practicing my cooking skills,” he explains, adding extra emphasis to his passion for vegetarian recipes.

While reading Tom’s argument in favour of a life free of social media, I think of Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist and the brains behind the Time Well Spent Movement, and his theory that modern technology is hacking our brains. Harris once compared our phones to “slot machines” that we check constantly to see whether we get any bonus, be it new likes, more followers, or some other reward, thus encouraging us to stay online as long as possible. As simple as it sounds, in the long run, such addiction can have a drastic effect on our mental health, social relationships and general well being.

Although the process of deleting his online presence was gradual, taking about one year, Tom felt a much stronger reaction from his family and friends compared to Malika. They were somewhat dismayed, “but they understood my decision once I explained it to them,” he recalls. “Some were confused as to why I wouldn’t want to use social media,” he adds.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Maintaining a professional network with no online presence is the biggest challenge for Tom. The same goes for finding a new job: “Employers love it when applicants have personal websites, active social media accounts and a [strong] online presence to showcase their skills, explain professional goals and facilitate contact.” Still, Tom explains that he only hesitated deleting his Facebook for matters not related to work. He used Facebook, like most of us do, to stay in touch with distant friends. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Tom managed to solve the problem by urging his friends to get in touch with him via email, and so far it has worked out perfectly.

When we speak about Facebook and LinkedIn, Tom stresses the consumerist nature of the two platforms, whose built-in features and design makes it nearly impossible to minimise time spent on them. What’s more, deleting an account is not always an easy option; the function is often buried in the depths of the application, sandwiched between fine print and FAQs. “These platforms are specifically designed by very smart engineers to capture a person’s attention and keep it, at all costs. This is known as ‘variable rewards’. Basically, it’s when random notifications compel a person to keep checking their account in hope that there is new activity,” Tom explains. Part of the ‘hook model’, variable rewards are part of a cycle that turns users into addicts. Many social media platforms use the hook model to create habit-forming behaviours in their users, propelling them into a cycle of trigger, action, variable reward and continued use.

I ask Tom if he uses a mobile phone, and when he replies that he does, he sends me a screenshot of his iPhone screen. It has three icons on the home screen: contacts, calls and texts. “I use my phone for messaging and making calls,” he says, “Sometimes I take photos. That’s it. I also use the grey scale setting on my iPhone to reduce its addictive nature.” Out of curiosity, I go to my iPhone settings and change the screen colour settings. What is usually an inviting world of colours, notifications and connectivity soon becomes dull, like watching Avatar in black and white. And don’t even mention Instagram.

Having recently met up with a friend who said she had met the love of her life on the Internet, I had about one more question in mind: what about dating apps? I saved this for Tom, asking whether deleting his online presence has had any impact on this part of his life. “I know many people my age that use social media platforms (like Tinder or Bumble) for dating and hook-ups, too. I know I am restricting myself somewhat by not participating,” he admits. “But I want a more original story for my romantic relationships. Using the Internet to find love seems so desperate, sanitised and just boring. I want something much more serendipitous,” Tom concludes, adding that socialising with friends (drinking and playing cards) also remains one of his favourite pastimes.

I finish reading Tom’s emails. He talks about the books he’s read and shares his recent experience of cooking shakshuka, a recipe he happily attached to his last email. I open it to find colourful pictures and vivid descriptions of the dish. I find myself thinking about the banana bread I always wanted to bake, but never had time to. Maybe I was too busy with work. Maybe I spent too much time on the Internet.

This article was published in collaboration with Mes Datas et Moi, a platform dedicated to reclaiming our online identities. Wanna check it out?

Cover image: (cc) Matthew Henry/Unsplash