After failing to see the appeal for a long time, I recently started using FaceBook regularly. The main reasons for the change were the desire to keep in better contact with younger members of my family – who use it fairly heavily but never email (you know who you are) – and the ease of connecting and sharing with diverse acquaintances scattered around the globe.
I do appreciate the ability to share links and bits of information with the widely diverse group of “friends” that I have in FaceBook, and to see the information that they choose to share. The gossipy bits and status updates also provide a bit of humor and some sense of human connection to brighten up the long, lonely hours of info-slog on my computer in the library. And FaceBook is clearly an excellent way of doing these things – of creating and maintaining, without much effort, a low-level, fairly trivial kind of social network.
But my increasing use of FaceBook has coincided with something of a sea change in FaceBook and its relations to both the wider internet and its users – in particular the recent changes to the “like” feature, its integration with a number of major commercial players on the net, and the ability of third parties to access and data-mine our activities on FaceBook.
These most recent changes come after a long period of simmering concern about privacy problems on FaceBook, and they seem to have brought that concern closer to the boiling point, though it still doesn’t seem quite as widespread as perhaps it should be.
It’s also interesting to consider the changed attitudes, access and APIs for third parties in light of FaceBook’s successful effort, only a few months ago, to shut down one of the more interest third-party FaceBook tools, the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine (see here for details). Clearly, the only activities that FaceBook wants to allow are those that contribute to its profits.
The full scope of this most recent set of FaceBook changes is still being discussed and analyzed, but a few things seem (to me) clear:
- FaceBook is attempting to make oodles of money by finding new ways of “monetizing” its users and their activities, and it looks like they’ve hit on a winning formula.
- FaceBook wants to dominant the internet, and, again, pundits and industry observes tend to feel they may be onto a winning formula.
- Key to both these (obviously isomorphic) aims is to integrate FaceBook with more and more of your activity elsewhere on the internet, and then to profit from the incredibly rich source of data this will generate.
This data will be used in a variety of ways for marketing activities. A few analogies may help – the resulting data will function like surveys, focus groups, market research, Nielsen ratings, and the like. Tracking your likes and dislikes, your internet travels, your purchases and page views will provide the sort of information that these various market research activities produce. The detailed information on you, the user, will also facilitate marketing you – that is, producing targeted ads, and selling ad agencies on the value of FaceBook as an advertising medium.
But all that data will be generated behind the scenes, without much conscious or overt input or choice on your part. When you are called by some market research or survey organization, or sent an invite to some questionnaire, you choose whether or not to participate – and whether or not to be scrupulously honest with all your answers. But FaceBook will collect all this info without any activity or choice on your part.
Even more worrying is the way all of this data is tied directly to your identity and stored as computer data, which allows it to be combined with data from other sources – credit agencies, for instance – to produce very powerful individual profiles.
And of course one of the biggest aspects of the problem is the way that FaceBook looks set to become something of a monopoly, in the same way that the Microsoft Office applications were for so long: so widely used that you were forced to use them too. As more and more people join FaceBook, and use it more and more in place of other internet social and communications tools (IM, email, etc.), there is a real pressure to join in – just as I joined in to stay in touch with my siblings and the younger generation.
We may have already passed the point where it is easy to quit FaceBook; certainly we have passed the point where any other social networking system will be able to easily challenge FaceBook’s dominance.
Smarter people than me with more experience in such areas will no doubt have a great deal more to say on these topics in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, to bring you into the debate – and on the theory that where there’s smoke, there’s fire (or some sort of toxic exothermic reaction) – below are some recent tidbits on FaceBook from a variety of news and tech commentary sources. Note that not all of these sources are critical of FaceBook – but when TechCrunch says that FaceBook is “changing the Web, and our culture,” or talks about the productive ways our personal info can be used, even if that doesn’t bother them, it may still bother you. It certainly bothered me.
Facebook’s bid to rule the web as it goes social: “Facebook set out its stall to unseat Google and be at the heart of the web experience as it becomes more social.
The world’s largest social network unveiled a series of products at its developer conference F8 aimed at helping the company achieve that goal.
