At this moment in time, we're seeing rapidly increasing adoption of the #deleteFacebook and #deleteGoogle movements. It's not the first time and it won't be the last that privacy issues have caused people to sit up and wonder whether it's really such a great idea to direct a fire hose of our own private data toward these huge corporate funnels, who wish only to use that data for their own financial benefit.
At regular intervals, around once every six months, I start to take seriously the notion of leaving these corporations and their shady data-mining practices behind. However after making a list of everything that's required from me to do so, and everything that I'd be leaving behind, the act has always seemed not quite worth the trouble.
Google would be the easier of the two for me to escape. While their online offerings are excellent, alternatives do exist. Facebook, however, has become like an insidious intruder that has slowly made itself almost inescapable. I use it (and its acquisitions such as WhatsApp, and to a lesser extent Instagram) as a primary method of communication with friends and family, but also as a kind of online passport. A few years ago before I became wiser to the risks involved I took every opportunity to sign up to other services using Facebook's authentication rather, than creating a new set of credentials. This has led to a kind of lock-in effect; leaving Facebook means rearranging much of my online life. Facebook isn't just a website or a service, it's a platform.
This time around however I've had enough, I made a list, and I carried it through. I've (mostly) left behind Google and Facebook, and honestly, it's not been too painful an experience. The intention of this post is to explain a bit about how I did it. Here's a spoiler: Apple played a big part.
Here's a bit of background. I've always liked to manage my own digital life in my own way. The more that software platforms have become a kind of homogenized, 'let me do everything for you' kind of deal, the more I've shied away from them. Case in point: I use a MacBook Pro and an iPhone exclusively. Previously I've been a Windows user with an Android phone. It's in order to keep myself portable enough to change platforms like this that I've never liked to use any of the vendor lock-in products that these platforms offer. I've never used Apple's iCloud services before, for example, because of what would have to happen if I were to move away from Apple's products in the future. I've tried to keep agile and use products and services that won't lock me into a particular platform. That's why I've been a heavy Google user until now because it's perfectly portable.
Another case in point: as a father or two young kids my family photo collection has grown pretty sizeable. I've followed the same kind of do-it-yourself mentality with that too, shunning Apple's and Google's photo management offerings in favour of managing my own directory structure on an external HDD. This HDD is then duplicated via Carbon Copy Cleaner to another external HDD, and then I manually upload the delta to Dropbox as a remote backup. It's a hassle doing things in this way, but I'm free to manage my data in my own way, and again it's totally portable.
Gmail, Contacts, Calendar
This was an easy switch to Apple's iCloud, which just like Google's offering is free to use, and offers all the functionality that I need. The only downside was having to painstakingly visit every site I have an account with and change my email address with them, but that would have happened with any new email provider.
There's no getting away from the fact that Chrome is a fantastic browser, and pretty indispensable for web development work. However, that doesn't mean that I need to use it for personal use. For personal use, I've switched to Apple Safari, which syncs its bookmarks and history to my iPhone just as Chrome did. For work I'll continue to use Chrome when necessary, however, this will be either logged out or logged in to my work Google account, which has no connection to my personal data.
For personal use, I'm switching to DuckDuckGo. I find that the results aren't quite as good as Google's, but the trade-off is well worth not having my every search harvested and regurgitated back to me in the form of adverts.
I switched to Authy, a similar, and to be honest more fully featured alternative.
By going all in on Apple I've deleted my paid Dropbox account and subscribed to iCloud storage instead. This replaces the need for Dropbox of course but also Google Drive. Bye-bye Google Drive.
I don't have the need to collaborate with others for my own personal documents, which are mostly for my personal finance needs. Switching to Apple's productivity apps (specifically Numbers and Pages) has allowed me to replace everything that I was using Google Docs for, and it's nicely integrated with iCloud too.
Let's be honest, there's nothing I can do here. The vast majority of online video I want to watch is hosted on YouTube. The best solution I can come up with is to continue to use YouTube in signed out mode. I'll lose the ability to follow channels and comment on videos, but I can still watch anything (unless it's of an adult nature, but that's not an issue, I mostly just watch software development stuff). It's not ideal but hey.
