“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the internet.” So proclaimed Sean Parker in 2004 in his capacity as CEO of Facebook, the social networking autocrat which, at the time, was still in its infancy. Within less than eight years, 845 million people had created Facebook accounts, thus becoming – along with the estimated 530 million others who currently have Myspace, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles – part of the online community.

Illustration Grégoire Pleynet

From the announcement of your “online life” to the creation of a “virtual alter ego”, terms for this phenomenon abound, while their corresponding significance and long-term socio-cultural implications remain out of reach. After Generation X (Nirvana) and Generation Y (Web 1.0) comes Generation Facebook, who have… social media. (Pokes! Tags! Tweets!) With these digital social platforms, long-lost friends can be retrieved with a single mouse click, pictures and music can be shared, and following your favourite band or writer couldn’t be easier.

With two sides to every coin, the world of ‘online connecting’ entails about as many downsides as it does advantages, with the issue of privacy being just one of them. Although data protection may not be your main concern when sharing your first status update or a tweet, it generally doesn’t take long – at least for those who are willing to take a closer look at the eery connection between your recent internet searches and the ads that appear on your social network profile.

Should you decide you’ve had enough of being unscrupulously targeted by advertisers, you might come to the conclusion that it takes considerably more effort to ‘disconnect’ from the world of social networking than it does to sign up.

Should you decide you’ve had enough of being unscrupulously targeted by advertisers who freely make use of your personal and – what should be – private data, you might come to the conclusion that it takes considerably more effort to ‘disconnect’ from the world of social networking than it does to sign up. For example: even though your Facebook profile can easily be taken offline, thus making you invisible to others, Mark Zuckerberg and co. take for granted that you’ll soon regret it. By simply logging back on to your “disabled” account, you’ll find all your content and friends, seemingly untouched. As the Eagles put it: “You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Cue some heavy-duty manoeuvring: e-suicide. Erasing your entire online social history by individually de-friending every single one of the virtual buddies you’ve built up over the years and deleting all the content you once chose to share. As you watch your online life slip away, so does the time. Thoroughly wiping out a Facebook account of a few hundred friends can easily take nine hours of your precious time. In 2009, Rotterdam based art collective Moddr introduced a tool to circumvent this obstacle: the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. Despite intricate supporting software, the Machine makes e-suicide child’s play. Enter your login details and, within the hour, you’ll be liberated from profiles on Myspace, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Since 2009, more than one million Facebook friends have been ‘killed’ and more than three hundred thousand accounts have been taken down, worldwide.

At least, that was supposed to be the idea. Just one month after the service was launched, Facebook Inc. blocked the IP-address on which the Suicide Machine was hosted. And due to the unexpected level of enthusiasm from would-be online suicidals, Moddr’s server is constantly overloaded. Although the Facebook block was outfoxed soon enough by using a proxy server, the service is still a work in progress. “We are currently working on a new version of the original project”, says Walter Langelaar of the Moddr collective. “Up until now, the possibilities of the Suicide Machine have been unrivalled, resulting in a cybernated queue of more than fifty thousand people. The new version will be up for download before the summer and will operate from downloaders’ own server, relieving the pressure on ours.”

Walter emphasises that above all, the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine remains an artistic concept without any commercial motive. “Over the years, we’ve declined the strangest and most divergent proposals and requests. From funeral homes wanting to include our service in theirs, to calls for help in slander and libel issues. We explicitly chose not to get involved in such matters… before you know it, you get tangled up in the wackiest stories.”

Since 2009, more than one million Facebook friends have been ‘killed’ and more than three hundred thousand accounts have been taken down, worldwide. Using the Suicide Machine is irreversible – once you click the ‘commit’ button there’s no going back – and as part of the satirical statement the artists at Moddr wanted to make, the slain accounts continue to float around like zombies in the Web 2.0 bubble, for no one to see.

“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold.”

Ironically, it was a post on Facebook that led us to Benjamin, one ex-Facebooker who decided to say goodbye to the cruel world of social networks. “About five years ago, my then girlfriend decided I needed a Facebook account. She made me a login and from then on, I was ‘connected’. Apart from filling in the relationship status, I practically ignored the whole thing and it wasn’t until my relationship was on the rocks that it began to truly interest me.”

When starting a new job that required somewhat of an online social presence, Benjamin later signed up for Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ as well. “Browsing through articles on social networks on IT-focussed blogs and websites made me more and more suspicious of their privacy policies. One specific sentence kept haunting my thoughts: ‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold.’ Then one thing quickly led to another: I started to get annoyed with the numerous futile status-updates, the viral memes and the dreadful music my so-called friends chose to share. Nevertheless, as I was constantly sitting at a computer for my job, I checked Facebook for updates more than five times a day.”

As privacy agreements – constantly being changed by the social networks – got more and more audacious, Benjamin simultaneously called curtains on his Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts. “Since then, I spend way less time on my computer. I took up gaming again, I get some gardening done and I meet up with friends in real life, who – and this may come as a shock – are still only a phone call away. Deleting my accounts turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made over the course of the last two years. I don’t want to be a slave to any enterprise that uses my online input to whatever purposes it so pleases.”

 www.suicidemachine.org