These tools will make it easier for users to take their friends with them as they browse the web.
“We are building toward a web where the default is social,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder.”
(via BBC News.)
Four senators ask Facebook to make privacy fixes to new features: “They object to the social networking site sharing users’ personal information with other websites without the explicit consent of the users.
How to Opt Out of Facebook’s Instant Personalization (EFF): “Yesterday, Facebook announced Instant Personalization, whereby select websites would ‘personalize your experience using your public Facebook information.’ The initial sites are Pandora, Yelp and Microsoft Docs. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained, this means that when you visit ‘Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you’ve liked.’ Pandora, and other partners, can also link your real name and other Facebook information with everything you do on their site.
More specifically, these sites ‘may access any information you have made visible to Everyone … as well as your publicly available information. This includes your Name, Profile Picture, Gender, Current City, Networks, Friend List, and Pages.’ On Monday, Facebook announced a transition where a ‘new type of Facebook Page’ will make the ‘current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests sections of your profile’ publicly available after you go through the transition tool (or those items will be deleted).
By default, the ‘Allow’ checkbox for Instant Personalization is checked on your privacy settings. If you don’t want the websites that you or your Facebook friends visit to know your information, you must opt out. Since this process is a bit complicated, we have made a quick video showing step by step how to do so.”
(Via Privacy Digest.)
Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information: “Today, Facebook removed its users’ ability to control who can see their own interests and personal information. Certain parts of users’ profiles, “including your current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests” will now be transformed into “connections,” meaning that they will be shared publicly. If you don’t want these parts of your profile to be made public, your only option is to delete them.”
(Via Search Slashdot.)
New York senator challenges Facebook on privacy: “U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has asked the FTC to design privacy rules for social networking sites, including clear guidelines on how information submitted to Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter is used and disseminate”
US Senator wants FTC to regulate privacy on Facebook, other social networks: “These recent changes by Facebook fundamentally change the relationship between the user and the social networking site. Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they chose to share and what information they wanted to keep private. Recent policy changes are fundamentally changing that relationship and there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do and what disclosures are necessary to consumers.
Under new policies, users must go through a complicated and confusing opt-out process to keep private information from being shared with third party websites. Additionally, Facebook has also created a new system whereby ‘interests’ listed by users on their personal profiles are automatically aggregated and shared as massive web pages. Users used to have the ability to keep this information private if they chose. These new common interest pages are a gold mine of marketing data that could use by used for spam and potentially scammers, intent on peddling their wares.”<
(Via Boing Boing.)
What data does Facebook publish about you?: “Find out what personal data Facebook publishes about people by entering their Facebook username here: zesty.ca/facebook. Background here. Related: another privacy hole has been discovered which apparently leaks information about events you plan to attend to people outside your ‘friend’ network, regardless of your privacy settings. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling delete-y. (via EFF)”
(Via Boing Boing.)
Senator Doesn’t “Like” Facebook’s Personalization Feature: “Facebook once again finds itself at the center of a privacy debate, this time in the wake of the launch of the Open Graph API and so-called ‘instant personalization’ features that leverage your profile information on third-party sites like Yelp and Pandora.”
The Age Of Facebook: “In a talk a few days ago investor Ron Conway spoke about the explosive growth of Facebook. ‘They are the universe,’ he said. I asked him if we are in the Age of Facebook. His answer was yes. Ron has been investing in startups for thirty years and he has seen the rise and fall of many companies. This wasn’t just idle chatter.
Microsoft dominated the technology world in the 90s on the back of their Windows and Office products. Google was the champion for the last decade after perfecting the business model around search. Both are still huge companies.
But all the momentum is behind Facebook and how they are changing the Web, and our culture.
Someday, maybe a decade from now, some new technology will rise and allow other companies to threaten Facebook. But until then there is little to stop them. Their march to dominance has just begun.”
ItsTrending Shows Popular Facebook Shared Items: “what ItsTrending shows is the power of all this data that Facebook is collecting, and how it can be used in very productive ways as it’s released to third parties.”
Finally, if all of this has completely put you off FaceBook…