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Why “The Facebook” is bad for you…

September 9th, 2010

As I was setting up this blog on a v-host at DreamHost and under my personal domain, I posted the following to my Facebook page: “Ok, money where my mouth is. Content updates to Facebook will be essentially ending soon. Future status updates will point to a blog on a server I control. Time to begin the exit. If anyone wants a discount codes at DreamHost, let me know. Yes, I know it will be inconvenient to have to leave Facebook to comment and use real email to message me etc. Sorry about that but the Facebook thing is pretty seriously bad news.”

Tim H., ever the provocateur asked me why so, here it is,  the first proper blog post and  what will likely be many on the subject of Facebook and other social networking sites and the issues with them.

First, a little background.

For years I have been saying I find social networking sites deeply problematic and think, ultimately, they are bad for the culture and individual rights of freedom and privacy. I’ve been saying it so long that Friendster was cool when I let fly my first rant on the topic.

The core issues are all rooted in the disconnect between the interests of the companies that run these sites and the interests of their users.

On a basic level, the operators of the site want to make money from your contacts and your relationships. Even if the account and the use of the site is free, the goal, of course, is to make money from what you post and what they can data mine about you and the people you know. Usually, the results of this data mining are as ‘benign’ is being able to target advertising at you but it can also be exploited for more overtly nefarious purposes. One more nefarious purpose is to make money selling advertising to viewers of your content you don’t get paid for. It’s that mining and the need of the site owners to lock you into their network that creates the problems and why, really, we need better alternatives for ‘social networking’ and managing our presence on the ‘net.

Now, at first, all this may seem like a fair trade. They give you an easy way to establish a presence on the internet, tools to connect you to your ‘friends’ and a kind of address to tell people in meatspace where to find you to stay in contact. For musicians, the membership of a social network has become perceived as an audience, all neatly packaged, an artist can market to and, in truth, there have been significant success stories for bands using MySpace and Facebook in just that way.

All that appears, on the surface, to be a nice thing to give you in exchange for showing you a few ads. For millions of people, it has been. Being honest about my Facebook experience, it’s had some very positive effects for me:

  • I have reconnected with some people I am actually very fond of but with whom had slipped out of touch.
  • I have actually met new people based on shared interests. This, in many ways shocks me and will probably be the topic of another post.
  • I was able to help promote an event that was important to me. The reunion show of a band I used to work with doing stage lighting and some management; Big Catholic Guilt which was, in truth, the only reason I joined ‘the Facebook’ in the first place.
  • I have enjoyed the ‘Pub’ experience. The conversational engagement that the interfaces of these systems can afford. The truly ‘social’ aspects of the network.

Despite all these very real benefits, Facebook has also come at a significant price to me.

  • I have, because I needed to promote the show, accepted ‘friending’ from people who I am uneasy about having be associated with my online face. It’s not that I think they are bad people. I am very fond of some of them and love being in touch with them. It’s not even that I don’t respect them. Really, it’s that they have made choices about how they present themselves that I don’t agree with. Often it’s a courageousness about not being politically correct that exceeds even mine. Sometimes it’s that I know they’re kidding but a third party would likely blanche.
  • It has put me in some emotional binds. There have been people who I actually rather like who are part of a community I prefer to distance myself from whose ‘friendings’ I have had to avoid because I didn’t want to surface as one of their friends and expose myself to the rest of those communities. Such exposure happens here on a public blog, of course, but there’s no public record of who reads this. And, more important, I don’t get put into some mechanized interpretation of a ‘social graph’ that implies somebody’s interest in me maps one-to-one with my interest in them.
  • It has put me under social pressures I haven’t liked. Pressure to post pictures of myself online. Pressure not to ‘untag’ myself in pictures others have posted of me. Pressures to accept ‘friending’ from people I don’t actively dislike but who, really, aren’t folks I have an emotional connection to and don’t want to establish one with.
  • Engaging actively on Facebook has been a time-sink and a, from a long term ‘net presence’ perspective, a negative one. I, knowing most of what I post here going in, chose to make my presence on Facebook personal and individual. I lied about my high school, college and work affiliations in my profile with little clues to people who really know me that, yes, it was me they found hiding behind the locked down profile and obfuscated profile picture. Because of this, I invested time posting things there that don’t accrue to my public internet presence and reputation. It was, from a professional perspective, a bad use of my time.

