Friday, May 28, 2010

A Series of Tubes Sucks Us Down the Drain: Facebook and the Lost Potential of the Internet

Facebook is one of the most useful, most popular websites in existence. It offers, free of charge, a number of services that nearly everyone wants—services that weren't even imaginable 20 years ago. You can let all your friends know what you are doing at any given moment, or you can tell them all a joke, or you can post a link to something and comment on it. You can post pictures of yourself or your cat or other people and share them with all your friends, or the entire internet if you want. You can post links to blogs like this one, or videos, or anything at all that has a URL. You can voice your support of a cause, politician, music group, or abstract idea by hitting the “Like” button or joining a group whose members can share relevant content and have discussions about that cause/artist/idea. You can invite your “friends,” many of whom you don't know very well or actually hate, to parties, political rallies, and flash mobs. You can play a variety of online games, some of which are not even disguised marketing schemes. And you can watch all of the people you share tenuous social connections do all of these things in real time. I'm on Facebook right now, and maybe you are too.

So why do so many people hate it?

Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but many, many people have voiced criticism of Facebook in the last few months, mainly over the site's privacy polices. Wired ran a disturbing article about the site censoring the content of private messages, as well as a somewhat rambling op-ed railing against Facebook; Gizmodo listed 10 reasons to quit Facebook; Time published a somewhat critical profile of the company; and is exactly what it sounds like. There have been other attacks from more obscure sources as well, like this blog entry, which I read because my friend linked to it on Facebook.

Some of the criticisms are, too my mind, pretty minor. The author of the last post, for instance, describes a case where his friend got his account deleted for posting a picture of his cock, which is clearly against Section 3.7 of the Terms of Use Agreement. The author didn't notice his friend was kicked off and the friend missed out on some parties because he wasn't invited to them on Facebook—this shows that terms of use agreements are not merely randomly selected strings of syllables and that you should have ways of communicating other than Facebook. I'm also not convinced by attempts to portray Facebook as a Big Brother-esque monster who is logging our every keystroke—the site may have access to our personal information, but only because we put our personal information on a website whose stated purpose is to share personal information with others. No one forces you to use Facebook, although the way some bloggers talk, you'd think that was the case.

The meatier concerns over Facebook involve the site's privacy settings, which are complex and change every few months in response to user complaints. The basic problem is simple and practically unfixable under Facebook's current rubric: people want to pick exactly which of their “friends” sees what. If I want to share a status update that says, “Damn, I am really wasted considering it's not even noon,” I don't want my mother to see that. And I don't want my boss to see photos of me partying in a different city the night before I call in sick. But to Facebook, everyone is either a stranger, a “Friend,” or a “Friend of a Friend;” there's no way to differentiate between my family members, my coworkers, my oldest friends who now live in other cities, and the people I don't really know but friend anyway. We want to filter the information we give out on Facebook the way we do in real life, but we can't. Or to quote Marlo of The Wire, “You want it to be one way, but it's the other way.”

The way it is is this: Facebook is one of the first websites to take advantage of the internet's incredible, essentially unlimited capacity as a tool to share information. “Information” being not just academic papers, as in the days of ARPANET, but everything. Text, videos, photos, games, software, music--whatever the fuck you want, you can share and spread among friends, strangers, and people you've had sex with exactly one time, using a service not unlike what Facebook is now. The total, perfect, probably unrealizable form of the internet is communism on servers—everyone being able to access anything, all the time. Information is so plentiful it becomes free. The world's greatest library in history downloadable to every laptop without money changing hands. We could have that right now without any new technologies, except as the case of Facebook shows, we aren't ready.

For starters, users still regard information as private property. In the Time article, the author casually notes, “There's something unsettling about granting the world a front-row seat to all of our interests,” without further analysis. He's not talking about personal details like phone numbers, addresses, and other tidbits that could aid identity thieves, he's talking about a concern people have that people he doesn't know will know what he likes. What forbidden desires does he have that he doesn't want broadcasted? Similarly, Ryan Singel of Wired wants to “support an anti-abortion group without my mother or the world knowing,” which he thinks is a problem Facebook should be able to solve. Mr. Singel: if you want to donate money to anti-abortion cause, that is not something you need to tell Facebook. And if you fear that your peers will ostracize you for your political beliefs, maybe you need new peers. And are you really that afraid of your mother? I personally have no problem with giving the world a front-row seat to all of my interests, and I know a number of people who feel the same way. I like the Flaming Lips, sandwiches, and heterosexual intercourse, and I'm not afraid to let everyone know. One interesting question is whether the babies being born right now will have the same hang-ups concerning the sharing of interests that Mr. Singel and the man from Time have. Or will they use social networking sites as naturally as we use toilets?

I don't want to let Facebook itself off the hook though: it's not as if Mark Zuckerman and co. give a shit about my information-sharing utopia. The censoring of private messages between users is disturbing, but it comes from the attitude that they own the data that users choose to share with one another. This is spelled out specifically in Section 2.1 the User Agreement (linked to twice because if you use Facebook, you should read it), which says: “If you upload something, our company owns it just as much as you do.” The way Facebook chooses to use the information they own is to share it with advertisers, which allows them to make unspecifiably large amounts of money without charging its grouchy, constantly complaining users anything. The internet, despite its theoretical potential to become an anarchic hacker's wet dream of information-sharing, is run by for-profit companies like Facebook, and those companies generally make their by selling your personal information to other companies.

(This project offers hope to disgruntled Facebook users. I advise those folks to donate to the cause, but I'm holding my breath until I see a detailed explanation of who is going to be paying for these “seed” servers and how.)

The Time article warns that without more “transparency,” Facebook will become “the web's sketchy Big Brother, sucking up our identities into a massive Borg brain to slice, dice and categorize for advertisers.” That Borg model, of course, is exactly the model that will make Facebook and part-owners Microsoft the most money. Transparency and openness are for hippie programmers who don't conceive of the web as just another money-making machine. And what, really, is wrong with ads that target me based on my stated interests? If we're going to have advertising on the web, I'd rather see ads for things that I might actually use rather than ads for new cars I don't want and can't afford.

Like the Borg, Facebook is constantly adapting and seems impossible to kill. The recent changes to the privacy settings have made them (I think) fairly intuitive and easy to use, and whatever points Facebook's critics have, they haven't been very persuasive ( has 23,000 committed quitters as of this writing, compared to over 4,000 Facebook users who want Slavoj Zizek to host Saturday Night Live). The truth is, there isn't a single website that does everything that Facebook does, except for maybe the still-imaginary Diaspora project linked to above. Someday, I imagine Facebook will be replaced by a sleeker, hipper replacement just as Friendster and MySpace have been replaced. But if that replacement site is just another for-profit service that regards information as a way to make a buck, and the population at large still imagines information to be the same thing as private property, expect exactly the same thing to happen.

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