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Getting back control of my digital life one bit at a time

Tags: English, technology, hacks, personal
Created on Thu, 29 Mar 2018

I have permanently deleted my Facebook account this week after the latest "scandals" around the "social" network. Of course I knew on some level what is happening with my data but I think it finally hit home. I've always hated Facebook, ever since I first made my account (post about it in Bulgarian) - and that hasn't changed for the 8 years that I used the service, it only got worse I think. It was not so much about the data that I have shared, it has been more about the mindset that it installed in me and in people around me. Being zombies, constantly scrolling useless content by people you barely know or not even know with pages you liked at some point, with no easy way to get out of it, a network hitting all weak spots in human psychology. So the latest revelations of which we were all well aware (in the hacker/techie community at least) got to me and crossed a threshold that I don't want to be part of it anymore.

I wanted to quit but I wanted to try to make it smartly - no emotional, spontaneous decisions. I have done this before and it lead to nowhere - a week or a month later I was back because I was missing the people I talk to.

Quitting Facebook

I decided to collect as many current ways to contact people as I can from my network about the people I most cared about (sorry 650 other "friends", maybe we have been friends at some point in life, but that's life - people move on). I also posted on my wall that I will be permanently quitting in 72 hours. So if someone saw it and wanted to contact me to exchange contacts - feel free. My contacts were email and phone number - things I assessed are least likely to change as a point of contact for me and if they do, it would be relatively simple to update my contacts of my new number/email. In my last 24 hours I also changed my profile picture and that I will be moving to Signal, which is tied to my phone number thus reducing the pieces of information I need to propagate to my contacts (no username there). More on the phone number below. I didn't want to try too hard to convince people to move to Signal, not least because I still saw some problems with it, but because I also understand my friends - messenger is where everybody is and pragmatically.. they are probably right. I hate installing just the next messaging app. But I didn't want to move to Whatsapp (facebook's), Viber was a close second (most my Bulgarian friends seem to have an account there and I might still consider it). But I wanted to give something I personally like a chance. Besides, this philosophy is relatively new thing for me and I am not ready to defend it too fiercely.

I liked Signal because of their cross-platform solution, open source end-to-end encryption protocol that seems to be used by many other messaging apps and apps, but mostly - due to the fact that they are a (pending) non-profit organization (Open Whisper Systems), not a company and hopefully have a more ideal intensive to keep working on a good messaging system than profit.

There were problems I found with Signal as well which could be seen as pros and cons: * Wanting my phone number and a smart phone - I would prefer the app to be web/desktop first with good smart phone solution and tied to a username/password even though I said above that it's one less piece of contact detail (pro and probably how they decided they would get a faster traction) but on the con side - it ties me to mobile operators. Good news is that it's now relatively easy to change mobile operators and keep the number in EU. * Long time syncing messages - due to the way protocol works as far as I understand (I haven't read the whole thing yet) * No history (or hard to get) of messaging upon changing devices/reinstalling OS - both a pro and a con. On the one side I rarely need history of messages so I am okay, on the other it makes other people less likely to join. Which defeats the purpose of a messaging app. * Non-federated protocol - the Signal server(s) still seem like Single point of failure * But for now, I can live with this cons until either they are fixed, I find workarounds (backup history service? background syncing of messages? it's open source after all, maybe I can look into something...) or I find another service which has more complete set of features and am more sure of the organization/company values.

How about the rest of digital life

I made some aggregations of my web history of domains and I found what i expected. I have the other probably 70% of what I do online in Google services - online search is in their service of course, Google Chrome, music and video entertainment on YouTube, my email is in Gmail, this blog is in Blogger, Google Music has my old mp3 music, Drive has pretty much everything document and project wise, Keep for notes, Photos has all my photos.


Other than that, my code lives in GitLab/GitHub, I use HN, reddit for news.

Is Google just as evil as Facebook?

Probably not but I still have put a tremendous trust in one company.

I am not convinced that Google is just as bad yet. Maybe. But what I feel is that being a fanboy of Google for a non-trivial amount of time and putting almost all of my digital life there was (probably) a dumb move. And I want to work towards decentralizing this data from Google even if I mostly trust them so far, it's convenient to have it backed up automatically and accessible from everywhere. I traded convenience for personal data. Common thing I guess.

This project is going to take months, if not years. The bottleneck of the solution I believe are my own habits. Technological solutions do exist and I can pretty quickly download and upload it at different places. But this will just move the problem, not really solve it. Or even probably complicate it more.

What can I do?

The Martian taught me to think in a certain way of "what's going to kill me first", then Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth confirmed that this is indeed how astronauts think. And who doesn't admire astronauts?!

Start with the biggest offenders by impact, one at a time and move to the next one. * I have started switching slowly to Firefox for the past year or so. I don't have exact metrics yet but I think I maybe have around 70:30 Chrome:Firefox relationship. I want try to balance this a bit more, Firefox 57+ (post-Quantum) is really awesome! * Search (I think) is the hardest to get rid of and used the most day-by-day. But most of my searches are around programming documentation and land on either the project documentation website or stackoverflow questions. My first stab will be to try to use site-specific searches instead of the general Google search silo. So for example, go on stackoverflow and use its search whenever it's a programming problem first. It's an idea I haven't tried and am curious how good it would be. I thought about DuckDuckGo but I couldn't make it work in the past. Let's see if this can work. * Move the blog to my own thing. I've wanted that for a long time and I know there are off-the-shelf solutions but I want my own solution for fun. * The rest of my data will take more time and I need to focus on these first and figure out the rest later. Without focus, doing 50 things won't help. And as I said, the biggest bottleneck is my own habits, will, discipline and focus.

Will it work

I am definitely not an astronaut. In fact, I think I am quite bad at following these cool on paper plans. I am a bit of a control freak and this might just be a phase that I want to get back control. Not sure. This post is as much for me to remind myself that I have wanted this in the past if I go with the flow or screw up this project in some way.

Let's see what happens.