A lot of folks I know and respect are leaving Facebook right now. Their reasoning, as far as I can tell, is that Facebook has gone too far, and is violating their privacy in new and dangerous ways. And even among those who are staying put, there's a general feeling that Facebook is somehow controlling us and should be treated with suspicion.
At issue, chiefly, is the "Instant Personalization" update announced at the recent Facebook developer's conference, F8. This allows Facebook's partners to load your profile onto its sites automatically. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal, but apparently it is to a lot of people. Even Senator Chuck Schumer is getting into the act---he thinks that a good use of the public money is to complain about Facebook to the FTC.
I'm not completely unsympathetic. I do think that this really ought to have been an "opt in" rather than "opt out" feature-- especially considering how few Facebook users understand how to set privacy options. I probably would've opted into it if that had been the default. Instead, I opted out in protest.
Still and all, it's very similar to what a lot of us Facebook users have been doing all along with Facebook Connect. It's not clear exactly how (or even if) Facebook is actively sharing our data with its partners. If it were, I'm not sure I'd care much. Pandora already knows my musical preferences, because I deliberately told it what they were. That's the whole point of Pandora! I'm annoyed when it gets it wrong. And oh how I wish Yelp knew me better than it does. If it suggests one more time that I go to a crappy chain restaurant, I'm uninstalling the app. In short, if Facebook can help improve my experience, that's just dandy with me.
What we have on our hands here, then, is something psychological. We're hitting a dip in the hype cycle and getting panicky. Here is the tipoff--people are starting to talk about Mark Zuckerberg in emotional terms. The word "evil" is popping up. It reminds me of the way we used to talk about Bill Gates, before he got all warm and fuzzy. Over the past few months, the pressure has been building, especially in the media and among bloggers. Then, last week, Wired lost its mind, and went completely ballistic on Zuck's ass. Maybe this was a way to sell papers, but it sure seemed out of proportion to me.
My view, which parallels that of Robert Scoble and a handful of other brave souls who are trying to counteract the hype, is that I am not and never have been very concerned about privacy on Facebook. Why should I be? It's the Internet for goodness sakes. The public, open, free Internet that we all embraced with open arms--that we championed and cheered on for years and years.
And really, what am I sharing? A few pictures of my cats. A list of my previous jobs and education. Some nice family snaps. As a journalist, I've had a public online persona for 15 years. It's been a pain in the ass at times--like the time a pornbot got hold of my name (yes, first AND last), making every Google search for my name an exercise in porno linkbait. But overall, I've been very happy with these here Internets, and the ways they allow me to share who I am with the rest of the world. Like me or hate me, I "yam what I yam."
And, while I *wish* I could say that I'm special and unique in every way, I know that as far as anything Facebook could find out about me, I'm really not. I like certain types of music, enjoy some restaurants and not others ... big whoop. I don't share information that I wouldn't want the whole world to know. My address is kept private... although, remember the phone book? Remember how you could just look someone's name and address and phone number up? Well, it still exists. I do think that it's important to take sensible precautions. Don't announce that you're traveling, especially if you've left your house empty. Don't give too much information out about truly personal things in your life. And be careful about sharing when you're feeling vulnerable. It's fine to say you're having a bad day, but I do cringe when I see people talking about bad dates, or major relationship issues, or even serious problems they're having with housemates. This stuff is probably best left unsaid in a public forum.
And that is the point. Think of Facebook as a public place, not a private one. If you do, a lot of the fears about privacy disappear. Email should be private. Phone conversations should be private. Social networking, not so much.
Image: Pulled off Wired and messed with: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/05/facebook-rogue/