“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. They honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up your prejudices.” - Henry David Thoreau
The infamous F.A.A.N.G. super group that sits mightily atop its throne has transformed our relationship with technology from passive to all-consuming. Most of us can’t go a day without encountering one of these services. They are near impossible to avoid, whether it’s for web browsing, communicating, shopping, or other daily rituals.
Not all is lost. There are brave souls stepping up to lead what Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, calls the “attention resistance,” an ethos for disrupting the mind control Big Tech has on our psyche.
I want to save my deep dive into the book for a later story, but there is something I’ve come to accept is a major reason why we feel this irresistible pull from F.A.A.N.G.: their products are incredibly convenient. So much so, that we find it hard to choose principle over product feature. But as Thoreau said, “it is never too late to give up your prejudices.” These giant companies have a huge advantage in the perpetual feedback loop their services have us caught in, meaning they can make improvements and adjust product quality based on our user experiences with relative ease. It’s not just that they recruit the top engineers. They are able to give them unlimited toys (our data) to play with in their sandbox.
My goal with the recommendations that follow is to break that cycle of convenience and attempt to highlight respectable alternatives that, if given the same amount of feedback, might level the playing field and hopefully use (or, ideally, not use) our data in a more appropriate manner. The examples vary in levels of adaptation, from the flip of a switch to wholesale migration of the entire user base of one app to another. Again, this is a war for principle over convenience. No war is ever one after the first battle.
Web Browser: Use Firefox (or Safari) instead of Chrome
Before Chrome became the standard, Mozilla Firefox was the hipster web browser of choice. I remember when it was first released while I was in middle school, touted as the Internet Explorer alt for nerds like me. It continues to prove its staying power all these years later, even having a resurgence recently because of its improved functionality and privacy settings.
Firefox and Chrome share many similar features, including an extensive library of plugins and add-ons. Most casual users don’t even need most of the extensions offered by either browser. But one of the key features that Chrome is lacking that is included by default for both Firefox and Safari is the Reader View, a simple way to strip an article of its distracting sidebar information to give the user a clean reading experience. This pays dividends when trying to be productive, whether you are reading for pleasure or research.
On this fact alone, I stopped using Chrome. My work for BuddyRuski.com is all operated through Firefox, and I keep my personal surfing in Safari. This helps remove the distraction of one world from the other and limits the sign-in/out process or certain applications. But as I got more serious about privacy and technology use, I doubled down on my decision by switching my default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo for both browsers (just DDG it is bound to catch on).
Mozilla is one of the leaders in “the resistance.” Their newsletter and social media accounts are great sources of information for uncovering how Internet companies are (mis)behaving.
Communication Tool: Use Signal instead of WhatsApp
Signal is lauded by security experts, journalists, and even Edward Snowden, as the best messaging tool available. Choosing to use an alternative messaging service might seem trivial. Time and again, people will say, “Why should I care? I have nothing to hide.” What you forget is that knowledge is power, and any information someone, or something, can learn about you is potentially leverage they have against you. This is especially true as our communities become more global. Our friends and family abroad may not have the same freedom of speech we are afforded here in the United States. When international journalists, some of the most threatened people on the planet, are suggesting an app, I tend to heed their advice.
Choosing Signal also means Facebook has one less opportunity to squeeze the living metadata out of you, which is a win every time.
E-commerce: Leverage Amazon as a shopping site, not a buying one.
In terms of convenience, Amazon is the most difficult hurdle to jump. Jeff Bezos is about to become the first trillionaire in human history because he figured out how to ship you the things you need/want in two days flat. But the faster and more efficient things become, so change our expectations. Do we need that new [insert random household item] by Wednesday? No. Can I get it by Wednesday? Yes. So why not? The answer is something we alluded to earlier: leverage. Our spending power is the strongest weapon we have against our corporate overlords.
Whenever possible, shop directly on the e-commerce site of your favorite brands, even when you’re shopping local. Something I’ve been reminded of during quarantine is that local shops can deliver just as fast as Amazon. Trust me, I have the receipts from Letters Bookshop to prove it. Less of the money is siphoned off by Amazon and it decentralizes the marketplace, allowing other brands to blossom.
Amazon is also a notoriously heinous data miner. The range and depth of information they have on all of us is scary. When you consider all the industries they are creeping into, like healthcare, it’s horrific.
Blogging/social media: Use Patreon instead of Instagram.
For those that are unfamiliar with Patreon (you shouldn’t be), it's a combination of things you’re already familiar with: blog, social media, and payment portal. More accounts have popped up during quarantine as small businesses and freelancers look for alternative ways to maintain their revenue.
Like Tumblr, Patreon provides a variety of posting formats, including long-form blogging and audio/video sharing. And like Instagram Stories, Patreon offers a product called Lens, a way to share behind-the-scenes snapshots of your process.
These features give users comparable control over their content in addition to providing a built-in payment option similar to Kickstarter. Instead of losing money to the Facebook Ad platform, it is possible to actually make money from your content. What a novel idea.
Migrating the Instagram user base to a different service would be no small task. Knowing that everyone you know is on the platform is the main selling point for social networks.
- 1Password instead of Sign In/Up with Facebook or Google
- Tumblr (now owned by WordPress) instead of Instagram
- Hey. (coming soon from Basecamp) instead of Gmail
- Getting a VPN instead of NOT getting a VPN.
- Gyfcat over Giphy (Giphy was just acquired by Facebook)
What software do you use in defiance of the major players?