I’ve blogged several times about Facebook’s increasingly insidious attitude towards the concept of user privacy so I’ve surprised myself that I haven’t weighed in so far on their latest efforts — their “Connections” program and attempt to build a so-called Open Graph. (For a quick, visual history of Facebook’s devolving valuation of privacy, see this graphic by Matt McKeon.) There are a few reasons for this: first, I’ve been busy. Second, it occurred to me that all of Facebook’s previous privacy transgressions, like their ham-fisted Beacon program, have served to, deliberately or not, wear us all down so this latest breach just becomes business-as-usual, something we are inured to; and third, the changes are confusing! For example, I didn’t realize until just this morning that websites or Facebook pages that I’ve surfed to have added little applications to my Facebook account that allow them to pull in my info. Or, at least I think that’s what they do, or have the potential to do. (To see what applications may be interacting with you, go to: “Accounts,” “Application Settings,” and to remove, look on the left side of the application pages and click “Remove Application.” At least, again, that’s what I think you do: after doing it and then checking later some of those apps still seem to be there.)
As you can see, I’m doing a terrible job of explaining just what Facebook is doing with my info at the moment and, more importantly, what they have the potential of doing. I do know, however, that I am no longer able to like something without that like being sucked into a larger page populated by everyone else who likes the same thing — and, preferably to Facebook, likes those things within a commercial context. Do you like, oh, I don’t know, long walks on the beach? Well, by typing that into your profile you are part of a 28,232-member strong community that Facebook wants to be “the best collection of shared knowledge on this topic.” If you use that phrase in any of your status updates, they are automatically ported to this page, just like this recent user status update: “Sunrises, long walks on the beach, ate too much & enjoyed the Elizabethan gardens. Yesterday, had a great time with my brother, Carroll & sister, Ann, their families and Casey, Noah & JD! Lee ended the day with a happy Mother’s day wish. What a great week!”. Or, perhaps, these two: “In my spare time I like to take long walks on the beach and sell drugs to young innocent children…”; “I’m 20 years old. I like long walks on the beach to find beached whales. I cut their guts out and make out their ribs are jail bars and yell at people.”
What if you don’t want your gentle Mother’s Day reflections mingled with tales of underage drug dealing? Well, you’re out of luck. As I discovered last week, I’m not able to “like” things like Radiohead, Marcel Proust, the painter Gerhard Richter or card sleight of hand without these likes being part of public and soon-to-be commercialized pages. How do I know this? Because I went through and manually declicked the public page options only to find that Facebook removed all these interests from my page! To make matters worse, every group I belong to has now been relabeled as a “like and interest.” So, a friend sends me an invite to join a group promoting her film, and I click yes to be supportive and also to receive her updates, and now that film is one of the few likes listed on my page.
This is something of a ramble, and I wouldn’t post something so disorganized if I hadn’t just come across an article that lays out the argument against Facebook’s current iteration with more clarity and detail. Over at the macro-economics blog The Baseline Scenario, James Kwak has posted a piece entitled “Bye Bye Facebook.” He begins:
I recently deleted most of my personal information in my Facebook account. (I am keeping the Baseline Scenario page up for the convenience of people who want to read the blog within Facebook, and I need to have my personal account in order to manage that page.) This is only a tiny bit related to the fact that, for several days recently, Facebook was blocking access to this blog. It’s mainly because I’ve decided that the costs of Facebook outweigh the benefits.
He continues to this section, which really resonated with me because it reflects my own confusion even as it echoes larger arguments made by Jaron Lanier in his fascinating book, You Are Not a Gadget:
Then there’s the problem that Facebook marketing, and Facebook executives, are unable to explain clearly what exactly their software does. That could be studied vagueness in order to obfuscate. Or it could be that their data model, user model, and security model are so screwed up after several years of experimenting that they don’t actually know what is going on: they make changes to the software, cross their fingers, and use their customers as testers. I would bet on the latter.
This is what happens when software grows and grows over several years. It’s especially what happens when the software evolves far from what it was initially designed for, without a plan for how it should evolve, as is clearly the case with Facebook. And it’s what happens when you have a company that is growing much too fast, under too much pressure from investors, competitors, and the outside world.
The people who run Facebook may or may not be evil. And I imagine that they will continue to be very successful; I have never been a good predictor of what technologies or companies will do well. But in any case I don’t think they’re very good at writing software. And I don’t want to devote my time to figuring out what Facebook may or may not be doing (knowingly or accidentally) with my information.
In this piece, Kwak announces that he’s essentially leaving Facebook by deleting all his personal info but keeping his account open because the fan page for Baseline Scenario is linked to it. I’m essentially doing the same thing, although I’m not going so far as calling it “bye bye Facebook.” The Filmmaker fan page is linked to my account, so I can’t really leave. That page drives a decent chunk of traffic to our site. (I’m also aware that there are many people who aren’t as concerned about Facebook’s privacy creep.) And I do sign in a couple of times a day and see what my friends have posted. But I have no interest in allowing whatever likes I have to be mined by Facebook’s data miners and spread to every commercial interest on the web, so I’ve just taken most stuff about me down. And I’ve started looking for a new service that might do things like, oh, connect me to my friends without turning me into some kind of paranoid privacy defender and rambling blogger.