Blog Post

Privacy on Facebook

This is a reblog of a very smart posting on privacy and Facebook by Fred Stutzman from his blog Unit Structures: He argues that you can love Facebook AND hate its invasions of our privacy, a distinction that many media prognosticators are missing. Thanks, Fred, for this eloquent parsing of our affections and convictions.

We're not sheep, you're just not paying attention


Following MoveOn's new Facebook membership-drive/petition, a number of important Web 2.0 bloggers have, on cue, posted about privacy apathy. These bloggers argue that we're sheep, that we don't care about privacy, and that like Newsfeed, we don't care about Beacon and our cross-site privacy. These bloggers look at Facebook's growing numbers, see the impressive trends, and conclude we don't care about privacy or anything else Facebookdoes. This logic is flawed, of course - it's sort of like saying anyAmerican who doesn't renounce their citizenship and move to Canadaagrees with President Bush.

Facebook'sbrand represents a place, that place being a virtual community made upof our friends, family and contacts. To put it more bluntly, at themacro level, we're brand agnostic when it comes to social network sites- we go where our friends are. Over the years, we've reified the commodity nature of these networks, migrating every few years.

Ifwe think of the space as a commodity, it becomes apparent that the realvalue of the site is in connection and communication among ties.Therefore, an optimal design strategy for the site is puretransparency, where the site simply acts as the vector for usefulconnections. A flawless, perfectly efficient flow of informationbetween individuals should be the goal of any social network site.

So if we really imagine Facebook as a collection of our friends, what does the brand entity of Facebook represent? The brand entity of Facebook is governmental; the only time one interacts with Facebook as entity is when they are being controlled or punished. Facebook as brand represents surveillance and domination.

You might be wondering what the point is, so I'll get to it. For many users, Facebookdoes represent a community, with friends, strangers, police andgovernment, and an economy running on social and economic capital.While this community is far from democratic, the users and theirgovernment have worked out a balance of power, negotiating andre-negotiating this balance as Facebook and new entrants introduce change.

Of course, Facebookusers have little individual agency when it comes to political action.Yes, they can join groups, or add a protest application, but short ofcommitting Facebooksuicide, what can they do? The protest action comes in the form ofprivacy. Over the past three years, privacy has skyrocketed inside of Facebook, with millions of users making the profiles friends-only. If you're a Web 2.0 blogger who only uses Facebook as a rolodex, this doesn't appear strange. But to the millions of early adopters who used Facebook as a nexus for social information, this seriously devalues the network.

Think of it this way. A few years ago, Facebookwas a city where no one felt the need to put locks on their frontdoors. Nowadays, we've got strangers, a police force that will kill usif we don't use our "real names", and surveillance bots that track usacross the web and report what we do to our friends. Of course we'regoing to deadbolt the house.

But here's where things get tricky.As we've discussed, a social network should be transparent, connectingfriends and sharing useful information. Friends should be the mainfeature, not the network (Facebook) itself. As people shutter themselves and share less information, Facebookis using Beacons, Applications, etc to create a pseudo-informationmarket, hoping that I won't notice this information is useless.

When I joined Facebook,I cared that I could find my friend's address and see his or herpictures. However, I don't care when my friend buys something or superpokes someone else. Since I'm getting less of that good information, Facebook is trying to stave off the what's next problem by flooding me with "constructed" information. In making Facebook's useless-information-production apparatus central, the real value of the network decreases.

The Web 2.0 bloggers look at Facebook'sadoption numbers and conclude that we're not responding to theservice's continued intrusions. We're just sheep, they say. But whenyou stand back a bit, things get a little bit more clear. Among matureusers, privacy is skyrocketing as users shut themselves off to theworld around them. And as millions of individuals join Facebook,and the useless-information-production apparatus of Beacon andApplications flood us, the site becomes less about one's friends, andmore about Facebook itself.

As Facebook becomes more about Facebookand less about our friends, we should consider what prompted thesechanges. We should also consider where these changes will take us. If Facebookbecomes less about our friends and more about the brands we support,can we rationally make an argument that the site will stay relevant? Ofcourse not. We're not sheep. In fact, the users who have reacted to Facebook's transgressions are shaping the site in powerful ways. Next time you log into Facebook,ask yourself just how much of the information spam you encounter isactually useful. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.


1 comment