Why, despite myself, I am not leaving Facebook. Yet.

As my Facebook friends and Twitter followers know, like many others I’m angry at Facebook. I haven’t written a blog post about it because so many others have been making most of my points so eloquently (forgive me for not linking to them). But I relent, and here it is anyway, in the form of responses to the criticisms of criticism that I keep hearing:

(1) Twitter’s public, where’s the rage against Twitter?

Here’s the difference, and it’s a big one: When I signed up for Twitter, like everyone else who signed up for a public Twitter account, I knew it was public. There was an easy box to click: private or public? It said right there that if I chose private my tweets wouldn’t appear in the public timeline. Now there may be some users who didn’t infer that if they picked public, their tweets would appear in that timeline, but Twitter was always above board from the start that a public twitter account meant decontextualized public display and searchability of your tweets. That has never changed. Some whom I really respect are upset with the Library of Congress archiving tweets, but I view the Library of Congress as a very different entity from the unknown agencies to whom Facebook sells our data and don’t think a tit-for-tat comparison makes sense.

When I signed up for Facebook in early 2006, it boasted of its strong privacy, of my ability to control who saw what. I used it as a place to share things I didn’t want publicly searchable. Now I’ve been teaching about the internet long enough to know not to post things anywhere that I don’t want in the newspaper, but it nonetheless felt like a safe place to target messages toward a known audience rather than the hundreds of strangers who follow me on Twitter.

And then they changed the rules. Regularly. Repeatedly. And every time they did it required more research to understand what they’d done and more unclicking to preserve the premises they’d offered when I signed up. I was President of The Association of Internet Researchers, I read articles about Facebook every day, I check my settings regularly, and I still can’t keep up and I still get confused.

Facebook has engaged in a bait and switch. They promised privacy, they encouraged us to invest our data in it and build connections on that premise, and then, when we had built networks that really mattered to us, they changed the rules. Which brings me to…

(2) If you think it’s so evil, just leave.

Don’t think I don’t think about it. Every day. I look with admiration and envy on my friends who have left. I’ve also watched sadly as several have returned. And I note above all that very few of my friends, who by nature of our professional connections are probably more attuned to these issues than most, have left. I don’t like supporting Facebook at all. But I do.

And here is why: they provide a platform through which I gain real value. I actually like the people I went to school with. I know that even if I write down all their email addresses, we are not going to stay in touch and recapture the recreated community we’ve built on Facebook. I like my colleagues who work elsewhere, and I know that we have mailing lists and Twitter, but I also know that without Facebook I won’t be in touch with their daily lives as I’ve been these last few years. I like the people I’ve met briefly or hope I’ll meet soon, and I know that Facebook remains our best way to keep in touch without the effort we would probably not take of engaging in sustained one-to-one communication.

I know that I don’t NEED these little interactions but I also know that I like them very much and that my daily life would be less fun without them. The rewards of Facebook are concrete and immediate. The costs are abstract and ideological. When I try to balance the two, the rewards win, but that is because of my friends and despite Facebook. It is not evidence that Facebook is acting appropriately. Telling people with complaints to leave ignores the very real value of the networks they have built and what should be their right to continue those networks on the grounds on which they were built.

(3) Facebook needs to make money.

I agree. Facebook should make money. But I have yet to hear a convincing case that their strategy of itemizing every bit of data we give them, repackaging it into groups of people into that thing or into profiles they can sell for advertising purposes is the best way to do this. I haven’t heard compelling arguments that it is the only way to do this. What I hear is “Facebook needs to make money. Facebook thinks they can make money this way. Ergo, this is the way Facebook can make money.” You know, I’d gladly pay a subscriber fee to opt out of being data mined, though I wouldn’t propose it as a sole solution since it would mean privacy is only for people who can afford it. It is sad that such creative minds can only think of one business model. Where’s the innovation?

(4) If you don’t want it shared, don’t share it.

Setting aside the assumptions of privilege that this claim entails (like the legitimate safety of marginalized and oppressed people who should have a right to affiliate though social networking sites without fear of being identified as dissidents, GLBT, etc), ‘if you don’t want to share it, don’t post it’ completely misses the point. The willingness to disclose all our data to marketers should not be required to socialize. Imagine if AT&T said “we’re going to track all your calls and all your networks and we’re going to store keywords you mention and personal connections in your profile we’ll sell to others so we can insert ads before and after your phone calls. And if your friend calls from another carrier, we’ll share that data with their carrier too.” People would be mortified, legislators would snap to attention, and most users would probably switch carriers. But there is no other Facebook. We can’t switch carriers. We can only give up what we have now and go back to what we had before. You might say, “but you pay for AT&T” which brings me back to #3: Paying for Facebook with money is not an option.

So for now I’ve decided I am better off fighting the system from within. I AdBlock the ads, I have removed almost all my connections. My info is nearly empty. My settings are as locked down as I can figure out how to make them. Like many of my friends, my contributions to the site are increasingly pithy. Most of my posts these days serve to inform my friends who are not obsessed with the ethics of Facebook about what bad behaviors they’re up to this week. Using Facebook with the rules I signed on for makes me a subversive user. That’s wrong.

What I want is a Facebook that is premised on a belief that first and foremost human relationships are valuable and sacred, not the ground on which money trees grow, but that if the value of relationships is genuinely nurtured, there will be ways to earn money.

I want a Facebook that really believes that people have a right to select how their information will be shared, instead of a belief that they’re too dumb to figure it out if the settings are too confusing so it’s okay to dupe them.

I want a Facebook that can find creative ways to make a profit using the rules they originally set for their own game.

I want an ethical Facebook.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Update: You can hear me discuss this more on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. There’s a stream, an mp3, a discussion, and more.

Note: This is closed for comments and trackbacks on account of spam deluges. If you want to post a real comment, please email it to me.

Comments (24) to “Why, despite myself, I am not leaving Facebook. Yet.”

  1. Fantastic post. I stumbled on your blog thanks to a link posted on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did you do a great job of disputing/clarifying several common complaints, you also summed up my feelings as to why I can’t let go of Facebook even though I don’t agree with their more recent business practices. Thanks again for such an informative blog! Cheers!

  2. Awesome post. Like you, I am not leaving Facebook, but I’m watching as some people are. It’s been a godsend for keeping in touch with family and sharing photos.

    I have repeatedly altered settings and repeatedly purged my friends list, but I’m less worried about my own data (like you, I am very careful), and more worried about what will be revealed about my FB friends, simply because I happen to have them friended.

    I feel like FB has dropped the security ball to such a degree that I have become responsible for the security of the personal information of others.

    For those seeking to lock down data while retaining a branded network, there’s a good post here: http://bit.ly/9DmQxb (link is to ZDNet). On the last page are instructions on gracefully deleting a FB account.

  3. I hear ya… it’s mind warfare every day to continue or not. You’re reasons to stay and go are both compelling. I suppose I’m not as bothered by the Big Brotherish gathering of my data. I think it’s in our very near future whether we want it or not. Yes it’s disturbing and a bit brilliant at the same time. I just hope, when the retinal scans that check me out as I’m walking through the mall, show me billboards for crap I really do like. LOL!!!

  4. Here’s what my brother quoted (on FB) which pretty much sums it up for me: “Some dude named Tim Spalding said this and it explains a lot:

    Why do free social networks tilt inevitably toward user exploitation? Because you’re not their customer, you’re their product.”

  5. The medium exists and yes, it is a good one. It was easiest to criticize Microsoft products than Google or the new social media. They have created useful tools and make us in some way or another dependent. On the other hand, the access is ‘free’ which does not leave other choice than making revenue by monetizing the data made available voluntarily. I am not closing my Facebook account, yet, as I am not convinced other places would treat me any better. Now, a new ‘Diaspora’ is coming with new promises. Am I too skeptical if I can’t just believe them? I would certainly feel more secure if I could have a voice, if I could see more transparency, if I could have a right to participate to the community decisions. Here is my proposition: http://clarinettesblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/169/
    Should a cooperative structure be the solution to users’ privacy?

