After yet another round of revelations about Facebook’s use of customer data, Basecamp has decided to become 100% Facebook-free. We’ve actually been off Facebook proper for a while, but on Wednesday we decided to remove the company from Instagram and WhatsApp as well. This is a conversation with Basecamp’s CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, about making that decision and why he thinks you should follow in Basecamp’s footsteps.
The Full Transcript:
Shaun: [00:00:00] Welcome to yet another special bonus episode of Rework. We don’t usually have three episodes in a single week and right before the holidays nonetheless, but Basecamp recently made a pretty big decision and we wanted to get it out there to y’all right away.
[00:00:15] So, after this most recent round of privacy abuses by the garbage fire that is Facebook, Basecamp has decided to leave the platform entirely. This includes our use of Instagram and WhatsApp as well. What follows is a conversation I had with Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson about making that decision and why other businesses might consider taking similar steps. So enjoy.
David: [00:00:42] Yeah. So I’ve been, how to put it, skeptical of Facebook and what it’s doing to the world, and what it’s doing even to our world and how we fit in it for a long time. A couple of years back, we ran a series of advertisements on Facebook to promote Basecamp. And when we started doing that, it was almost just as an automatic thing. This is what you do. You have an online business, you buy ads, click ads, like this. This is the thing to do. You target, you do all these things. And we didn’t have to run that campaign for very long until I started feeling like this doesn’t feel right. And I couldn’t quite put my finger on it because even though this is a couple of years back, Facebook already didn’t have exactly a great reputation for protecting users privacy and so forth. All the pieces hadn’t been put together.
[00:01:38] And I think that that’s really what’s changed just recently. Perhaps even just this year, was that it wasn’t so much just that the single event that happened. Although there was a sparking event, this latest report by The New York Times, that Facebook had allowed a variety of companies access to users’ private messages was just a straw, right? Like the camel was already so overloaded that it took just this single final straw for it to break. And to put the whole thing in perspective and realize, what are we doing here? Why are we helping Facebook in any way to sustain this regime of innovation? Why, why do we need to do that?
[00:02:25] I mean Basecamp in such a prosperous, a privileged position that we… Well, we don’t need to do anything. But, we certainly don’t need to continue to patronize Facebook in any way, shape, or form either through use of Facebook directly, which we had actually stopped a couple of years back. Neither through buying ads, which would also stop some few years back. But even things like Instagram, we had an active Instagram account for Basecamp, which was really nice.
It was done by Joan and she did a wonderful job. It was funny, it was quirky. I liked the post when I was still on Instagram, and still using Instagram. But all this was feeding into the machine. Every single time you use Instagram or Facebook, or to a lesser extent, perhaps, WhatsApp, you feeding into the machine. You’re teaching it things. You’re giving it ammunition to shoot at everyone else with and that just, we don’t need to arm that machine and already has what, 2.2 billion people arming it every single day.
[00:03:29] So, we wanted to say stop, and we wanted to simply just express our discontent with the state of things because—part of this word isn’t the single point at the end that kind of tips things over is that it’s an accumulation factor. When you’ve heard Zuckerberg or Sandberg or some PR flack from the company for the 25th time go out and say exactly the same thing. Oh, we’re sorry this happened.
[00:03:55] Like just, was it last week when they were apologizing in the same generic way for exposing 8.5 million people’s private photos to app developers? Oh, we’re sorry this happened. You can only say sorry so many times in a row before it rings really hollow.
Shaun: [00:04:15] Yeah.
David: [00:04:16] And before people start going like, you know what? I don’t believe you. And that’s really the conclusion, right? I don’t believe anything you say. I mean, it’s funny, I was talking to Jamie, my wife yesterday about this persistent theory amongst some people that Facebook, for example, is using the microphone to listen to people’s conversations and use that to target ads. And I’ve read several technical debunks of that theory where they go like, oh, actually we’ve talked to people like they’re not actually doing this. At this point, I’m like, I know that, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow there’s going to be a report out saying, oh, actually in 2013 when the permissions on Android, were kind of lax, they did this.
