The Thing About Facebook

So here's the thing about Facebook (which I left some time ago).

It's 2010. All information is viral. Not in the good way, "This will catch on fast! Alternate reality games! Memes in the misinterpreted sense!", in a "contagious infection that you can't stop from spreading" way.

Let's say I make a profile for myself online and I choose to share its most sordid details only with my very closest friends. Firstly, my closest friends are distinct people. They have their own rights, profiles and security settings. They can share anything they wish with anybody they wish. Even if they choose to only share the data with their closest friends, this is not an idempotent operation. Applied sufficiently many times, everybody is a closest friend of a closest friend of [...] a closest friend of everybody else who uses Facebook or not, including my friends, mother, shareholders, boss and wife. In addition, there is the company who hosts my profile. Do they have the right to share my data? Well, I gave it to them voluntarily. And I click "Yes" every time their EULA changes.

What else are they going to do with it? Hosting and accumulating data is all Facebook does.

Facebook has not gone rogue or turned evil. It has abandoned pretence.

Facebook is not a charity. Why does it host ridiculous polls and let you say "I Like It"? Why does it track your personal information and shopping habits and responses to advertisements and potentially every other action you take? Because the accumulation and sale of demographic data - about YOU, its users - is its primary business model. Maybe there were a few noble idealistic months at the beginning of the site's existence when it truly was there to make people happy and nothing else, but now it has hosting costs beyond your wildest nightmares, which must be covered somehow. This - user data, and advertising targeted with pinpoint accuracy - was always the only way that the site was ever going to turn a profit. To assume otherwise is naïve, and to think that an open-source alternative will solve this problem doubly so.

It is not practical - in fact, it's practically oxymoronic - for a social networking site to keep data private, and it is dishonest for a social networking site to pretend that it can keep your data private while continuing to cover operating costs. Zuckerberg made remarks some months ago about wishing Facebook had never had privacy controls, and was lambasted for it. I'm dubious of his motives, but I call his conclusions pragmatic and justifiable. Dear user: Keep your information to yourself, or share it with the entire listening universe, corporations included. There is no longer a middle ground. This is not a relaxation of privacy controls. This is an increasingly bare-faced confession of underlying principles. We're in a world where personal information is free-as-in-speech but valuable-as-in-beer.

Social networking has been like this since it began, and it will be like this until long after you die. This Is The Way The World Is Going To Work Now. The more plain the sites' intentions are, and the more consumers understand about how the net is going to work going forward, the better. Knowing this is good for you. You may decide this is fine, and that's fine, or not, and that's fine too. The important thing is that your decision is informed.

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Discussion (13)

2010-05-09 01:30:22 by Ross:

In a move of minor irony, I clicked the "send to Facebook" icon at the bottom of the post. I'm sure dozens of others will too.

2010-05-09 01:59:06 by YarKramer:

@Ross: Ooh, good idea! I'll do that, then mark my account for deletion again.

2010-05-09 05:23:46 by BenFriesen:

I really hope that most people decide that it's fine. The amount of data being generate by Facebook is useful not just for advertising, but for sociology, demographics, and psychology.

2010-05-09 16:15:41 by Abdiel:

It seems I have a completely different view of things: I am not paranoid. I have nothing to hidee. I am completely fine with Google, Facebook, or whoever else knowing what I buy, what I like, or what I look at on the Internet - when I know that the next time I, say, look for something on Google, I always see the results most relevant to me. It is in every company's interest to offer me services which I would be interested in, and if they know who I am even before I visit their webpage, it can save me literally hours of searching for what I want.

2010-05-10 00:46:26 by Brent:

You have some interesting points, but one thing that should be made clear is that social networks can target ads to users with pinpoint accuracy without revealing personal information to the advertisers.

Additionally, there is still a large middle ground between privacy and sharing your data with all people and all corporations. Twitter may only have those two privacy settings, but Facebook's privacy settings are quite comprehensive and powerful.

2010-05-10 00:54:17 by Ian:

I'm curious as to your perspective on memes that leads you to consider Internet memes a misinterpretation of the concept of a meme, Sam.

2010-05-13 19:47:32 by dan:

I'm not convinced, because I'm not convinced that profitability is necessary*. Email is not profitable, but it is such an important tool that the company you work for pays some amount to host it (or gets it free from Google, who has figured out how to make it profitable by making you less private). I see the social network going the way of email.

On a related note, the first Socknet provider is now accepting signups:

*Of course, Facebook has chosen its business model, so it is now necessary for it to be profitable.

2010-05-13 22:06:59 by qntm:

Profitability isn't necessary but hosting isn't free so revenue is necessary. Profitability is just revenue plus a bit.

2010-05-17 15:39:00 by Maelin:

I've never understood the Facebook user privacy obsession. I don't do anything on there I'm particularly ashamed of. We seem to live in this world where "privacy" is the buzzword of the day. I don't value "privacy" as a thing in itself. What actual real-world outcomes do we anticipate stemming from Facebook's lack of "privacy" that we seek to avoid? What, really, is the problem?

2010-05-17 16:33:57 by qntm:

Maelin, what if you were gay and all your friends knew but your parents didn't? What if you were a school teacher but in you often go out and get drunk or worse, and your pupils found out? What if you were bad-mouthing your employer behind his back and he fired you? What if you divorced your violent spouse but he kept stalking you via Facebook? All of these things - all of which have *actually happened* - are made possible by the shifting sands of privacy controls. Privacy *is* a *huge* issue. Use your imagination.

2010-05-29 00:35:33 by DougC:

Of course, there's yet another angle here in the 'states. While it turns out that by law the government isn't allowed to collect data (certain kinds) at random (needs at least a rubber stamp warrant), it's fully legal for them to simply purchase it from various places, for example, credit agencies, phone companies (traffic analysis at least),,,facebook? The first is known true. Why stop there?

2012-07-29 13:08:10 by Benjamin:

Maybe what is actually being said is, in the day when networking was not as commercial, myself and everyone else use to socialize without any personal privacy problems besides pop-ups.... Now that a lot of companies are wanting more advertizing angles, the companies pay large internet sites to somehow incorporate there company...

So what I'm saying is, Facebook is no longer a social networking internet site, Fakebook is now a cover story of social networking(generated numbers and now realize the business side/marketing) and really just care for one plus one equals two and so on and so forth until you reach 900 million active users.(As of May 2012)


To share myself, I quit Facebook not only for the fact that social network shows how inconsiderate people are,(vain/care for themselves/self worth/perception) but for the fact that Twitter/Facebook are advertized everywhere and I really have no interest of contacting people on a corporate website...(call me what you like, subscribing just feels emotionally wrong and destroys my integrity...would rather collaborate with subscribers, take the relaxed business away and start a real networking site made by regular people and be a non profit, but paying the Information Technologists to maintain and other people involved....)

Revolution right!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Not going to happen.....people are to fudging lazy to get off of there arses, get the word out and follow to take over and rule corporate U.S.A.

Corporations made by people, employee the people and funds the existing company but most of all funds the people.... Why does the Government have to run mostly everything.....We the people fill the positions necessary to even meet the basic needs to live....... (government is necessary for organization)

Going on tangents/Ramble Ramble

2015-10-29 13:40:01 by Resuna:

I learned my lesson back when "social networking" was mailing lists and Usenet.

I don't write anything I wouldn't want my boss to see.