  6. “It is sad that such creative minds can only think of one business model. Where’s the innovation?”

    The innovation, for better or worse, is in how precisely they are collecting data to try and pay for everything. It just so happens advertising is not the place anybody not in marketing wants to see such creativity. The alternatives, subscriptions and donations models of various flavors, can only really vary in terms of scale – micro or monthly, pick your poison.

  7. I killed my FB account and didn’t look back. ~2 weeks in now and I’m feeling much more secure about the privacy of my ~3 yr old daughter, who has no input yet over how photos of her are shared. It is primarily in the interests of ppl who aren’t signatories to FB’s ever-changing TOU/PP that I’ve dumped that dump.

    I’m also glad to be free of the incessant pressure to “like” and “accept” when sometimes I need to dislike and reject, behaviours FB has never facilitated (and because of this its representation of our networks will always be at best partial).

  8. Jean, you are touching here a very real issue. Now thousands of millions of pictures are stored on Facebook servers. How long Facebook will be there, how secure Facebook is keeping these pictures, where is the human factor?
    What I am saying is not just hypothetical, look at Bebo, another popular social network. Today, Bebo is shut down, no one is considering where these photos have gone? Do you believe such an asset is simply destroyed? Now, look at this: http://bit.ly/bPTquB Is this one of many cases we will start see?

  9. You wrote almost exactly what I’ve been thinking. Twitter, indeed, was up front about the fact our Tweets would be public. I signed up and knew that from the start. I haven’t noticed Twitter changing the rules or making it complicated for me to change settings.

    When people have to write “how-to” blog posts about how to change privacy settings in Facebook, then you know Facebook is making it more difficult than needed for their users to change the settings.

  10. Thanks so much; please run-thru the protections we can put on our accounts for privacy, again, thanks so much!

  11. I deactivated my Facebook account over a year ago, then reactivated it solely because my sister uses Facebook. I like to keep up with my sister. My profile is nearly empty. My privacy settings are largely “Just Me”. My posts are entirely crossposted from Twitter. I’m there but not there.

  12. You are 1000% absolutely correct. Bait & switch is putting it politely, however. Zucker is an unethical douche.

  13. Great post! You’ve summed up my earlier feelings exactly.
    I’m not convinced, however, that I will decide to continue the constant battle to protect my privacy.
    This has forced me to begin a brutally honest evaluation of the value of my facebook network. Two main truths are upsetting me:
    1) My ‘nearest and dearest’ network has already been eroded. Privacy concerns began tainting the experience over a year ago and most of my friends are now displaying the same level of online prudence they do on public sites. The closeness is already gone.
    2) Many of my facebook friends are simply not as near or dear as I liked to kid myself they were. As you say, we probably won’t make the effort to stay in touch. I’m finding I have fewer ‘friends’ than I believed. I’m finding I’m not such a good ‘friend’ myself.
    This makes me sad.

  14. This is a wonderful piece. You’ve struck a chord with a lot of people, including myself. I’m following a similar course with my own Facebook account, and I think Facebook will miss a huge opportunity if they hang their future on the commercial exploitation of personal data at the expense of the abiding values of trust and human relationships.

  15. Very insightful post; many thanks.

  16. I’m one of the lucky ones to have escaped Facebooks lure and never looked back. I decided that my concerns about privacy and my control over private/personal information was just that…Private! It would appear that so many Facebook users are willing to trade aspects of their privacy for an online connection medium.

    The question you need to ask yourselves is, how much more of Facebooks privacy ‘creep’ will you allow?

  17. Laudable wishes, but you’ll never get what you’re looking for from Facebook. The human user has been replaced by the advertisement as central to the way Facebook works. For as long as you’re there, I’m afraid you’ll be working for them.

  18. You nailed it. I get closer to the exit every day, but am still hanging in (grudgingly) for the reasons you mention. Thanks for this.