Google Play Books
While not a direct factor in my leaving Google, I previously used Boostnote to store my personal notes. Going all-in on Apple means that I'm now using Apple Notes as a replacement. It's been fun to systematically delete accounts and products and replace them with something that was previously just collecting dust within my operating system. It feels good, although I'm now so reliant on Apple that if it ever disappears I am totally screwed.
Leaving Facebook felt completely different to leaving Google. My feelings toward Google were cold, uncaring, but I was surprised to find that I had an emotional connection with my Facebook account. I'd been on the platform for 11 years, and viewing my home feed one last time was essentially viewing a timeline of some of the most important moments of my life; my marriage, the births of my kids, family deaths, holidays, happy memories with family and friends. Viewing my Instagram account for the last time was equally emotional, it was a cherry-picked selection of some of my favourite moments of my adult life, all shown in a romantic haze of sepia-vision.
The ultimate realization, however, is that the emotional connection is to the events themselves, not Facebook's representation of them. I still have the memories and the photos. I'd come this far, and while it felt difficult, Facebook had to be removed from my life.
For me, deleting Facebook was also different from deleting Google in that there was no need to seek alternatives to Facebook's services, which probably goes to show how superfluous they really are. Replacing the core Facebook experience is simply a case of meeting people in real life, calling or sending old-fashioned SMS messages to them. As for handling external accounts that I'd previously opened with Facebook's authorization, I either converted them to full accounts using my new email address instead, or I simply trashed them.
Deleting my Facebook account also meant deleting my access to Messenger. While I personally don't care for Messenger too much it's used a lot within my family as a means of communication, and stepping away from it would inconvenience family members who would then have to go out of their way to contact me in other ways. I was happy to learn that I can still use Messenger without a Facebook account, by simply signing up again using only my phone number. It's not ideal because my messages are still visible to Facebook, but I rarely send personal information via Messenger, and without a Facebook profile for my messages to be attached to Facebook's ability to benefit from any data I transmit is severely limited.
While my family uses Messenger quite heavily, my friends tend to use WhatsApp. WhatsApp is also a part of the Facebook family, but just like Instagram it wasn't always that way. When WhatsApp was built it was done so with end-to-end encryption for all communications (something that Facebook would never have done themselves), meaning that Facebook has no access to the content of any messages. WhatsApp also uses a completely different user account to a Facebook account, so deleting my Facebook account hasn't affected my use of WhatsApp at all.
I just killed it, it's gone forever. Honestly I never really used this as a social platform, more as a personal photo album, so there's nothing here to replace.
That's it. From end to end the process took all of my spare time for the best part of a week but I think it was well worth it. I feel somehow lighter because of it. However everybody's situation is very different, and I don't recommend that anybody leaves Google or Facebook without first giving it a lot of consideration, it's a very personal decision to make.
It's been a little over 2 and a half months since I wrote this article, and I'm disappointed to have to say that things didn't all work out as intended. As I began to use my Google alternatives day-in-day-out it became pretty clear that some of them just aren't good enough, and in some instances I've had to fall back to using Google or other offerings again. Here's a breakdown:
Apple's MacOS mail client
I'd previously heard tales of how this mail client wasn't up to scratch, but I didn't expect it to be as bad as it was. For me it became, and I don't say this lightly, pretty much entirely unusable. I was managing 2 separate email accounts through the mail client, an existing Gmail one for work purposes, and my new personal iCloud one. What happened was so weird that at first I thought I was imagining things. Initially there were minor annoyances such as emails that I'd previously deleted coming back into my inbox later the same day. I figured this was a syncing/timing issue, and while not ideal was something I could deal with. Soon after however a similar thing began to happen again, but this time the recently deleted emails would arrive back in my inbox appearing to be brand new and unread, with the send time/date being updated so that they genuinely appeared to have just arrived. This caused me some real confusion. Logging into iCloud mail via the web browser I discovered that the actual email on the server was fine and as expected, however Apple's MacOS mail client was essentially making up its own version of reality.
