How (I'm trying) not to lose my mind in the internet age
Revelations through the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal have confirmed what anybody who cared to take a closer look already knew: For all intents and purposes, anything you share online on big platforms from Amazon (think reviews and your order history) to Google (search results or location history) is essentially up for grabs and will be used for all kinds of purposes.
I've been around the internet block. Gee, I even remember life before the internet. So, for what it's worth, here's my take, which I've also been spreading for a couple of years in talks and presentations about privacy and data protection.
Note: The following tips are not necessarily always the most privacy-friendly option. Sometimes, I choose to use services because they're better or because I don't want to subject too much of my online activity to a monopoly like Google.
Email and messaging
Let's start with the most complicated one, shall we? Years ago, I made a conscious decision to leave Gmail behind (as did Jon Worth).
I looked around and checked recommendations and decided to go with FastMail. They're based in Australia and their product is email (and related services), not your data. I happily pay for their Standard package every year. Spam filtering - once one of Gmail's unique advantages - is excellent here. It works reliably and even lets users fine-tune the settings (if they want to). Just like Google, FastMail also offers calendaring and contacts, but I have apps for that on my Synology NAS. One last thing I really like is that I can use my own domain (adrechsel.de) and manage all my email addresses through FastMail. Other good email services are Mailbox, ProtonMail or Posteo.
Now on to instant messaging. What a pain! I currently use several messaging apps (including SMS and Apple's delightfully straight-forward iMessage), because the people I want to talk to are all on different services:
- There is WhatsApp, of course, which I use grudgingly, mostly because Facebook bought the messenger a while back. And don't even get me started on WhatsApp audio messages!
- There’s Twitter’s Direct Messages feature and the group conversations, which I probably use too much.
- There is Skype, of course, but I hardly use it anymore. Skype has always been an app that I only use for video calls, and those are now possible in almost any other messenger app, too. Recent "redesigns" of Skype haven't exactly deepened my love for the service. And when it comes to my two podcasts, I have switched over to Zoom and never looked back.
- I used Threema for a while, but only with one friend who is now on Signal (see below).
- I never warmed to Telegram, which is supposedly secure but also very controversial. I like how they implemented public groups, though, and hope this will come to other services in time.
- And then there is Signal, which is strong on privacy, but just as weak on features. It's still my favourite cross-platform messenger right now.
I already mentioned Twitter. Despite its many flaws, it's still by far my favourite and most useful social network.
Sigh: Facebook. What can I say? I hate it. I hate that it's so widely used. I hate how the company operate, how they squash or simply buy smaller competitors. I hate their website and its extremely poor usability across all platforms. I hate how they push their Messenger. The only things I kind of like are Groups and Events (see below).
Sigh: LinkedIn. What can I say? Some people just don't do social media, but they're on LinkedIn for professional purposes. It's a good way to get in touch with those people.
That's it. Sure, I tried Instagram, but it just isn't for me (and it's just one more Facebook tentacle). I took Ello, Micro.blog, Mastodon, Keybase and many others for a spin, but none of them ever got any serious traction. Thanks to Jan Weisensee, I have been looking into Matrix, which is still too nerdy for mass appeal, but I think it's promising.
Managing online groups used to be simple: you set up a Yahoo Group and you were off to the races. They're still around (I think) but Yahoo is such a dumpster fire of a company that I've deleted my account years ago.
Pours one out for Flickr...
Google also has a group mail product, but, you know, it's Google. The current darling in this space seems to be GroupMe, but they were acquired in 2011 and are now "a proud member of the Skype family" (read: Microsoft). Make of that what you want. There are WhatsApp group chats, too, but they are even worse than WhatsApp audio messages. Just ask parents of school children...
So - what to do? Install your own Listserv? Well, two recommendations:
- For both of my children's classes, we parents use Groupspaces for communication needs. It does much more than distribute email, though, including event management or money collection.
- Slack. If you know people who work in a tech company or a startup, you'll have heard them gush about Slack, THE group communication app. And it truly is fantastic for groups who want to get something done. Slack powers the Conference Interpreter Barcamp and the Troublesome Terps podcast.
Social events & birthdays
Events, as I said above, are tricky. Facebook admittedly nail events and the social features around them. However, Doodle is amazing for finding a time slot that works for many people, and their comment feature is robust enough for some online socialising around an event. What's more, you can set up your own scheduling page that people can use to schedule time with you - you know, for a cup of coffee in real life and such things.
If you're organising an event with ticketing (free or paid), check out Eventbrite. It has lots of great features, an excellent mobile app and reasonable fees.
And what about birthdays? While casual congratulations of Facebook are kind of nice, I wonder how much they really mean. For people I really care about, I note their birthday in my address book, which in turn makes the date show up in my calendar automatically so I don't forget to email/call/IM…
Do you want to know how old I am? I am "I still use RSS after all those years" old. (Just in case you don't know, RSS is a format that helps publishers distribute media like news or podcasts online.) As of writing this article, I have 123 subscriptions in my feed reader (Inoreader), covering many of my interests from languages and interpreting to technology and podcasting.
For general news and current affairs, I turn to the flagship of German news, Tagesschau. And while I often learn about breaking news on Twitter, I would never rely on it exclusively to keep me informed. Social media can, however, point you to interesting news (and other) articles. If you don't want to read all tweets not to miss anything, check out Nuzzel (it plugs into Twitter and LinkedIn).
My default browser is Apple's Safari. It may not have the open-source cachet of Firefox or the performance and gazillions of extensions of Chrome, but it is perfectly integrated with all my Apple devices. I see all my open tabs at all times, no matter if I use my smartphone or my laptop.
The next best thing is Firefox. And the greatest feature of Firefox is probably Multi-Account Containers. This add-on lets you separate your work, shopping or personal browsing without having to log in and out all the time or use multiple browsers. Since you can use it to contain Facebook to its own containers, it's probably the browser to use Facebook with! (While you're at it, you should also install Privacy Badger.)
What is VPN and do I really need one? Here you go:
My VPN of choice has been, for several years, Encrypt.me. It works on all the major desktop and mobile platforms, often automatically. You should really try it.
I hope you know that there's more to search than Google. For several years now, I've been relying on DuckDuckGo for (almost) all of my web searches. They don't track me or my searches, the still give me great results and I don't get stuck in an ever-more personalised Google bubble. On top of strong privacy, DuckDuckGo has !bangs - i.e. shortcuts you can use to search on specific sites beyond DuckDuckGo, such as Wikipedia. Here's their CEO talking about his company and web privacy in general:
I haven't used Facebook Marketplace that much, but I always thought one is better served by using a truly local platform like Freecycle or online second-hand platforms. Ask around in your local community!
As long as Apple Pay isn't available in Belgium, I still rely on PayPal for many web payments, although even its owner eBay is moving away from it.
If you use Facebook for logging into other services, I don't blame you (it's very convenient), but please stop. Get yourself a decent password manager like 1Password and set up proper accounts with safe, unique passwords. Okthxbye!
With so many free or cheap options available, this is one is a tough cookie. Between Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Apple's iCloud and many more, we're effectively spoilt for choice. But, at least for me, there's always that nagging insecurity of not really knowing where my files are and who has access to it.
I still have a Dropbox account but I effectively don't use it anymore. iCloud is the file system for many of the apps I use, simply because it's the Apple default. Google Drive is still one of the best platforms for collaborating with other people.
Recently, I have started relying more on my Synology NAS (already mentioned above). But that's another blog post...
- Jon Worth lists his recommendations: Everyday tech ethics
- Wired's story on how to replace Facebook's features
- My privacy talk on YouTube: