Facebook: A Charming Girl Who Will Sell You to the First Bidder

The future is clear.On more than one occasion, when I answered “no, I’m not on Facebook”, people reacted almost as if I said I was Amish. Considering how ridiculous perceiving me as digitally disconnected is in spite of my quite extreme daily communication and technology overdose and in spite of the fact that Facebook is a communication tool only as a side effect, I thought the subject deserved a word or two.

To begin with, why would you want to do anything important counting on support from people you don’t trust? Given the amount of time people spend on the site, I doubt many users can deny they consider the service important. I find it difficult to find more than a few companies which give me less reason to trust them than Facebook. To begin with, the company founder and CEO (M. Zuckerberg) labelled users of his service using language I don’t care to repeat. Then, there is the fact that the primary goal of Facebook is to make money and it does that by selling information about its users. How does that work? The service gets free information about you, your social circle, the place you live, what you do for a living etc. and sells that data to advertisers so that they could entice you to spend more. Your best interest is not even a side goal of the company: why would you have anything to do with it?

Then there is the related issue of privacy. If Facebook really wanted to ensure privacy, it clearly couldn’t make a very good living selling your information to anyone caring to buy it: limited sharing is central to the concept of privacy. This is a probable cause for Facebook’s terms of use to become 5 times longer over 5 years, reaching a staggering 5800 words (20% more text than in the US Constitution). These repeated changes were made to confuse users and to make as much information as public as possible: this wonderful visualisation illustrates just how radical the decrease in default privacy was. As Wired’s UK editor D. Rowan nicely put it, you need but search for phrases such as “cheated on my wife” or “my new mobile number is” to get a feel for how massively people misunderstand Facebook privacy settings and how much more they share than they think. This is by design and while you yourself might be careful enough to avoid any traps, the question is why would you want to wrestle with it in the first place? Or why would you want you friends and family to subject themselves to the same risk, when surveys suggest 35% of companies use social network information to reject job applicants?

Now that it is the biggest show in town, Facebook is all but open about mistreating its users and shows little concern over various examples of bullying, along the lines of “our way or the highway”. For example, Facebook closed Salman Rushdie’s account because they were not convinced it was, in fact, him who opened the account. He was denied access to his account until he actually sent them a passport photocopy. Even then his account was restored under his “official” name, Ahmed Rushdie: it was only after his further complaints that he managed to convince Facebook to restore the original name. As entertaining as the story might be, it reveals the shape of a much more general problem which is that with Facebook, social discourse has significantly moved to the web and has been privatized along the way. This means that a corporation with anonymous board members somewhere on another continent gets to decide how people present themselves, interact, what they share and who gets to exploit the resulting social network. You don’t get any kind of say other than opting in or out. And as Rushdie’s example vividly illustrates, if they so choose, no one can make them let you in. At this point, I fail to see how putting a corporation between you and the people closest to you can seem at all acceptable.

Looking not too far back, we have seen this scenario before: at one point in time, AOL was the only commercial e-mail provider. As inconceivable as it might seem today, for a long time, it was impossible to exchange e-mail messages with users of other e-mail providers, when other e-mail providers started offering their services. However, over time, protocols were developed to facilitate e-mail exchange between various providers and today anything other than a distributed e-mail system is unimaginable (although e.g. Google will discreetly stifle competition by occasionally rejecting e-mail from gmx.com). It may be as unimaginable today with social networks as it was a few decades ago with AOL, but if distributed e-mail made sense to us, distributed social networking is likely to as well. What might it look like? Go and see for yourself: its called Diaspora*.

Allow me to finish by pointing out an interesting contrast between Zuckerberg’s sister and a news clip from The Onion:  Zuckerberg’s sister tries to be serious but comes across as silly as she argues for abolition of privacy on the web, while The Onion tries to be silly but comes across as serious as they describe “the CIA’s cost cutting Facebook programme”. Enjoy the clip!

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