How To: The Tech Break-Up

A break-up movie poster, with Twitter substitute
Yes, you have what it takes to leave.

Admit it: we're in intimate relationships with all kinds of devices, services, and tech companies. We count on them hundreds of times a day in our daily lives, for something to watch, someone to talk to, a ride someplace, and more. Chances are you sleep with your cell phone.

That's why leaving a tech service is like leaving a relationship.  Essentially, it's a break up

I'm not the first person to talk about breaking up with a technology. I do take the analogy pretty far, though: I've developed it into a step-by-step program.  There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but in my view there are just four steps to leaving a tech company.

Set Yourself Free

Just like leaving a partner, the best and most long-lasting breakups are planned. Blow up and leave in the heat of the moment and you may soon find yourself crawling back. That's because really breaking up, for good, means adjusting your habits. You can do it, but it takes planning to execute well.

You'll also battle against the comfort of staying put even when you know things are bad. You'll wonder if something better is truly out there. There's that feeling of uncertainty as you set out alone, the fear that stops you from taking the plunge. That uncertainty doesn't mean it's wrong to leave. Joy may be right around the corner--with a different service, even!--but you won't find it unless you take that first step.

I used my Break Up technique to leave Google in 2012, Facebook in 2016, my iPhone in 2017, and many more.  You can use this technique for Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, whatever service you choose. Just know it is possible, it's doesn't make you a Luddite, and it's not the end of the world. You can live in line with your values, online. 

So here is my hard-won, step-by-step guide to leaving a technological system behind, for good. Use it on the next tool or service you're ready to leave in the lurch. 

Step 1. Don't forget your sweater.

You storm out angrily, toss the key in the trash, vow you'll never return. It's the last straw, and you're through this time--for good. The night chill finally seeps into your skin, and you realize... you forgot your sweater. Your favorite sweater. The one your grandmother knit for you before she died. Do you go back and retrieve it, get stuck in the "I'm sorry, baby"'s or "It'll be better next time, I promise"? Or do you move on with your life?

Don't put yourself in this position! If you're going to leave, take your stuff with you. Most platforms and services allow you to download the information they have about you. Take your time and do an inventory. What do they have that you need? 

Maybe it's your friends' phone numbers, email addresses, or birthdays. Record them elsewhere or write them down in a diary. Maybe it's your community's announcements. Sign up for an alternative mail list so you stay in the know. Maybe it's all your photos. Download them, and delete. Maybe you've built up a huge, influencer-style following. Prepare your invitation to them to migrate with you, elsewhere. Remember, you can take it with you.

Most of the major services have instructions on how to download your data: here are instructions from Google, Instagram, Twitter and Spotify for starters. It's a good idea to do this, but don't expect the data to be in a usable format. You should still transfer key data--contacts, calendars, photos, whatever it is--manually to other systems.

Note that calendars and contacts can be put into standardized file formats to transfer them to other systems:".ics" files for calendars and ".vcf" files for contacts. Every system will allow you to export this data separately, to save it to your computer. Then you can import to a system of your choice when you've gone through Step 2.

Leaving Chrome for Firefox? It's about time! It's easy to import your bookmarks and passwords. Click the link and Mozilla will walk you through it.

What are you waiting for? You can start right now. Get a piece of paper, and write down what you need. What's stopping you from leaving? What's on that system you won't want to leave without? What would keep you coming back for one more thing when you know you really shouldn't?  Then retrieve it.

Whatever you do, don't leave without your sweater.

Step 2. Play the Field.

There are lots of alternative services out there! Instead of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, start by doing your research and investigating alternatives. And don't just jump into another frying pan. Breakups aren't just about leaving: they also allow us to reflect on and choose our technical bedfellows more judiciously. So if you've decided to leave Facebook for Instagram, well, let's just say you didn't do your homework.

Looking for an online Amazon alternative? How about, a B-corp that gives kickbacks to independent bookstores with every purchase. Your local bookstore might also deliver or have a service for locals. Not excited about Elon Musk buying Twitter? Try out Mastodon, the social network that can't, technically speaking, belong to anyone.

Some systems are a little more time consuming to replace than others.  Like Google, for instance. You might use them for a range of services like search, for email, and Maps, contacts, and of course YouTube. Maybe you even run Android. Google is counting on being so essential to your life that you won't pull the plug on them.

It takes a little more time, but you can line up alternatives for all of these features. When I left Google, I tried out lots of different search engines before settling on a few I really like. I experimented with lots of options for maps, email, and more. I write more about my preferred Google options here. I've been a Google conscientious objector for ten years, so there are many more tools I love that don't fit on that page: expect more posts to come.

Finally, opting out is also about reflecting on what you'd prefer in a technical partnership. It helped me to know why I was leaving Google--I didn't like their privacy policy change-- so I wouldn't just fall back into bed with yet another platform giant.  So instead of asking which service was "better," I started asking: "better at what?" If the answer is, "better at keeping my data where I own it and it doesn't fuel a twisted dystopian future," then Google lost every time, no matter how cool, fast, or useful Streetview is.

