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Pluralistic: 19 Sep 2022 How to ditch Facebook without ditching your friends


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The header graphic for 'How to ditch Facebook without losing friends,' a circle with a stylized flowchart linking a megaphone, a gear, a flywheel and a cloud.

How to ditch Facebook without ditching your friends (permalink)

Facebook users claim to hate the service, but they keep using it, leading many to describe Facebook as "addictive." But there's a simpler explanation: people keep using Facebook though they hate it because they don't want to lose their connections to the people they love.

Calling Facebook "addictive" plays into the company's own mythology, the sales-pitch they make to advertisers, in which they claim to be neuro-sorcerers whose mastery of "big data" and "dopamine loops" can sell anything to anyone, which is why you should buy ads on their service.

The simpler explanation – that Facebook is holding the people you love hostage, and you'll put up with a bad situation in order to stay connected to them – has many advantages over the "evil sorcerer" hypothesis. For starters, it doesn't require that you accept Facebook's own self-serving and improbable claims about having invented a mind-control ray. Instead, the "hostage-taking" explanation rests on a visible, easily verified fact: if you leave Facebook, the service won't let you send messages to the people who stay behind.

Economists have a name for this: "switching costs," this being everything you have to give up when you switch from one service to another. Internally, Facebook's product managers are very frank that they deliberately design their products to have the highest possible switching costs:

Here's how their thinking goes: if leaving Facebook is easy, then we have to treat our users well or they'll go somewhere else. But if leaving Facebook is painful, then they'll stick around, even if we abuse them. The higher the switching costs are, the worse we can treat our users without risking their departure.

Now, digital technology has intrinsically low switching-costs, because the only digital computer we know how to build – a Turing-complete Von Neumann machine – can run every program we know how to write. Someone can always figure out how to plug something new into something old.

Plugging something new into something old is called interoperability. There's no real technical barrier to plugging a new service into Facebook, so that you could quit Facebook, join the new service, and continue to send messages to the friends you left behind. If Facebook was federated with lots of non-Facebook services, the switching costs would plummet.

Facebook might treat its users better if they could leave. But even if Facebook's notoriously awful corporate culture meant that it continued to abuse its users despite falling switching costs, it wouldn't matter as much, because those users could easily leave Facebook and find a better service.

That hypothetical "interoperable Facebook" is the subject of a new white paper and narrated slideshow I've just launched with EFF, called "How to Ditch Facebook Without Losing Friends."

The impetus for this project was our collective frustration with the implementation of the EU Digital Markets Act, an otherwise very promising interoperability law that will force all kinds of tech companies to lower switching costs by offering APIs to rivals:

The DMA is incredibly promising, but the implementation could create chaos and discredit the idea of interop altogether, thanks to the decision to start with mandating interop in end-to-end encrypted ("E2EE") messaging services like Whatsapp and Imessage.

The thing is, secure, encrypted messaging is hard to do well, and even minor errors in E2EE can expose all users of the service (not just in the EU) to risk. There are deep-pocketed, vicious cyber-mercenaries like the NSO Group who weaponize these tiny, subtle errors to make interception tools for the world's worst dictatorships.

Cyber-weapons like NSO's Pegasus are used to attack opposition figures, human rights workers and journalists. Pegasus was key to the Saudi government's kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.

Making interoperable E2EE is a great idea, but it's a long-term standardization project that must proceed with the utmost caution, and the DMA imposes an unrealistic timeline on interop for E2EE. I think they're either going to miss that deadline, or, worse, press on with an immature standard despite security risks.

It's a little baffling that the EU would start with E2EE, given the difficulty – especially when interoperable social media is such an obvious way to shatter the market power of the largest tech companies in the world.

I have a theory, though: I think that every EU policymaker has experienced interoperable messaging through SMS. If you've used your Dutch phone in Brussels to send a message to a German colleague having a vacation in Spain, it's easy to imagine a multi-vendor, seamless, interoperable messaging system.

The problem is that SMS is a dumpster-fire, an absolute security disaster that has been compromised over and over again in increasingly horrible ways. SMS works well, sure, but it fails very badly.

Meanwhile, interoperable, federated social media was snuffed out decades ago, with the death of Usenet (enclosed and suffocated by Google) and the enclosure of blogs and other promising successors. It's likely that the decision-makers who decided to start with E2EE have never experienced federated social media and have no easy way to imagine what it would be like.

Hence this "interoperable Facebook" project. We describe how federated social media would work:

A dialog box confirming account migration from Facebook

  • How you would move your account from Facebook to an interoperable platform run by a co-op, nonprofit or startup;

A dialog box seeking a user's consent to maintain a connection to an off-platform user
A dialog box allowing a user to set universal preferences for off-platform communications

  • How your friends' consent to send their messages to you would be obtained;

A dialog box telling a user that members their service can't join a community
A dialog box warning that an off-platform user has been blocked for violating community standards
A dialog box telling FB users that an off-platform user has been blocked

  • How a federated service could impose different moderation policies than Facebook's, permitting things Facebook prohibits and vice-versa.

It's hard to imagine how interoperable social media might work, but some lawmakers have got their heads around the idea; the US ACCESS Act would create an interoperability mandate for social media.

Getting the ACCESS Act passed – and getting the DMA on track – will need lots of public support for the idea of interoperability as a way back from an internet composed of "five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four":

That's why we made this design fiction; to help people understand why we need interop, and how it would work. We need to get past the self-aggrandizing Big Tech story of evil sorcerers "addicting" us to their services and focus in on the real problem: Big Tech took everyone we love hostage inside their walled gardens. We need to smash those walls!

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Infosec advice for civil society

#15yrsago Brian Dettmer’s “Book Autopsies” — sliced book sculptures

#15yrsago Karl Schroeder’s Ventus now a free CC download

#15yrsago Mozilla creating a foundation to improve email

#15yrsago Head of US copyright says “DMCA does what it is supposed to do”

#15yrsago NYTimes kills its paywall: “Google visitors make more dough than subscribers”

#15yrsago Airport cops’ database includes your reading material

#15yrsago MediaDefender sends takedowns for leaked mail, gets savagely taunted

#15yrsago Harvard bookstore: Our prices are “property”

#10yrsago Thin-skinned, plagiarizing Philippines Senator criminalizes “libel” with last minute stealth-attack on cybercrime bill

#10yrsago Court to hear argument on the privacy implications of “junk” DNA databases

#10yrsago HOWTO be a good commenter

#10yrsago Scroogled: CC-licensed story about the day Google turned evil

#10yrsago Terrorists suck at terrorism

#10yrsago District Attorneys rent out their letterhead to debt collectors, split the shakedown loot

#10yrsago Turing and Burroughs: a beatnik SF novel by Rudy Rucker

#10yrsago A mandatory $180 art school textbook about “prehistory to 1800” with no pictures, thanks to a lack of mysterious “copyright clearances”

#10yrsago Obama 2012 campaign erases all previous civil liberties campaign guarantees

#5yrsago World Wide Web Consortium abandons consensus, standardizes DRM with 58.4% support, EFF resigns

#5yrsago Florida Power and Light lobbyists made it illegal to use solar during outages

#5yrsago Vancouver housing co-op rescinds family’s apartment because unborn child is a girl

#5yrsago No one wants to host the Olympics

#5yrsago Equifax was always dirty, it bills the US government for millions, and was repeatedly hacked

#5yrsago America’s dirtiest, biggest student lender neutralized by federal watchdog

#5yrsago Study shows mainstream press condemns Nazis and anti-racist activists at comparable rates

#5yrsago Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous: a robosexual romp through an unequal future where biotech patent-enforcement is the only law
#5yrsago California Democrats sell out online privacy in the dead of night

#5yrsago Dieselgate kills 5,000 Europeans per year

#5yrsago In California’s foreclosure valley, rents soar thanks to hedge fund landlords

#5yrsago Survey: Canadians are increasingly denying science, climate and vaccines

#5yrsago Turkish high school students will no longer be taught “controversial” evolutionary theory

#5yrsago Downtown LA: high vacancy rates and catastrophic homelessness

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Today's progress: 517 words (40974 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Friday's progress: 509 words (36853 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Sound Money

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

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The Ballad of Text Overflow

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The CSS text-overflow property can be used to show a visual indication for text that’s been clipped by its container.

I’m not a fan, and take every suitable opportunity to discourage people from using this property; though I rarely get enthusiastic support on that point. So I was very pleased to see someone else flying the same flag.

A recent article by Eric Eggert is quite critical of this property, since using it in web content can cause it to fail Success Criterion 1.4.10 Reflow:

Content can be presented without loss of information or functionality, and without requiring scrolling in two dimensions for:

  • Vertical scrolling content at a width equivalent to 320 CSS pixels;
  • Horizontal scrolling content at a height equivalent to 256 CSS pixels.

Except for parts of the content which require two-dimensional layout for usage or meaning.

If text has been truncated with text-overflow, then this is a loss of content, and therefore an instant failure of 1.4.10.

Although the article concedes the possibility of valid use cases, I would personally go a step further and say there are none — that text-overflow should never be used.

How text overflow is used

The text-overflow property itself does not truncate text, it only specifies how the truncation should be indicated when it does occur. So it’s used in combination with other properties that restrict and clip the boundaries of a container, typically width or max-width combined with overflow: hidden.

Here’s an example of the syntax:

li {
    max-width: 35vw;
    overflow: hidden;
    text-overflow: ellipsis;
    white-space: nowrap;

And here’s an example of what that can look like when it takes effect:

A text list in which each item is truncated using text-overflow, so you can only read the first two or three words of each link, followed by an ellipsis.
Showing text-overflow with a width-constrained list in a 640px viewport

The property value ellipsis is the most commonly used, and renders an ellipsis character () at the point of truncation, as you’d expect. This character (or whatever characters are specified) is included in the overall line-box limit, so the visual indicator itself further reduces the space available for the text, though only slightly.

The idea is that it can be used for containers with limited dimensions, so that single-line text within it doesn’t overlap the container in smaller viewports. It only works for single-line text, and can’t be used to truncate a multi-line paragraph.