Then there are the practical problems.

  • I can’t get the data back out. When, and I do say when, Facebook fades from favor and the next site becomes all the rage, all the records of my interactions. Any content I posted is all locked away in Facebook subject, at best, to manual capture. The owners of these sites have no incentive at all to help you pull out your contact, connections or dialog and move it elsewhere. Their business depends on keeping and controlling what you post.
  • Their business model is inherently predisposed to encourage you to take risks with your privacy and, to me, much worse, the privacy of others. Facebook games, hacks, and a legacy of privacy-breaching rollouts of new features are surely bad enough but to me, the most troubling experience I had on Facebook was when I posted about my horror at the contact upload feature: “Find People You Email”
  • The systems in place simultaneously encourage you to share personal information and deprive you of granular control. Sure, this blog is completely public and, therefore, affords me no useful ‘blocking’ protection but it also is quite obviously so. I am not lulled into any false sense of security that only my ‘friends’ can see it.
  • My use of their service and how much of my information is exposed is entirely subject to their whims. If I offend, I can be banned. Not via some formalized legal process but at their sole discretion. If they fold, sell or substantially alter the service, my investment in the network could be instantly eradicated.

The “Find People You Email” feature mentioned above is particularly insidious. It’s designed to make it easy for you to connect with your ‘meatspace’ friends on Facebook. You point Facebook at a contact file or email account and Facebook scrapes the names and makes suggestions for you to connect with them in the Facebook environment. It’s extremely convenient and easy and it’s deeply, deeply insidious because of that very ease. A person I have enormous professional respect for actual bristled at my post about how horrified I was that Facebook claimed people I know had not used this feature had used it to find me. I, with a certain brutal frankness, posted that, in my probably insufficiently humble opinion, thought you’d have to be a real bozo to do this. He, this colleague, posted that he had and that I was being an alarmist. Despite my sincere respect for him, here’s why I believe he was dangerously wrong:

My contacts files include information about how to reach people in the technology business and in the press who are, being honest, ‘famous people’ by some narrow and hardly worth name-dropping about definition. They are engineers at companies who normally let you talk to marketing people. They are niche press. They include the personal contact into for technical support or beta coordinating staff. The email addresses and phone numbers I have aren’t always the same ones that exist on their business cards. The mobile numbers are to their mobiles. Not just the mobile they turn off on the weekends. The way good contact management software works, the one contact may have several email addresses and phone numbers associated with one name. It has been made very clear to me by these people that I have the ‘special number’ or the ‘special email’ because they trust me. It’s my responsibility to respect that trust and not go handing these addresses to Facebook, an entity designed to profit from surfacing connections.

In a discussion about privacy, another friend pointed out the pitfalls of location API’s and other privacy risks more directly impacting physical safety in meatspace and they will be the topic of future posts but he, surprisingly, didn’t see the concern I had about email addresses as substantial. While I respect his choices not to be protective of his email address, there have been times in my professional life that I have had to field hundreds of emails a day (him too actually) and the commingling of personal and business email and the exposure to spam were real impediments to my productivity. The volume of email and the effort necessary to manage it cost me, and my employers, real money. The issue was severe enough I have had to abandon several primary email addresses over the years. Those of you who have my ‘real’ email address know you do and I rely on you not to share or compromise it.

We’re at nearly 1900 words and it’s time to wrap this post. There are countless other issues with ‘social networking’ sites and, of course, there will be more privacy breaches by Facebook to hammer on later. This, I hope, has at least been food for thought.

Oh, and one last thought about trust. Comments here require you to register. I’ll leave up any comment that meaningfully contributes to the dialog and, of course, I will have a log of your IP address, browser, platform and where you followed the link from; standard server logs. With some effort, if you register, I could correlate that info with the email address you used to register and the user name you choose. It’s your call whether or not to trust me as much as you trust Facebook, or not. Bonus points to anyone who can cite the best reasons not to trust me where it might actually be safer to trust Facebook and no, this isn’t a call for wisecrackery. It’s a real ‘are you thinking this all through?’ question with real and logical answers I will post if folks show interest. There are more than a few deliberate hints in this article.

– Jon

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