29 May 2010

pay no attention to the man behind the web site

Warning: contains a word not usually used in this blog. The word in question is Facebook.

The dust seems to have settled now. Again.

If anyone out there besides me has been reading this blog from the beginning, then you know that the main motivation for starting it was my complete and utter dislike for Facebook. I joined it sometime in the summer of 2007, back when it was supposed to be a way to keep in touch with friends and family (in case you missed the memo, it's not anymore). During the course of my never-ending search to find a decent writing critique group, I'd stumbled across a group of Facebook fans, who were so enthusiastic about it I thought I should at least give the thing a try. Besides, there were some people from high school I always wish I hadn't lost touch with.

I've ranted about what I dislike about the site before, so I won't go through it here again. Suffice to say that the user interface drove me crazy long before the constantly-changing privacy settings did. Truth be told, most of the time I was actively on Facebook I had my account pretty much wide open, because right from the account creation process the site didn't pass the sniff test when it came to being able to trust it.

Every time Facebook goes and changes something, a certain percentage of people get up in arms about privacy. Facebook seems to ignore them for a while, and then, when the media attention reaches a certain pitch, they apologise and make some overture to show that they're "listening."

The last bit was about changing some default privacy settings again. As usual, the changes had to be opted out of, rather than opted in, and so everyone who didn't like the new defaults had to go to their privacy settings and update them.

Here's the part people seem to be missing: If you have to go in and close something off or opt out, it's already too late. You've already been exposed. Your privacy, what's left of it, has already been compromised. The spammers and scrapers and marketeers have already cleaned you out.

So, it's not about privacy. What's it about then?

For one thing, check out this interactive graphic. Yeah, I know it shows how the privacy elements have shifted over the years, and I just said this wasn't about privacy. But check it out anyhow. See how things keep changing, year after year?

Now take a look at this web page that shows how Facebook's mission statements have changed over the years. A mission statement is something most companies rewrite every five years or so. Facebook has been around for less than ten years, but look at how much the mission statement has changed.

Imagine a bank doing this. At first, your funds are safe in your saving account. Then, your funds have been transferred to a mutual fund without your prior knowledge or consent, and it's only after several thousand likewise enraged depositors demand control of their money back that the bank reluctantly agrees to redeposit funds back in savings accounts. "We listen to our customers," they sigh, "but they're missing out on such a great opportunity to earn more with their money. We weren't trying to do anything wrong."

Of course they were doing something wrong. They just broke several laws. They did something with your money that you never told them it was OK to do, and if you have any sense at all you would immediately clean out and shut down all your business with them and go elsewhere. Yes, technically another bank could pull the same thing on you, but the world runs on banks, and it's a rare person who has the means to do without them.

Facebook does the same thing with the data we provide them. (We think of it as sharing data with our friends and family. Really we're giving data to Facebook and they're letting our friends and family see it.) They've changed the on-line yearbook that early adopters signed up for to something that is supposedly like Twitter, yet continues to be much more cumbersome.

And, unlike Twitter, where you can back up your tweets (although it's awkward), there's no good way in Facebook to get your data back. There's not even a good way to delete it. The first time I made an effort to clean out my account, just over two years ago, it took me days of pecking away at different aspects of the UI and ditching all the data I had entered. Yeah, I know it's still lurking on a Facebook server somewhere, but again, that wasn't the point. The point is that Facebook breaks user interface standards (again) by making it only easy to add information, like a bank that lets you deposit your money into a savings account but never make any withdrawals or transfers, even though you supposedly can. No wonder leaving Facebook has been compared to leaving a cult. Of course, if Facebook deems it reasonable, they'll delete stuff from your account themselves, again without your knowledge or consent.

Mark Zuckerberg claimed recently that Facebook does not sell users' personal information with any other parties. They don't need to. They just network with their "partners" (again, something else users have to opt out of in a way designed to make it difficult to do so) so the "partners" can connect the dots themselves, with your (forced) consent. This is like the crooked body repair shop that slips in a form authorising repairs your car doesn't need into a sheaf of forms authorising repairs your car does need, and then, when you complain about the extra work and higher cost, claiming that you agreed to it, so you have no recourse.

For the last two years, I've had an empty Facebook account strictly so that people who manage their event invitations from there could include me on their lists. Lately, that's been happening less and less (often people will use an invitation and and e-mail), so I think it's time to delete my account. I'm going to do it on 31 May, which has been chosen by a lot of people as Leave Facebook Day. Oddly, it's been called "Facebook suicide" a lot. I think of it more as "Facebook freedom".

The ever-wise Howard has spoken eloquently at West End Stories about "resistance culture" — of cutting the established circuit of "us providers/you consumers" and engaging in opportunities to blur that dichotomy. Time to take it on-line.

1 comment:

  1. Facebook is an odd place and the privacy thing is nutty. But I'm still on it, I like that people actually interact on it. I've been blogging for years and have hardly any readers, even when I blogged frequently. It's such a time killer though! So many photos and groups and of course Lexulous! oy!

    Anyway, I keep up with you here. I have a few other friends who don't do FB and they arrange nights out with "e-vite." I can't read e-vite on my phone so I have to make sure I have the exact address before I head out, but otherwise it's alright.

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