However responsive layouts designed for small viewports also apply to larger viewports when viewed at high zoom (i.e. a 320px viewport at 100% zoom is functionally identical to a 1280px viewport at 400% zoom). So users who need large text to read effectively, such as people with low vision or a cognitive disability, may lose text content simply because of that need.

The same list viewed at 400% zoom, in which the text is so large that it's only possible to read the first few letters of each word.
Showing the same list in a 1280px viewport at 400% zoom

This is what makes it an accessibility issue, over and above the usability issue for small screen users.

Text truncated in this way might also fail Success Criterion 1.3.1 Info and Relationships. The truncation is purely a render effect — the full text is still in the DOM and accessibility tree — and no meta-data is exposed in the DOM to indicate where the break is. Arguably, this amounts to information or structure conveyed through presentation which cannot be programmatically determined. That would make it a 1.3.1 failure, but more importantly, it could be a problem for sighted screen reader users, when the spoken output no longer matches the visible text.

The potential for accessibility problems

Many CSS properties have the potential to cause accessibility problems, but that potential is rarely inherent to the property itself, it’s all about how you use it. Setting margin-left: -100vw on content that’s supposed to be visible will render it off-screen, which is an accessibility problem; but that doesn’t mean that margin itself is a problem.

Using overflow: hidden is a better comparison, because it has high potential for causing loss of text content. There are valid use-cases for it, but these are cases where either the loss of text content is intentional (i.e. for visually-hidden text), or where there’s no possibility of text content being lost (e.g. the element doesn’t have any text, or very little).

However text-overflow is inherently inaccessible, because its only purpose is to wave-through inaccessible design. In my view, this property should never have made it to the specification, it should have been rejected at the proposal stage.

Whenever overflow: hidden is used, it has to be carefully tested in various viewports and view sizes, to ensure there’s no possibility of text content being lost. But with text-overflow that testing is irrelevant, since the property only applies when text content has already been lost. If text-overflow kicks in, the design has already failed.

I think there are no valid use-cases for text-overflow unless the same text content is available elsewhere on the page; but if the content is available elsewhere, why is it duplicated here? If the intention is to create a short summary of longer content, then just write a short summary; it would read better anyway.

Wherefore art thou?

Ever-focused on solutions, I spent some time investigating whether content lost to text-overflow could be exposed in another way. But that doesn’t seem to be possible, at least not in any useful way.

Using a tooltip isn’t accessible, because title attributes are not available to keyboard or touch users. It is possible to make custom tooltips that support both keyboard and touch, but only for elements that are non-actionable, and are also in the Tab order. They have to be focusable to support keyboard users, but they also have to be non-actionable for touch users, since tapping the element would otherwise trigger its action. Having focusable elements which are not actionable is a source of potential confusion for keyboard and assistive technology users, because they seem like they should be actionable but just don’t work. And touch users are not likely to discover this functionality anyway; tooltips just aren’t a thing in touch interfaces.

Tooltips are not the answer.

Using aria-label is not the answer either, because it’s not visible, and therefore not available to most users who are not using assistive technology.

So then I wondered whether a scripted solution could create some kind of disclosure element, like, the ellipsis at the end being clickable and revealing the additional text. But how would it be revealed? We’ve already seen how a tooltip is not a viable solution, so it would have to be revealed by expanding the text inline.

That could work; it’s not exactly elegant or discoverable, but it could work.

But hang on … if there’s space to show the extra text inline, then why is it truncated in the first place? Using text truncation is not a positive design choice, it’s an emergency band-aid for designs that can’t properly handle overflowing content. Why would anyone want to make a feature out of that, it contradicts itself.

There’s no angle here. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

(Sorry pigs, you’re awesome and beautiful, but this is the most recognizable expression I could think of to make this point!)

Alternatives to text truncation

The real answer here is not to rely on text truncation at all.

Designs should be flexible enough to accommodate any content they might have, in any viewport size (from 320px), and any increases in zoom (up to 400%).

This is not as challenging as it might sound.

Ten years ago, with floats or flexbox, it was much more difficult. But modern CSS techniques, such as responsive grids, make it relatively easy to build highly adaptive layouts that can accommodate significant changes in content size, while still maintaining a tidy layout. This concept is sometimes referred to as “asymmetrical design”, i.e. design which embraces the fact that data is not neat or symmetrical, rather than trying to force it to be (like Apple do, cough).

Even with a fully responsive and flexible layout, there may still be cases where text overflow could occur, for example, where a container is relatively small by default but may also contain very long words. There are other, much more elegant and accessible techniques for handling these situations, for example:

  • The CSS word-break property can be used to control hard line-breaking, e.g. that long words should be split without hyphenation wherever this is necessary to avoid container overflow.
  • The soft-hyphen character (poetically named ­ in HTML) can be used to specify hyphenation points in long words, and don’t visibly render unless hyphenation is necessary. This is often used in combination with the CSS hyphens property, which can alternatively be used to let the browser calculate hyphenation points automatically.

Soft hyphens is the better solution, I think, at least for English-language content, because it’s easier to comprehend. I would use word breaking for technical content such as code, where dashes may appear as content and could be confused with hyphens.

But whatever solution you choose, remember that …


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