  19. In conversations like these–about social media, I realize that my social values and habits are not easily influenced by technology. I try them out, because it’s my work and I’m curious anyway, but I’m onto something else if it gets in the way of living. In other words, there’s something not-livingish to me about social software.
    The more I live in front of a screen, the less I live elsewhere. The more time I spend with technology, the less time I have for other stuff. It’s a quality of life thing. I spent a good part of living in 2008/2009 in Second Life, prepping for a study and doing it and I learned a lot about my virtual, social-self there, as I have with FB. Both fill in gaps; they don’t enhance the quality of my life. But that’s me and how I prefer to connect with people and how I value my time and that of others.

  20. Thanks, Nancy – clever as ever!
    Check out this nice little widget – it’ll let your scan the privacy settings on facebook: http://www.reclaimprivacy.org/

  21. I know that sounds bad, but you are probably missing the point. Quitting facebook does no good. Forgetting about it is the way to fight.

    Another point: There are options. There are plenty of them. There are actually too many. As per a recent Dork Tower: «It finally happened, i have more friend networks than friends.» Orkut, LinkedIn, myspace, fotolog, i stopped keeping count when they made one where you were supposed to share the books you have and stuff, mostly because it was such a thing i would love but at the same time so superfluous.

    I know what you mean that “there is no option” because i live in Brasil and here the “no other option” used to be (still is, amongst the less tech-savvy, a demographic group i have no contact with unhappily) Orkut, much maligned by informed US people. Now it is cool to “migrate to facebook”. And in around 4 to 6 months enough people did to make cluster effects. So there are options yes.

    And the real lesson of orkut to facebook migration in Brasil is that it does not matter. Orkut did suck, i know, but it never mattered because what was important and cool was the hanging out. In fact some of the inconvenience of the thing worked for it, like the whole “scrap” thing, whereby you don’t post in your page, you post in others’ pages, which end up making those strange truncated conversations, which ended up being much more personal than email. It didn’t feel like email. The orkut equivalent to email was so soon flooded by spam that it never mattered, me being one of the few people who actually tried to use that as messaging always being met with “i do not read those… do you?”

    It is sad that facebook is bad at privacy, but, again, it does not matter. Actually, i believe what’s going on is not a claims for privacy, it is a backlash against this Zukeberg (who knows how to spell this?) guy who seems to make a point of being an a$$ — which, let’s not forget, is one of the many tactics you can use to gather some attention.

    Do not leave facebook. Just leave a message: I do not check very often, if it is important please consider emailing me. Even if you DO check often.

    That is not the first and it will not be the last time someone tries to monetize human beings longing for being with each other. As in i bet there were big discussions about that in antiquity. Fighting them just gathers more attention — which feeds their business model. The only thing that works is creating cultural mechanisms around those risks.

    And those will come. Rather sooner than later. But there will be a lot of pain involved, and as sad as it is, it is normal. I have the deepest admiration for people willing to be on that front-line and trying to minimize this pain, i do, but at the same time i recognize this is palliative. In a good way, but still.

    Again, just as early usenetters learned the difficult way that the only weapon against a troll is the shun, so we as a culture will learn that posting photos in facebook is kinda silly.

    Until they come up with a new privacy problem. It comes in waves — things are getting faster but not as much as the news would make you believe.

    I really really hope this doesn’t come up as downplaying your post or anything like that — different country, different social norms and everything. I just wanted to take things to a different complementary viewpoint. Hope it helps.

  22. Look, the Dork Tower strip i was talking about: http://www.dorktower.com/2010/05/19/dork-tower-wednesday-may-19-2010/

    Another thing: facebook already is boring. The people who appear more, there, are not the ones you like best, are the ones who post more, which happen to be the ones who do more attention whoring. We somehow sift through, but the basic problem is there as much as it is on student meetings or office politics or any other group context. So… Old problem, new guise.

  23. http://peterreynolds.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/facebook-its-a-snide-snide-world/

    I just hope Facebook goes out of fashion soon.

    It’s giving the internet a bad name

  24. Great, great post. Crystalized for me my situation. Saw this linked to from Gig Om (one of Om Malik’s blogs). Thanks much.

    Reward > revenge = staying with FB, but don’t like it.