Facebook recently changed its terms of service again, and — as with previous alterations — has weighted those changes heavily in favor of Facebook’s own corporate aims. To the extent that privacy of user data was ever a concern at Facebook, the erosion of those interests over time has been steady and premeditated.
Documenting Facebook’s abuses is more than I care to do. If you’re a Facebook fan, good luck to you. If you’re a staunch Facebook defender, I’m not interested in debating your bullet points. The bottom line for me is that Facebook has tipped its hand more than once, and I’m at the point where I feel like a fool for believing anything Facebook says. I don’t consider the site benign, I don’t consider the site’s corporate aims benevolent, and I don’t believe that Facebook will honor any current legal obligation if they believe they can make more money by voiding that obligation.
For me, personally, the risks far outweigh the rewards. So as of today I have decided to terminate my Facebook account. Because I joined Facebook relatively late, and because I conduct most of my web conversations through this site — which I own clear title to — this decision is probably easier for me than it might be for others. Adding to my interest in disconnecting now is the sense that waiting and investing more time in Facebook only makes the decision harder down the road, and I see this as one of Facebook’s great seductions. By allowing and urging users to weave themselves into the Facebook social structure, Facebook makes it that much harder for users to leave without feeling a considerable sense of loss.
When I went to close my Facebook account today, I was steered heavily by Facebook’s help files not toward canceling the account, but to ‘deactivating’ the account. As I subsequently learned, the difference is considerable. With a deactivated account, the account remains alive on Facebook’s servers, and the owner continues to receive information from people they have ‘friended’. Canceling an account removes the account completely, but only after a 14-day deactivation period.
When I first attempted to deactivate my account, I was presented with the following information in a pop-up box:
Please remember that you can always control the information that you share and who can see it. Before you deactivate, please take a moment to learn more about how privacy works on Facebook. If there is a specific question or concern you have, we hope you’ll let us know so we can address it in the future.
This claim that users can always control the way information is shared on Facebook is the big lie at the heart of their business model. Facebook is absolutely determined to connect advertisers with user data, and to aid advertisers in mining user data. In order to do that they have made the process of protecting user data so complicated as to be almost impossible to understand, giving them a thin veneer of plausible deniability while at the same time guaranteeing that pathways will remain open — or be opened in the future — through which user data can be accessed by third-party developers.
To see the obvious truth in this, consider that your most likely source of clear and concise information about changes to Facebook’s terms of service always comes not from Facebook itself, but from news sources and privacy advocates. If clarity of intent and purpose was critical to Facebook’s well-being as a business, Facebook would spare no expense making sure that its menu systems were obvious, that its privacy settings were global and easy to understand, and that it was the voice of authority in explaining itself to users. That Facebook consistently compels others to explain what it is doing — and to explain the potential ramifications to users — can only be seen as intentional and deceptive.
If I need someone else to help me understand Facebook’s changes, and I do, then I’m fairly confident that the great majority of people using Facebook will also need help. I’m also confident that they will neither seek out that help, nor take advantage of it when it is offered, meaning Facebook will always profit from this kind of intentional obfuscation.
In looking back at my tenure on Facebook, I have to say that it produced little for me that I found useful or even enjoyable. I was never able to shake the feeling that most of what was happening on Facebook was false. I was also never able to compartmentalize myself in a way that allowed me to profess commitment or camaraderie to people I only (and barely) knew in passing. I take the word ‘friend’ seriously, and have never been particularly at ease with claiming a large group of ‘friends’ — none of whom would be there for me in a crisis. I know that’s the social norm, but I’ve never been able to believe in those kinds of relationships.
The obvious question here is how leaving (or avoiding) Facebook may affect a writer’s desire to build a platform. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that Facebook is determined to create its own social gravity, essentially compelling people to open up shop if they want to remain relevant, but I’m dubious about the negative effects for people who choose not to join. The web is still an open and interlinked space, where one click can take you anywhere you want to go. If an author’s visibility and relevance are dictated not by what they have to say, but by which social networks they appear on, I’m not sure that authorship is the defining aspect of their participation and celebrity.
In a world where everyone seems to be interested in leveraging other people’s content, Facebook has developed a powerful business model. That they might at some point lay legal claim to information on their site — as Geocities once famously did — makes me think that authors and content creators in particular should be cautious about such associations. It’s hard to beat Facebook’s free price, but when site hosting for a year can be easily had for $100, I think most authors would be wise to own their own web presence.
Update: The Los Angeles Times ran a piece yesterday about four United States Senators who are asking that users be allowed to opt-in to Facebook’s new data-sharing/data-mining scheme, rather than be enrolled by default. The article includes a number of quotes from third-party analysts speaking to Facebook’s open intent to deceive its own users. In defense of Facebook, there was this:
“Our highest priority is to keep and build the trust of the more than 400 million people who use our service,” Facebook Vice President Elliot Schrage said in a letter to [Senator] Schumer.
The question each Facebook user needs to ask is whether they really believe that statement. Facebook is saying “trust us”. Most third-party analysts and watchdog groups are saying that Facebook cannot be trusted.
Unfortunately, if a company believes they can make more money by lying than telling the truth, most companies will lie. The important point is not that Facebook is lying, but that it has committed itself to lying to its own customers as part of its business strategy, and that it is moving forward with that strategy regardless of the potential damage to its own brand. Put another way: there is nothing about Facebook’s actions which is accidental or unintentional. This is a well-thought-out, premeditated course of action, and the obtuse denial in the quote above simply confirms that Facebook as a corporation is committed to that course.
If you are using Facebook you are in a relationship with someone who is willing to lie to your face in order to exploit you. At the very least, I think that’s worth thinking about.
Later update: Over the course of the week the news for Facebook seems to be getting worse. Not only is there a growing backlash against their privacy policies, but the company itself seems to be struggling to maintain its own software. As was MySpace before it, Facebook is a patchwork of code and features looking for a business model. It’s possible that Facebook is losing control of the ability to manage its own software, and that the pressure to keep adding features and changing the code base to make new revenue streams possible is taking a toll. I cannot imagine what the pressure is like inside the company, but from the outside the cracks are starting to show. Yes, I know they’re worth a trazillion dollars, and everybody loves them. That’s really the point. If there was such a thing as a social networking bubble, I’d be tempted to call it.
— Mark Barrett