[00:05:02] They totally listen to all your conversations and they used contextual analysis to target ads based on that, and…
Shaun: [00:05:08] It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear that now.
David: [00:05:11] It wouldn’t, right? Like, it would be totally in character with the kind of company that Facebook is. And why wait, first of all, why wait for that? I mean there’s no reason to wait for anything. All the stuff that’s actually out there and acknowledged and confirmed by the company itself is despicable enough. And just like we advocate at Basecamp that you vote with your dollars, I think you need to vote with your attention. You need to vote with your input. You need to vote with your presence. And by being present on Facebook or Instagram or any other Facebook property, you’re voting for that company. You’re voting for more Facebook by using and being part of the system.
[00:05:50] And we didn’t want to vote for any more Facebook. The world has more Facebook than it knows what to do with. And, in fact the world would be a better place if it had a whole heck of lot less Facebook.
Shaun: [00:06:01] Why not Twitter as well?
David: [00:06:04] Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And one of the ways I’ve sort of put it in my mind, is, first of all the bigger question of not just Facebook versus Twitter versus whatever, but where does the line go? Like how bad does the company have to get before you go, this is bullshit. I’m out. And I think that’s a really interesting question and I love sort of pontificating on that, but I also find that it’s a paralyzing question. It’s an excuse for not doing anything until you can clarify exactly where this line is supposed to go, you can excuse yourself for not acting.
[00:06:43] You can like, oh, everything is terrible, so nothing is terrible so I don’t have to do anything, so I can just continue to do whatever the fuck it is that I want to do all the time. Yeah. Do you know what? I don’t find that very helpful. So this quest for finding the exact line of where that is and how we should define it and how every other company in the world is related to that line is for me, secondary to the point of saying, you know what? Wherever the line is, Facebook is over it. Far over it.
Shaun: [00:07:15] Yeah.
David: [00:07:15] And I also likened it to the example we had with Uber a while back… a couple of years ago. Also, we said we don’t want to patronize Uber anymore. Now, I think that there is a bunch of problems with the ride sharing industry and the gig economy as a whole that all companies operating within that have exposure to.
[00:07:38] But that doesn’t mean that Uber, the company, is the same as Lyft, the company. And it doesn’t mean because you’re revolted by the tactics and approaches and culture of Uber that you also have to then say, well, I can’t use anything. And that Lyft falls into that pocket as well.
[00:07:56] And that’s really where I see it with Twitter and Facebook is that Twitter just hasn’t been caught in the same amount of shit. Yes, they operate in the same general world of selling somewhat targeted ads to people who use the services and they profit in similar ways around negativity and so forth. And Twitter has all sorts of issues, too, but there’s not this sort of malignant force, in my opinion, of the same caliber and the same impact and the same reach. Facebook just seemed uniquely over the line so many times. So repeatedly that it actually is very reminiscent of what kept spilling out of the Uber closet because that’s really the same thing with Facebook too.
[00:08:44] It’s not just that we’re learning today about things that happened yesterday. It’s the fact that journalists and sources are finally diving into what’s been going on for the past five, six, 10 years at the company. And we keep getting these stories that come out. Oh yeah. In 2014 they did this, in ‘17 they did that and then in ‘12 they did this.
[00:09:05] And you now just have enough of a cohesive picture to say this is just nasty in a way that I don’t think that the picture’s anywhere remotely close to that for something like Twitter. So it doesn’t mean you’re giving Twitter a pass and it doesn’t mean the things don’t need to improve above the board. But, it’s also a reflection where you can stifle any action by requiring that you have to make the entire world better in one fell swoop to do anything. That ,unless you’re willing to go be a hermit and live in the forest and not have an internet connection, you can’t take any action against any individual company on an individual level.
