The Facebook Follies
God knows I shouldn’t be having writer’s block over this, of all topics. Having never joined Facebook, I've had plenty of opportunities to explain my reasoning behind why I continue to eschew the most popular social networking site in the entire world. People are always mystified at the fact that I don’t have an account. The other day a girl asked if I was on Facebook and when I said no, her resulting expression was a unique blend of pity, awe and disbelief, accompanied by a single word: "Wow." I might as well have said that I used oil lamps to light my house, and commuted to work in a horse-drawn buggy.
So I eventually came up with a bunch of reasons ready to deploy whenever someone asked why I'm not on Facebook. I've said the site was causing people to trade real-life relationships for virtual ones, or that it was making us more isolated while giving the illusion of more connection. I've said it was a big distraction and that the last thing I needed in my life was another way to waste time, because I was doing way too well in that department already. All of which I believe are true. However, as Drew and I conversed the other day, it became clear that our biggest beef with the social media juggernaut could be summed up in a single word: Privacy.
Facebook has made eroding privacy into something of an art, if by “art” you mean “terrible travesty.” I mean, let’s be candid for a moment: It’s a joke to think that a company whose CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, got his start hacking into Harvard’s computer system and illegally lifting people’s private information to use without permission on a website he’d created would care one bit about your privacy.* Except insofar as caring about it could possibly make money for them. But since it can’t — since in fact it is your lack of ability to keep things private in the Facebook universe that provides the most potential for making money off of you — well, need I say more?
Probably not, but hey, I will. (Mostly because Drew will so not let me get away with leaving it at that.)
Recently, as many people know, Facebook changed their privacy settings. Their default mode is not that all your stuff would be hidden, but that all your stuff would be out in the open for anyone on the ‘Net to see. And even if you do choose to lock down every possible setting, there is some information that will still be publicly available. Like, your profile pic. Your gender. Your fan pages. Your networks. Your geographical region.
Well, so what, you’re saying. I have nothing to hide. Why should I worry?
To which I say, seriously?
Look. We’ve all heard the saying, “Knowledge is power.” Well, in this society, knowledge is equated, for better or worse, with information — and guess who’s sitting on the mother lode of it. (Hint: Facebook.)
Everything you do on Facebook is pretty much owned by Facebook. It’s also logged, tracked, saved. It’s already being used for potentially invasive research. All your photos, all your blog posts, all your wall messages, and yes, every silly quiz you take, it all becomes data that can be used to tell any number of things about you to people you don’t even know, and probably never will.
The point is, privacy isn’t about keeping stuff hidden anymore, it’s about controlling the information that belongs to you. And when you use Facebook, you cede control to Facebook. Ultimately, you’re handing over your personal information to a corporation headed by the guy who very recently said this:
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.(from the Guardian)
That explains those new “privacy” settings, I guess. But it sure doesn’t make me feel any better, knowing my information’s under the control of 25-year-old Zuckerberg, who has decided for himself what people have gotten more comfortable with over time. And I’d beg to differ with his analysis anyway, considering the backlash that has greeted Facebook’s roll-outs of products like the ill-fated Beacon — a service which broadcast a user’s activities on external websites to that user’s network on Facebook, and which, I’ll just note, was initially implemented without user consent and only discontinued after protests. Lots and lots of protests.
Odd that anyone would have had a problem with it, considering the new social norms and all. Granted, Beacon was launched in 2007, and Zuckerberg's quote is from this year — no doubt a lot has changed in three years. Maybe if Beacon was launched today, people would just shrug their shoulders and not care. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
Now wait just a minute, I hear you saying. You use Google. You blog. Heck, you blog using Google! And what about cell phones, and IMing and all that stuff? How is any of that different or better than using Facebook?
Well, those are good questions, all of them! And if I weren’t so behind on when I promised Drew I would publish this post, I’m sure I’d be more than happy to go into a deeper analysis and provide informative explanations. On the other hand, that doesn’t sound like me at all, does it? Fortunately for all of us, there is a simple solution to this little quandary anyway. And here it is: Go read Drew’s blog.
* “Zuckerberg was charged by the administration with breach of security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy and faced expulsion, but ultimately the charges were dropped.” (Wikipedia, pulling from The Harvard Crimson)