Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's the problem with facebook?

Facebook now has over 400 million users world-wide.  And they are ruthlessly leveraging that popularity to turn pageviews into profit.  Meanwhile, it has become a de riguer communication device--so widely used, you're a no one if you're not on it ("You're not on facebook?!" has become the new "You don't have a cellphone?!").  With this increased popularity, and expanding scope of use, a worrying trend has emerged: facebooks users continuing to share private details, as facebook's creator and business managers gradually take away the privacy protections that once kept that information limited to your closest (400 or so) friends.

We've long been aware of facebook overshares via lamebook, but a new website, openbook, makes clear just how vulnerable your information is, by allowing you to search facebook statuses for questionable phrases like "cheated on test" and "I hate my boss."  You may have noticed the way facebook is trying to take your privacy control away from you when it required you to "connect" with your work info and interests in order to keep them listed on your profile.  "Connections," unlike the information listed in your extended profile, are public information.

You can see graphically just how much facebook has eroded your privacy over the years through this neat-o blooming flower of overexposure.  Some have had enough, and there's a growing wave of discontent, with many users deleting their profiles, or threatening to.  Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis is on a mission against facebook, after deciding in late 2009 that the company wasn't trustworthy due to its new privacy defaults.  But he's far from the only one.  Gizmodo has offered up ten reasons why you should quit facebook, including its leaders' demonstrated questionable ethics and "war on privacy," but also arguing that even if facebook wanted to protect your privacy, recent technical gaffes show they just aren't competent enough to.

But the question is, why would facebook act like this?  Don't they have a business motivation to keep us, its customers, happy by protecting our privacy?  In a word, no.   The thing is, we, the users, are not facebook's customers.  Its customers are the advertising companies they sell our data and page space to.  That's what's wrong with facebook, and that's why its mistreatment of users is going to get worse before it gets better.  The website they need to sell is one that is most profitable and appealing to advertisers, not to users.  Facebook doesn't make money by having lots of users.  Facebook makes money by having lots of users a) looking at lots of ads and b) putting up lots of information it can sell to advertisers.  You are not the customer; you're the product.  Your data and your attention are the goods facebook trades in with its real customers, ad-buying companies.  As for users, they need to keep us just happy enough that we don't revolt, and take our money-making eyes elsewhere.  Which is why facebook was so smart (read: evil) to wait until it had become an essential and irreplaceable form of communication before hacking away at the user experience.

What this means is that to make real inroads in fighting back against facebook's careless mistreatment of its users, we need to "unionize"--to threaten to leave in large enough numbers that they'll listen to our concerns.  Because otherwise, facebook will keep doing whatever it can to keep serving advertisers juicy tidbits of our private information--your life on a silver platter.  This IM exchange from a just-starting-out Mark Zuckerberg certianly doesn't help inspire confidence:
Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend's Name]: What? How'd you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don't know why.
Zuck: They "trust me"
Zuck: Dumb fucks.
For those who are concerned, a new startup is out to create a "facebook killer" social networking site, and has raised about $200,000 more than their initial $10,000 funding goal.  In the meantime, everyone should visit this site and perform a privacy checkup of their facebook settings in an easy, transparent way--something facebook itself doesn't allow.  And, if you decide to leave, follow these steps to permanently delete your account, not just deactivate, which keeps all the data out in the ether.  Just know that there's no way of checking if facebook has really deleted your information, leading some tech bloggers to dub facebook a modern-day Hotel California.


  1. One issue I have with this narrative is that facebook's growth has always been about deceiving users into revealing too much information about themselves. Facebook's initial success in differentiating itself from myspace was due largely to the false sense of security that came from "school networks" gated by .edu email addresses, and it took some time before many users realized that revealing all their information within school networks was a bad idea. So I don't buy the narrative that they built up a large default friends-only network and then slowly eroded the default privacy settings -- they were evidently "evil" in the sense of deceiving you to reveal too much information from the very beginning.

  2. I also read something recently that said you shouldn't allow your full birthday to be posted because it makes it easier for people to steal your identity.

    I joined facebook in college, back when you needed a .edu address. It was closed off and private. I never had a MySpace b/c too many weirdos, too much junk on peoples pages. Facebook was a simple page.

    I wish I could just quit, but the fact is, it keeps me up to date on close friends like never before. I can take a pic on my phone and share it with my friends and family in an instant. I have family in other countries who use facebook and this has connected us like never before.

    I am concerned with privacy and am up-to-date on privacy settings, but facebook isnt the only way to find people. If I search myself on google, my name is still on my old job's website along with a current email address and the school i currently attend. If I then search the school directory, I can find my current address. If I search my name in the whitepages, I can see my old address, family members and age. I'm totally unaware of how to make any of those things private- at least we get some say on facebook.

    On a side note- I just got a new netbook recently and I couldn't remember the url of this website. I found it by googling 'FEMANGRY'

  3. @DRDR: I was being tongue-in-cheek when I said evil. I don't think facebook is evil; I just think there's a big disconnect between how users expect to be treated and how it's treating them, due to a fundamental misunderstanding of facebook's business model. As customers, we should be outraged at how facebook has abused our information and privacy. But, when we realize its business model is selling us out, then it makes sense that we need to take steps to protect ourselves, protest en masse, or leave for the competition. I don't think facebook was deceptive, I think it just pretty clearly operated with a two-step marketing plan: 1) Make the site as useful and appealing to users as possible until you've both built your user base and become an essential part of their lives 2) Make the site as appealing to advertisers as possible by making information more shareable, easier to target, and public.

    @Vanny: First of all, the femnagry thing is hilarious. Second, I definitely agree there are privacy concerns all over the web, but what's creepy about facebook is how much it delves into your personal interests and relationships, and connects this with your basic info. People just need to realize that at this point, anything you put up there is property of facebook. Now: what do you trust them with?

  4. Ok, I think we agree that as facebook has become more indispensable to its users, the company has made it increasingly difficult for users to protect their privacy, and their motives have become increasingly obvious over time.

    Describing their strategy as a two-step plan is a decent approximation, in the sense that their recent changes have gotten more attention than those that came before, and made more users consider leaving than ever before. However, I think that two-step story leaves out some important details that are crucial for understanding how facebook achieved a critical mass and how successful a new entrant like that startup is going to be.

  5. What I found interesting is that facebook keeps information about you in their systems even after you remove it from your profile.

    One way you can see this is to add something to your profile, and leave it there for, like, a week or so. Then you will start to get ads that target that particular interest/activity. Then, go back and remove that thing from your profile, whatever it was. Weeks later, you will still be getting ads about that interest, even though it isn't even in your profile anymore.

    Also, one of the reasons I preferred Facebook to Myspace was not so much the privacy issue, but rather the degree of customizability that it gives you. Specifically, Facebook did not allow you to customize the format of your profile at all. Myspace gave you near total freedom. And when people have near total freedom, they can insert random code into their profiles that can screw up the computer of anyone who visits them (I've known more than one person who's gotten a virus just by visiting someone's Myspace page).

    Fortunately, Facebook still doesn't provide users that kind of control over their profiles, though I'm leery of all these new applications that are made by third-party developers. As if the code for Facebook wasn't shoddy enough, now they've got umpty-ump different programs interacting with that shoddy code, with a substantial portion of those programs made by seriously unscrupulous people. That's what really worries me.

    As far as ads are concerned, Google does the same thing with its e-mail service. In fact, the gmail team actually wrote a recent blog post describing how they are now doing more accurate ad targeting. Though for some reason, I still trust Google more than Facebook...

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!