[00:09:49] And I think that that’s not a helpful frame either. And I think it also belittles the idea that we can encourage companies to do better by having Twitter hopefully watch the backlash against Facebook. They presumably would go, you know what? We kind of don’t want to be in those shoes. Right? Kind of the same thing that happened when United when through their crisis, after beating up a passenger and dragging them off an airplane. All the other airlines went, you know what? We need to revise our policies. We don’t want to go through that.
[00:10:23] Whether that were for just corporate defensive ideas or it was for more benign and morally upstanding ideas, that we want to make sure we’re not the kind of airline that pulls people bloodedly off the plane. I think that kind of atmosphere does help and it does set a tone of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
[00:10:49] And to have that conversation, you have to start at the place where there’s the most harm with the broadest reach. And I think Facebook absolutely qualifies.
Shaun: [00:11:00] Could you see a scenario where Twitter gets bad enough in your eyes that we would pull off it? You know, I get worried about the way it handles a sort of abuse. It’s been kind of, a little shady about banning and not banning certain accounts.
David: [00:11:14] Absolutely. I think you should hold your options open on every single company in the world. If they continue to flagrantly abuse the trust the users or customers have in them or if they continue to be grossly negligent, you should do something about that and you should at the very least vote with your dollars, with your attention, with your presence.
Shaun: [00:11:36] Yeah.
David: [00:11:36] And it’s also a sliding scale to some extent where, again, you can take action on some of this where other people that are not.
[00:11:46] Like we have different lines in the sand and for some people, um, Twitter, for example, I’m sure for some would be viewed at perhaps even worse than Facebook. And I think that’s totally fair and I would support that everyone makes up their own mind in that regard. For us, what we’ve made up our mind about is that Facebook is just uniquely nasty in our perspective and we don’t want to patronize that company or its subsidiaries anymore. So, we’re pulling the plug on our involvement and we’re just encouraging everyone else to reflect on that. That doesn’t mean that everyone else should do that or even can do that. As I talked about in the beginning, we are a little bit in the privileged position where yes, we used Facebook products to some extent, but certainly not as much as other companies. And we are in a different, perhaps more privileged, perhaps more luxurious position where we can afford to cut this off without decimating our business.
[00:12:44] There are other businesses that are held at far greater ransom by Facebook with regards to access to their audience and to their customers. Where their business is—that 80% of their referrals depend on Facebook or Instagram. And, in those cases, yeah, they can’t be the first on the barricades, which is all the more reason for the companies like ours who do have the privilege and who do have the opportunity to make a move like this without killing our business, that we do. We have to step up first and then hopefully in time there’s going to be enough of a momentum and there’s going to be enough of a change that, it’s going to be easier for other companies who currently can’t, to do what they would like to do.
[00:13:33] Because that’s really the number one response I’ve gotten actually to this campaign. It’s not that other companies wouldn’t like to do so. In fact, I’d go as far as to say 95% of the responses I’ve heard from people who said, I can’t do this right now. It’s not that I don’t want to do this or I actually think Facebook is great or I think what they’re doing is not a big deal. It’s that I would get crushed if I do it. It’s fear.
[00:13:54] It’s not inspiration. It’s not hope. It’s not support. It’s fear. It’s fear that their company and their ability to reach customers is going to get crushed by this monopolist in their industry. One of the examples, for example, I heard from someone in sort of the beauty world where a lot of the energy just is around Instagram and pulling off Instagram is and would be incredibly difficult for them. And I totally sympathize with it and it just gives me even more impetus and motivation to do something and along the fringes. And that’s the other thing to sort of think about this, that the goal of something like a Facebook-Free business campaign is not that we’d go from like 2.2 billion people using Facebook to zero people using Facebook.
[00:14:44] That’s never going to happen. But a lot of the interesting change in society and perceptions, they haven’t happened at the margins. It happened by a few people deciding to take a stand and then that changes the conversation and hopefully influences the conversation, and that in turn leads to better things that actually have a realistic chance of making a systemic change like regulation that that’s ultimately where we need to be. That Facebook is not going to probably change its ways just because there’s a handful of privileged businesses who decided to say, well we don’t need to use Facebook so we’re going to stop using Facebook. No, it’s going to happen through legislative action.
