What have we learnt from #DeleteFacebook? 

What struck me as the news of Facebook’s troubles began emerging earlier this year was that as a society we seem to have sleepwalked into a situation without really thinking through some fairly logical consequences.

As the old adage goes, nothing in life is free. So much of what we do online is, on the surface, free.  But of course, the likes of Facebook and Google would not be the behemoths they are without a reliable income source. That source, in most cases, centres around the trade in one way or another of our personal data. We are the product. We might not pay in cash, but we pay in terms of giving access to our personal profile, habits and online activity. We hand it over – it’s all there in the small print. That information is hugely valuable, and when commoditised and sold to third parties, enables those third parties to target us with ads they know we’ll like and viewpoints they think we’ll be interested in. It’s no coincidence that we’re presented with an ad on a website we’re viewing for something we casually searched for on Google last week. That’s the digital ecology.

For all the lines of news reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and all the serious faces in front of the US Senate committee investigating Facebook’s involvement in it, there’s no denying that social media, Facebook included, has had a huge impact on society this century. Facebook, and other social media platforms, have broken so much ground, and have really brought people together. Posting online is now second nature to all of us and we can communicate using a whole smorgasbord of digital tools. The challenge for the digital literacy agenda is not teaching people how to use the tools, but it’s about educating people about how to use them safely and in the full knowledge of what the social bargain is that they’re making.

The positive lesson learned from the huge growth in social media platforms is that it has ignited our inherent desire to communicate, whether that’s about sharing a story, commenting on an outfit, following a hobby or making people laugh. There are flips sides of course. There’s the murkiness of the privacy options, having to constantly check this to keep on top of who sees what. This is particularly irksome if you have children. There’s the bullying and the depression associated with not feeling good enough, successful enough or pretty enough, which seems to be amplified on social media platforms. Then there’s the ‘unreality’ of it – you’re only as interesting as your Insta feed. And perhaps more pernicious, the echo-chamber effect, meaning that either because you have likeminded friends, or because content is being targeted to you based on your profile, the news you get is, in large part, the news you want to hear.

I made a decision a couple of years ago that I wanted to create something positive out of all of this. A safe place for people to share and keep their most precious memories. A place where the user decides exactly who they share them with. A different business model that doesn’t rely at all on the trading of users’ data. In December 2017, we launched Storychest on the App Store. It’s a journal-meets-photo-album-meets-scrapbook for the digital age. Our model is really simple. We don’t share our users’ personal data with third parties, we don’t include advertising or any third-party messages within our service. It’s free while you get started and once you reach a certain limit, you subscribe.

Starting a business from scratch has been challenging and rewarding. Along the way we’ve been asked, “But I have Facebook, why do I need Storychest?” or “But, I don’t pay for Facebook, why do I need to pay for Storychest?”. We’re not being asked those questions so much anymore, as the implications of the free model are becoming clearer.

So, is Facebook ‘old media’?  Is it time for a new model to supplant it?

My own view is that the answer is in regulation, coupled with education and consumer choice.

As a regulatory lawyer in a former life, I am acutely aware of how long it takes for regulation to catch up, and when it does, the world is yet another step ahead.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be pleased with the scrutiny that these issues are attracting. The General Data Protection Regulation is a move in the right direction. It makes it really clear that consumers have to consent to the use of their data, and that that consent has to be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.

In that regard, although it’s attracted little press, Facebook’s decision to change the terms of its privacy policy for European customers so that they are outside the remit of the GDPR and subject to US law instead is one of its more cynical moves.

But the real question is, even with more exacting regulation and greater awareness of the implications of what we’re signing up for, will we see a seismic change in consumer behaviour?

We’ve conducted a survey of 2,000 people in the UK asking about people’s reactions to the #DeleteFacebook movement and the results are interesting. 9% of people said that they’ve deleted their Facebook account; 9.7% of people say that they’re posting less personal information and photos on Facebook; 4.4% of people say that they’re looking for more private alternatives. But the remaining 76.8% of people responded to say that none of those options applied to them.

So, almost one in four of those surveyed indicated a change of behaviour amounting to less engagement with Facebook as a result of the recent revelations. Is this the tip of the iceberg? Only time will tell.

Perhaps what we’ll see is evolution, not a revolution. Social media is here to stay, but we hope that as a part of an evolving digital landscape, we’ll see a range of different players flourish and grow as alternatives. Hopefully, transparency and privacy will be increasingly important factors for consumers to weigh up when deciding which solution to adopt to reflect their needs, interests and voices.

Charlotte McMillan is Founder of Storychest – the journal meets photo album meets scrapbook for the digital age.