The final straw for me was when the mail client began to corrupt and merge my emails in totally weird ways. It would render work emails with the title, sender and date taken from a personal email I'd received days before. Conversely I'd receive emails which seemed from the title and sender to be work emails, but when I opened them were actually marketing emails that had come in to my personal email. Again looking at the web clients I could see that all of my emails on the servers were correct, but Apple's mail client was showing me a weird mash-up of parts of emails, none of which had ever existed in those forms.
Needless to say I'm not using that mail client any longer. For now I'm simply using webmail through my browser, however this isn't ideal in the case of iCloud mail. I didn't consider how good Gmail's web client was until I began using Apple's. Apple's is very basic, offering no way to customise how the mail is rendered. This is a bit of a problem because the default style is terrible, each email in the list takes up so much screen space that you just can't get a very high-level overview of your inbox. I long for something like Gmail's compact views, but the cost of switching email accounts again is too high. I'll stick with iCloud mail for the time being, after all its basic sending/receiving functionality works just fine, and I'll search for an alternative desktop client going forward.
I wish this was a bit better. I'm not sure whether I'll seek alternatives right now, but this just isn't as usable as Dropbox or Google Drive. It doesn't offer any form of selective sync, seems very slow to upload, and often gets 'stuck', seeming to take hours or even days to upload very small changes from my local files to the cloud. I'm sure that the upload isn't really taking as long as the UI suggests, we're talking kilobytes of data here, it's just that something gets stuck during the process. Not a great user experience.
Switching to Apple maps seemed like an easy change, but in practice it wasn't, at least not here in the UK. On every occasion that I tried to use Apple maps to get us from point A to point B, it would either get us lost or send us via a less than ideal route. Whenever this happened my wife would take out her phone with Google maps on it and that would get us directly to where we needed to go using the most optimal route, every time. Google map's wayfinding is just a lot better than Apple's. I had to switch back to using Google maps.
While one of the most unnerving facts about Google is that they harvest a lot of data about their users, the truth is that this allows for their search results to be very targeted. While I didn't think this was necessarily what I wanted, the truth is that it kind of is. Creepy surveillance concerns aside, it makes for a MUCH better search experience. When I enter a term like "men's barbers shop" into Google it will return a list of men's barbers shops close to my location. If I enter that same term into DuckDuckGo it will return results from all over the planet, which aren't much use to me.
While that's an overly simplistic example, I could just have prepended the search term with the location I had in mind after all, it's a similar story across the board. As a software developer I often search the internet for development related things. When I enter development related terms into Google it just seems to 'know' that I'm a software developer, that I've previously searched for developer related things, and it returns a pretty accurate result. If I enter those same search terms into DuckDuckGo I receive a weird mix of results that generally do contain the term I was searching for, but used totally outside of the context of software development. I didn't realise that Google was doing such a good job at guessing what I wanted to know, until I stopped using it. I'm now using Google search again, it's just so much more useful to me.
In conclusion, I'm now using Google for a few things again. However I still don't have a Google account, so my concerns about them not being able to tie my personal data to a specific user account are appeased. Google does appear to be using some tracking to ensure that my search results are suited to me, but I'm happy with that. I get much of the upside of Google, without much of the downside. Still, it is disappointing to me that there aren't yet more suitable alternatives out there.
I almost deleted this post entirely, but I figured I'd keep it around instead and update it for completeness.
It's now been almost a year since I initially wrote this post, and things are looking very different. As a heavy user of Apple products I've still been experiencing some frustrating bugs in both my iPhone and MacBook Pro as I continued to use them - some bugs I have been experiencing for years. Then when it came time to upgrade my mobile phone for another two years, I simply couldn't bring myself to pay Apple's premium prices for the same old slightly buggy experience. I decided to forgo everything that I've written about in this post, and joined the Android side.
With that came the inevitable creation of a new Google account, and now I'm firmly back in Google land. I've decided to stop worrying about them harvesting my data and just get on with using their products, which are for the most part fantastic.
So there you have it, I've gone full-circle. It's been an interesting ride, but the truth is that Google's products are great, and I was really missing them for the duration that I'd been avoiding them.