Shaun: [00:15:24] Yeah.
David: [00:15:24] But that legislative action happens as a result of pressure building and you build pressure in part by forming coalitions and groups and campaigns that are out there shouting about what’s wrong and taking action to support it.
Shaun: [00:15:38] So can you tell me more about this campaign? About the the No Facebook campaign?
David: [00:15:42] So I think even campaign is a big word. What is this? It’s a blog post and it’s a commitment from our side. I’m simply saying we don’t want any more to do with this. We want to be a Facebook-Free business. And if anyone else wants to sign up along that, great. If no one else wants to sign up about that around that, that’s also okay. You all have to make your own decisions. We’ve just, between Jason and I, made the decision that for Basecamp, this is what’s good and right for us. And we want to let people know, we want to let our customers know and we want them to make choices accordingly.
[00:16:21] So we just started at the simplest possible level that we could, which was to make our position known and invite others to join up if they so pleased. And even if the way they join up is more in spirit than in action, I think that that’s still meaningful. That we’re making other people aware that there’s a conversation going on here about the role Facebook is playing in our lives. Whether it’s in commerce and privacy or individually or on a societal basis.
[00:16:49] And some people are taking a stand, an that can help sort of provide a mirror for you to reflect on your own views about Facebook. And, maybe you learn something, maybe you change your mind, maybe you don’t. I think that’s all good because at the end of the day we want to be, we want to take the change that we want to see in the world.
[00:17:12] So, if I’m walking around thinking, oh Geez, I really wish that Facebook didn’t have the power that it does, I really wish it didn’t have the stronghold and the stranglehold that it does. I have to start with me. And that’s really perhaps the sort of initial step that both Jason and I took were… Both of us had been on Facebook for a long time. I think both of us quit Facebook in like 2010, 2011. But then both of us had been on Instagram for a while. I had a pretty active Instagram account and so did Jason and we just reached a conclusion again that we didn’t want to do that individually. So, we were already kind of primed. Right? Jason and I were sympathetic to the idea that Facebook and its properties, were not just universally good for the world and they weren’t even good on an individual level for either of us. And we made the decision to get off.
Shaun: [00:18:07] So, you’re personally off Instagram as well?
David: [00:18:08] Yes. Which is also, I mean kind of kind of recently, right? Like I’ve, I had been on Instagram when it first launched and then I was on it for a little while and then I quit it over another controversy back in 2012, I think it was. And then I got back on in 2015 and it was just, it was a different Instagram. I wrote this up on SvN in a post called Regretstagram where I basically just go over, well I don’t like how Facebook, or how Instagram is making me feel. It was not so much about the privacy violations or the corporate conduct of the ownership from Facebook as it was about, I’m not sure I like what this is doing to society at large and I’m pretty sure I don’t like what it’s doing to me as an individual. So, I just took the choice, which was kind of hard, right? Like you… I had invested a fair amount of time. I think I posted, maybe it’s like a thousand pictures of something and I build up a following of, I don’t know, 35,000 followers or something. And that feels like it means something in the moment. Now, I’ve stepped away from it and I haven’t, uh, posted on Instagram for I think about two months and I turned the account off for people to even view it and now, it seems so silly.
[00:19:21] I was like, why did I even care about that? And I think that that’s one of the things that’s sort of a healthy for everyone. I think just to step out of your context or your environment, your daily environment for a moment. And that gives you some space to reflect on what you’re actually doing and the space that giving Instagram a break was that like, yeah, I don’t actually really like this.
[00:19:47] And I don’t think you get to have those insights if you just, if you’re in it, if you’re on the track of scrolling through your Instagram feed an hour every day, or whatever. You’re not going to take that step back, and realize actually what is it doing to me, and so forth. And that’s why I really liked the book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, because it was really that book that instigated that I started taking breaks from social media in a more deliberate sense where I would just say, okay, for a week I’m not going to check Twitter. For a week, I’m not going to check Instagram, or whatever. And it was really interesting because I came to the realization that both Instagram and Twitter, they’re called social media, but for me they were very different things and I missed the intellectual stimulation from Twitter so much more than I missed the hedonic pleasures of either posting or perusing Instagram.
[00:20:50] And that just taught me something about myself that I thought was interesting and something for me to act on. Cutting Instagram out of my daily routine and my life had had very little sustained impact and had a bunch of benefits like, well, time back and attention back and all these other things versus engaging on Twitter gave me something. It also has a bunch of problems, I should say. Abuse is a huge one of them.
[00:21:22] And I get to enjoy Twitter in a way that a lot of other people don’t get to enjoy Twitter. Um, if you’re a woman on Twitter and you’re saying remotely controversial things, you get a very different Twitter than I get as a guy saying controversial things on Twitter. I mean, the worst that I get is like, oh, you’re stupid. Like, I’m not going to buy your product or very mild, tame stuff. Versus, whenever I go looking through the mentions of a prominent women on Twitter, you just go like, what the, what hellscape on earth is this? So.
Shaun: [00:22:00] Finally, if people want to join the “campaign”, where can they head to?
David: [00:22:04] So we have an SvN post. It’s called Facebook-Free Business or Become a Facebook-Free Business, I think. If you go on the SignalvNoise.com web blog, there’s a link to that post. And in that post, Adam, our marketing designer, made a wonderful badge that you can put on your site or put in your Twitter feed or put wherever you like, or print it, or remix it, or do what you want. We released it under the Creative Commons license. So it’s yours to play with and it’s modeled on this idea of 100% hormone free beef. Basically saying 100% Facebook-Free business that you can rest assured that a business that signs up behind his label and at least is honest to its values, is not going to take the money that you give them and pass that onto Facebook.
Shaun: [00:22:59] Yeah.
David: [00:22:59] So, that just spells out like what does that mean? What does it mean to be 100% Facebook-Free business? And how we defined it in the post was basically three things. It means that you’re not buying ads on Facebook, on Messenger, on Instagram or on WhatsApp. It means that you’re not using any of those platforms to communicate with customers. You’re not maintaining a profile on any of those platforms and you basically just, you don’t have anything to do with them. And finally that you’re not using any of the Facebook trackers, like their Like buttons or the Facebook logins as part of your business, whether it’s an app or a shopper or what have you. That those trackers are not feeding to Facebook, data machine with more data. So, basically that, that Facebook and its subsidiaries have nothing to do with your business. That’s the deal.
Shaun: [00:23:54] That reminds me, I should probably take those share links off of Rework.fm.
David: [00:23:59] That would be a great idea. Let’s do that—
Shaun: [00:24:02] I’ll do that right now actually.
David: [00:24:04] Yes. We just yanked them off… actually, Basecamp.com still had some references to I think Facebook, even though we haven’t been on Facebook in a couple of years.
Shaun: [00:24:12] Right?
David: [00:24:12] So it’s a good time to just clean house, but I think it’s even more urgent when it comes to the Facebook trackers because that’s part of what’s literally feeding the tracking machine, right? That you’re telling Facebook, hey, this person was in your website for so and so long, and they did this, and they did that and they felt that, and they’re using all that data against people. And why would you want to participate in that?
Shaun: [00:24:35] Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you for coming on and talking this through and we’ll have you back in a little bit when we leave Medium.
David: [00:24:43] Excellent. Yes. That is coming up, too.
Shaun: [00:24:45] Let’s do the same show.
David: [00:24:48] It’s been—pretty much. A little milder show, I think, but cool. Yeah.
Shaun: [00:24:52] Awesome. Thank you, David.
David: [00:24:55] All right, later.
Shaun: [00:24:56] Bye.