Sam Davyson

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Why I think Facebook is bad

15/12/09 - 03.23

Anybody who knows me well will know that I’m fiercely anti-Facebook. It’s not that I’m not tech-savvy. I’m extremely interested by technology and am generally enthusiastic about the effect of the internet on communications. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about how they use Facebook and through explanation of how I feel about the service several people have left Facebook – always with extremely positive results.

I want to be absolutely clear – what you do with yourself is totally up to you. This article is to explain why I’m not on Facebook as in some social circles this stance seems to require some explanation.

My objections split into two main areas.

Privacy concerns – I believe that Facebook is a young company with a known track record for massive privacy errors. I therefore think it’s inappropriate to trust Facebook with vast amounts of information: lists of friends, communications with friends, photos, status updates etc. Here are three times when I think

1. Deactivation and deletion. You couldn’t delete your Facebook account.

This is the original reason that I left Facebook. To do so you had to manually remove every piece of data you’d given the site and then email a support representative and request deletion. There was no easy way to leave at all. In late 2006 I had been repeatedly emailing Facebook requesting a resolution on this. I filed a complaint with the privacy watchdog Trust-e who validate Facebook’s privacy policy. Trust-e found that the grounds for my complaint were valid and Facebook were given 30 days to respond. On 31st January 2007 I got an email from Facebook’s chief privacy officer – Chris Kelly which said that:

“Our deactivation feature addresses most concerns by immediately making profile and other personal information provided by a user unavailable to Facebook users who otherwise would have been able to access it because of overlapping networks or confirmed friend requests.  Over time — how long varies depending on the type of data and the traffic on the service — much of the data pertaining to an individual’s deactivated account is overwritten on Facebook servers.”

That was the end of my complaint. I was short of time and couldn’t pursue it any longer. Things remained as they were – you literally couldn’t leave the service unless you made a significant time investment deleting everything manually. Someone in the summer of 2007 posted their story of 2504 steps to delete your facebook account. The situation found its way into mainstream media too. For instance around a year later in December 2007 The Guardian described Facebook as Hotel California – as in you can never leave.

In 2008 Facebook resolved this and did introduce a delete feature. It however remains rather hidden and not a simple process such that many people still believe you can not fully leave Facebook (instead thinking that the only option is “deactivation” which is just account suspension). In summer of 2009 Facebook’s practices came under review from the Privacy Commissioner in Canada who found numerous breaches. One was about this very issue of account deactivation and deletion. The report said:

Facebook provides confusing information about the distinction between account deactivation – whereby personal information is held in digital storage – and deletion – whereby personal information is actually erased from Facebook servers. As well, Facebook should implement a retention policy under which the personal information of users who have deactivated their accounts will be deleted from the site’s servers after a reasonable length of time.

Facebook agreed to clarify things on their site and to mention the deletion process when people deactivate. I don’t know if this has been implemented – and I haven’t heard anything concrete about deletion timescales. In any case – to me this is all far too little and far too late. And this is just the first issue…

2. Facebook Beacon. Resulted in a lawsuit which has just been settled by Facebook for $9.5 million.

I wasn’t an active Facebook user when Facebook Beacon erupted so I don’t know as much about this (full story on Wikipedia). The feature was introduced to port information from third party websites into Facebook and for that information to show up on your News Feed. The problem was that it was “opt-out” meaning that you had to specify that you didn’t want to be part of it on a provider by provider basis. By default data was being pumped to Facebook from these external sites. It took several months for Facebook to add a general opt out and now the service has been fully terminated after a lawsuit ending with a $9.5 million privacy based settlement from Facebook. The money will go to make a privacy enforcing body.

I just want to stress here that this is a company who asks you to trust them with lists of your friends, lists of events you are going to attend, photos of you and your friends, communication between your friends and more. To me it instinctively seems wholly inappropriate to trust Facebook with any of this information let alone all of it. Beacon was the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg I believe as a way to make revenue. Here’s what he had to say when Beacon finally became opt in.

About a month ago, we released a new feature called Beacon to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web. We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. While I am disappointed with our mistakes, we appreciate all the feedback we have received from our users. I’d like to discuss what we have learned and how we have improved Beacon.

Facebook has succeeded so far in part because it gives people control over what and how they share information. This is what makes Facebook a good utility, and in order to be a good feature, Beacon also needs to do the same. People need to be able to explicitly choose what they share, and they need to be able to turn Beacon off completely if they don’t want to use it.

(Full blog post)

This was a big and important mess up with users information on other websites at its core. So big that it resulted in a U-turn, an apology and eventually complete termination of the feature.

3. Defaulting users’s information to be public.

This issue is ongoing and has been reported all over the internet in the last week or so. Facebook wanted to simplify the privacy controls on the website and introduce controls for each individual piece of information that you published to the site. They also did away with regional networks. The key issue was that to move people to the new system Facebook prompted users when they logged in that they had to update their settings – and if you were a normal average user who hadn’t poked around with their privacy settings before (99%+ I’ve seen estimated) – then the default options on the update tool are to make everything publicly accessible.

Just let that settle for a minute. Everything. Publicly. Accessible. This doesn’t make sense when you look at the aim they proclaim on their homepage:

Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.

And it doesn’t sit with how Facebook has built itself up as a private area you can share information with people who matter to you. Remember Zuckerberg in the post about Beacon:

Facebook has succeeded so far in part because it gives people control over what and how they share information.

I know that they were trying to give control but it was a confusing pop-up and defaulted to something that almost nobody using the website would want. User testing would probably show that almost everyone would simply dismiss the message with the default settings and not read the panel at all. In doing this everything in their account suddenly becomes public.

And it gets worse. In line with these changes Facebook also changed what was publicly available information in their eyes. They decided that people’s friend lists were publicly available information – that’s that they should be available to people who aren’t even logged into Facebook. There was no setting or option for this – this was just the way Facebook decided it was. There was noticeable upset about this and Facebook have partly backtracked on it already (see this Facebook blog post) but not fully. Applications can still access a users friends list with no restriction.

Don’t think this is a big deal? Trust me this one more than any of the others is a massive deal. TechCrunch said The Facebook Privacy Fiasco Begins, Mashable said Facebook’s New Privacy Push Concerns Experts, Danny Sullivan wrote a piece called Now Is It Facebook’s Microsoft Moment?, and Vallewag called it Facebook’s Great Betrayal. Jason Calacanis posted to his email newsletter a posting entitled ‘Is Facebook Unethical, Clueless or Unlucky?’ coming down on the side of the first two. The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote piece called Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in which in they say:

In conclusion, we at EFF are worried that today’s changes will lead to Facebook users publishing to the world much more information about themselves than they ever intended.

I strongly suspect that Facebook will have to publicly backtrack on this whole move shortly. To me what they do is moot. Facebook have decided (for monetization reasons almost certainly) that it would be much better if people had their information generally public (like in Twitter). So to get this result they’ve tried to force users into doing this and have moved some data to be publicly available without any consultation at all. Unbelievable.

Fundamentally changes relationships – I have thought about this for some time and I have tried numerous times to put my objections into clear words but without much success. When reading about the latest privacy nightmare that Facebook is currently dealing with.

Posted by JBMaginaty on December 11, 2009 at 8:08 pm (original comment)
Reproduced without permission.

Relationships have a life cycle. They grow, they develop, and they either become static or die. Static can be strong and positive (as in someone you love and trust) or just ho hum (status quo), with every variation in between.

The variable that determines how quickly a relationship’s life cycle moves is the amount of exposure we have (to information) about the other person.

What is FB, essentially? It’s an information hose, it’s all about information exposure. Privacy is it’s core enemy.

What does FB do to your relationships? It speeds up their life cycles. It is a relationship life cycle catalyst.

I think when people realize this, that being a FB participant is akin to dramatically increasing the speed of one’s relationships, they will run from FB as they would to “FIRE!” shouted in a crowded theater.

[And before you think that this is good, that it’s better to build and amass friends quickly, to identify and eliminate enemies with ease, ask yourself these questions: “Of those it took me a lifetime to befriend, how many of them has FB taken from me? Of those friends I have met on FB, how many of them do I really know? How many of them feel substantial to me? How many of them could I really substitute for those I have lost to FB?” I imagine the answers are too many, none, none, and NONE, respectively.]

It’s the mystery of others that keeps us interested in them. It’s what we don’t know about them and their lives that makes us want to know them more (and sometimes, yes, less). It’s what we don’t know about their week that makes us want to spend time with them this weekend. It’s what we learn about them in the natural context of living life that makes us want them to be part of our lives for as long as we live or never again. And FB destroys all of this…

There is no mystery to you anymore. With FB, too many people know too much about you already. Why would they be interested when they know everything there is to know?

[Worse is that FB allows you to fabricate a self that is completely out of context with reality, with your real life in a real world that is challenging and hard and ugly and beautiful and complex and wonderful; and, that false self does not and will not hold up in real life, neither for you nor for others who befriended you through its facade.]

In short, the more information you give, the more predictable you become. The more predictable you become, the less interesting you are. The less interesting you are, the fewer relationships of any substance you will have, and you even threaten the ones you do have.

In that sense it’s good that FB allows an unlimited number of friends: You’ll need every one of them.

I couldn’t agree with this more. It brilliantly captures the fundamental problems with the model that Facebook represents.

Either one of them – privacy or the way it changes relationships – is enough to cause me to steer well clear of the company. That’s why I am not a member and why I don’t ever foresee myself being a member in the future.

I want to finish with a few thoughts about what a suitable platform would be like to enrich the experience that email gives us. Requirements in my eyes for any candidate are:

  • interoperability – I want to be able to communicate with users using other companies (or even my own) product based around an open standard.
  • portability – I want to be able to change providers if I’m not happy with the service that I’m getting or I disagree with policies or for any reason I want.

There is only one candidate for this at the moment which is the Wave Protocol and the first service that supports it: Google Wave. Obviously an essential component is widespread adoption which Wave certainly does not have – and at present there is only one provider so it is not clear how portable data will be. It’s also not fully finished yet, and it’s rather complicated and difficult to explain what it’s trying to do (the Google introduction video is 1hr 20 mins). But it’s the only thing that is going in the right direction at the moment. I don’t think it’s an email replacement – but it could definitely be a good compliment a few years from now. Until then if you want to reach me – good old email will do.

December 15th, 2009 - 3.23 AM | No Comments »