Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why I'm not leaving Facebook

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:


Dr William J McKibbin said...

As always, very well said...

Sunshine said...

Thanks! I appreciate it.

John Obeto II said...

While I see your point, Facebook was sold to all as a 'semi-private' place.

As a result, the angst felt by most right now is because, all of a sudden, their seemingly private garden has become a very public glass house.

Furthermore, unlike you, most of us are really not public people, and appreciate the demarcation between our public social lives and the private ones.

What makes Zukerberg & Co's actions more invidious is the fact that they require opt-out for these subdulous privacy invasions, and remain tone-deaf to Facebook users' complaints!

Sunshine said...

John--thanks for the comment. I certainly sympathize with those who are concerned about losing their privacy. I also agree that Zuck and Co. should be thinking in terms of "opt in" rather than "opt out." But I don't agree that it's become a "glass house." It's still semi-private, as long as you know how to tweak your privacy settings. The actual changes are minimal--while the reaction has been nothing short of panic-mongering. I do think that people (especially people with children) need to educate themselves about how to protect themselves against predators. But that should've been the case all along.

John Obeto II said...

I disagree here, with it still being semi-private.

If everything you do on Facebook is automatically exposed to the Intertubes, then it is very public.

Moreover, FB has taken the worst practices of Google, and are using a persistent cookie to, provide customizations [sic], across the whole Intertubes for you.

To make matters more infuriating, FB, as they did with their Beacon, slipstreamed this unto people's unconsciousness, and make it extremely difficult to opt out.

Indeed, in your own words, 'if you know how to tweak your privacy settings'.

Finally, the changes are not minimal. All of a sudden, everything you do or have saved on FB is now public. When I signed up, that wasn't the case.

While you may feel that the reaction has been panic-mongering, I see the opposite: it has been extraordinarily muted.

I fully expect someone to bring an action once the severity of these actions are realized. And if that tort action leads to a class, I will join that class. Actively, too.

Sunshine said...

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. I respect your position, and I respectively see it differently. Everyone who uses a tool like Facebook should familiarize themselves with the privacy settings. Once set, these will protect you from showing anything to the world that you don't authorize Facebook to show. It's very easily done, and not hidden or confusing.

I've heard stories of Facebook auto-changing these settings, but I personally have never experienced it, so I can't help but wonder if that's just another rumor. I've also heard rumors that any updates you post can be found via a Google search without your permission, but I haven't seen any evidence of this, either. I've run several test searches, and they're just not coming up, unless the person put that same update on Twitter, of course. If anything, I'm surprised at the complete lack of uproar over the fact that Twitter updates are now searchable via Google. I definitely did not sign up for that when I joined Twitter. I'm far more likely to say something regrettable on Twitter than Facebook.

As far as third party apps are concerned, Facebook does have some security problems there. I've heard that they're working to fix those. I hope so.

Overall I think we need to stop ascribing nefarious motives to Facebook. The company needs to make money somehow. The obvious way is to make some kind of use of the data that we all share on it about the things we like and dislike. I agree with you that they ought to be more vocal, and more careful about how they're doing that without violating anyone's privacy. But the basic impulse seems perfectly sound and acceptable to me--and could even be a win-win, in which we all gain a better online experience.