3. Resist Manipulation

Platforms get really, really sneaky. They don't want you to leave. They send cryptic emails. They leave environmentally-friendly messages on your empty inbox. They'll make you feel regret, pity, anguish, fear, anger--whatever it takes to get you back and clicking again.

It's the worst kind of ploy from a manipulative lover. Fortunately, it's also just about the oldest trick in the book. You've seen it in movies and TV shows, it happened to you or your friend in high school, whatever--you can see it coming.

Once you know it's coming, you can call a spade a spade. Steel your heart against the emotional onslaught. Remind yourself, they don't actually care about you, just your data. Close the tab, and move on.

4. Don't make up-- Break up!

Now you actually need to take the plunge. You've identified the systems you will use instead, saved all your data on a hard drive under your pillow.  Now you have to change your habits. Like a smoker trying to quit who doesn't quite know what to do with his hands at coffee break, there will be moments in your everyday routine where you will reach for that online service--and regret it later.

Maybe you scrolled happily on Twitter on the train on your way to work every day. Maybe TikTok is the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you check at night. Maybe you always reach for your phone instead of your wallet to order, pay for, and pick up your coffee. 

Don't mistake the difficulty of changing your habits for regret over your break up. Make it easier by changing your habits, one at a time.

One option is to make it harder to go back to your old favorites, and easier to choose the new path.  Change your start page and search engine on your browser: replace with or Delete the Instagram app from your phone and download Pixelfed instead.  Blow away Google Maps and bookmark OpenStreetMap or OrganicMaps. If you make it hard to go back and easier to move forward, you'll move forward.

Another is to make it into a game. Whenever I found myself craving Google, I stopped and asked myself if I couldn’t get it done some other way. When my thumb hovered over the spot on my phone where that big blue F was, I called a friend or picked up an old hobby instead. After a while, it felt like a game – a game I enjoyed playing. A game I felt I was winning.

You can also try good old positive reinforcement. Reward yourself for your achievements (a week with no Twitter = ice cream!). Don't set the goal too high, just celebrate your successes as they come.

Either way, I recommend you don't fully delete your profile, or your account, until you have made big strides toward changing your habits. Like, 80% there. 

Don't get me wrong: your goal is total departure. I don't mean, not logging in anymore or letting an account lie fallow. I mean, you are going to DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT. However, if you delete too rapidly, before your alternative ecosystem is in place and your habits have shifted, you're likely to feel the regret that brings you back. And trust me, like all manipulative lovers, the platforms' deactivation links all come with a grace period. They're counting on you coming back.

You're going to prove them wrong.

Step 4-1/2. The Ties that Bind

Okay, not quite 4 steps: let's make it four and a half. In my opt out experiments I've learned there are special rules for social media platforms. These systems don't just provide some kind of product, like looking at photos. They do so by piggybacking on your social relationships. You're looking at photos with your friends, exchanging comments and likes. You know what to say if someone in your social circle asks if you saw that viral video on TikTok.  All your friends are on WhatsApp and your professional contacts are on LinkedIn.

In these cases, the system has become a middleman in your relationships. And like a toxic matchmaker, it doesn't want to let go.

These systems are especially hard to leave. Sometimes they are outright manipulative, using your friends to guilt you back into leaving. When I tried to leave Facebook, the system showed me photos of my friends to say they would miss me if I left. It also sent me cryptic emails, with embedded links that logged me right back in again.  Because these manipulations are tied to your friends, your social relations, your work, your social capital, they are especially difficult to dodge.

I've been there, so trust me. You won't lose face when you lose Facebook.

Remember that your friends are your friends, online and off. You can be friends offline--what we used to call "IRL." You can find them on alternative systems. You can even ask them to join you. Put an away message up that says, "I left WhatsApp, join me on Signal," or "I left Twitter, join me on Mastodon here".  If you're really worried about it you can write down their phone numbers or email addresses and--gasp--just call them.

Seriously, your friends will be keen to talk to you whether you're on their platform or not. So will your mom.

One hard-won tip, though. When you leave a social system, remember what everyone else is using that infrastructure for, and find an alternative for that. Maybe you need a personal website to take the place of your professional LinkedIn profile. In my case, after I went off Facebook, I went from eight hundred and two cheery (if repetitious) "Happy Birthday!"'s on my wall to three phone calls. Solution: I made a calendar invitation on my birthday, set it to "repeat yearly," and sent it to my closest friends.  Problem solved.

Be gentle--but firm

Leaving a tech company is a process that may take some trial and error. That's why it's helpful to go through the steps above--of figuring out your needs, identifying alternatives, and changing your habits--before you click DELETE. Don't beat yourself up if it takes time to do it right. Better to walk out and never look back.

Because once you do, you will feel liberated. You don't have to care about what everyone else is doing on this or that platform. You washed that tech right outta your hair and sent it on its way. You and your tech alternatives are at the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Congratulations--you just opted out.