Chances are, you’re reading this on a smartphone. Or at least something just as revolutionary.
The release of the first iPhone in 2007 marked a new age of rapid and widespread innovation. Technology has gone on to become ingrained in our everyday lives – making them more efficient, connected and convenient than ever. But was this turning point really about accessing information, or people?
Historic innovation has always been met with resistance, but now our devices are highly intelligent and hyper connected; information is circulated around the world through a monopolised internet. Meta alone owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, just to name a few. Growing concerns that these “Big Tech” giants put profit before people is reinforced by reports of data harvesting, exploitative algorithms, limiting market competition, promoting extremism and invasive monitoring.
While resistance movements often struggle to gain ground, individual user choices can have significant personal benefits. Social media detox, through retreats and inactivating or deleting accounts, has become more popular during the screen-heavy pandemic. Nokia phones, early trailblazers known for failing to adapt to new technology, have earned niche appreciation from extreme minimalists, technophobes and detoxers for being “dumbphones.” These devices can text, call and sometimes play music, but not connect to the internet or download apps. For early Nokias and their consumers, this was the height of portable technology, but newer models are made, sold, and bought like this by design.
The desire to “take a step back” without losing useful features inspired Louis Barclay to create a now defunct browser extension, “Unfollow Everything,” which served to empty Facebook’s Newsfeed and give users more control over what they consumed.
Q1 – You left your job at Goldman Sachs to begin working on Nudge, Unfollow Everything’s predecessor. What is Nudge and Unfollow Everything, and why did you create them?
Nudge and Unfollow Everything are simple tools that help people use the internet less. Nudge does this by telling you how long you spend on addictive sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and checking you really want to visit them before you log on. And Unfollow Everything did this by letting users unfollow every friend, page and group in their Facebook News Feed automatically, which is something Facebook doesn’t let you do itself. Once you do that, you still can access your friends (they’re not deleted), but they don’t appear in your News Feed, which means you no longer have that central addictive heart of Facebook. So you find yourself spending much less time using Facebook.
Q2 – Unfollow Everything was published on the Chrome store in July 2020 and met with largely positive reviews. By the time it was deleted it had 2,500 weekly active users and 10,000 downloads. Do you think there is a market for these kinds of extensions?
Definitely! I did no marketing at all for Unfollow Everything, and yet I could see that every week, more and more people were using it. I received emails from people telling me how completely thrilled they were to have found the tool, and to no longer have a News Feed. They told me I’d changed their life.
There is a very clear need, in my opinion, for tools like Unfollow Everything which fill in the gaps that are deliberately left by big tech companies like Facebook, who would rather that we stay addicted and spend as much time as possible on their platforms.
Q3 – Before the extension was deleted, the Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland had shown interest in studying its relation to screen time and user happiness. Many of its initial users found that it helped them control addictive tendencies on social media. Do you think that these kinds of adaptations could help to mitigate some of the negative effects of social media?
I think so. The world I like to imagine is one where we can solve some (but not all) of the harms of big tech by adding another layer of software, like Nudge or Unfollow Everything, which will counteract the addictiveness, or the fake news, or the depression that these big tech platforms cause. I’m passionate about researching this space to understand which interventions can be most effective in helping people do what they want to do, instead of what big tech wants them to do.
I was extremely scared when I was first legally threatened by Facebook. It was hard to comprehend that I was being bullied by a trillion dollar company because of a tool I created and gave to people for free, which I made to make people’s lives better.
Over time, I’ve shifted from being scared to being angry. I think it’s totally unacceptable that governments and legal systems allow Facebook to have this kind of power over people who are making tools in the public interest. I’ve realized that I have almost no options to fight back against Facebook using the UK legal system, because if I do, and I lose - which is possible, given Facebook’s unlimited resources to pay for lawyers - I’d have to pay their costs and could go bankrupt. That makes me feel livid.
Q5 – In its letter, Facebook said that it prohibited “Interfering with or impairing the intended operation of Facebook”. Facebook's News Feed is a large generator of income for the company, so emptying it would lose them revenue, which you joked about in your 2018 article “Dear Mark Zuckerberg, Here’s $20 That I Stole From You”. Despite Unfollow Everything’s undeniable user benefits, is it surprising that Facebook wanted it to be deleted?
In one way, I find it extremely surprising. A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg said: ‘One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.’ So you’d think that bullying a developer who was helping people do exactly that would not be their cup of tea.
But actually, when you think about it, it’s not surprising at all. Facebook’s management are hypocrites who talk one game, and play another. Anything that threatens their core interest, which is to own our attention and monetise it, is not acceptable to them.
Q6 – In the above article, you sent Mark Zuckerberg $20 dollars and a letter describing your opinions on one of his companies. You took issue with the content and purpose of Facebook’s News Feed, the associated ads and the practices and values of the company at the time. Have your opinions changed since the ban?
Not at all. Facebook remains an unaccountable behemoth that is causing harms to all societies and the individuals that live in them.
Q7 – With the Metaverse and Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter on the horizon, what do you think the future looks like for Big Tech and its owners? Is deleting and/or adapting social media the way forward?
Big tech has made our societies more addicted, misinformed, and divided. The question is, can governments regulate big tech fast enough to prevent these problems from causing irreparable harms. I don’t see any company or initiative like Nudge being powerful enough or growing fast enough to save us. I don’t trust any billionaire, including Elon Musk, to be a good steward of a social media platform. I don’t believe people will delete social media either, because it’s too useful and deeply integrated into people’s lives. So the only answer is regulation: governments passing well-designed laws to make big tech companies accountable for the harms they are causing. There’s some cause for optimism there, particularly in the EU where regulators are thinking very seriously about how to force accountability on big tech. The great part of this is that big tech can’t afford to leave the EU since it’s a large market for them. So the EU has both the power to rein in big tech, and the will to do so (as opposed to the US, where there is no will for anti-big tech regulation).
So overall, I’m optimistic that big tech will be reined in by regulation eventually. The question is, how much damage will be caused before that happens?
Q8 – Is there anything else you would like to say?
If you feel angry about big tech, one of the best things you can do is write a letter to your MP stating that you want them to push for greater regulation to hold these companies accountable. It only takes a few minutes to look up your MP and send them an email!