Leaving Facebook: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

I first quit Facebook in 2010, in response to a talk Eben Moglen gave at NYU about Facebook’s privacy-destroying ways; one of his most memorable lines was:

The East German Stasi used to have to deploy a fleet of undercover agents and wiretaps to find out what people did, who they met, what they ate, which books they read; now we just have a bunch of Like buttons and people tell a data monetizing corporation the same information for free.

That talk–in which Moglen referred to Mark Zuckerberg as a ‘thug’–also inspired a couple of young folk, then in attendance, to start Diaspora, an alternative social network in which users would own their data. I signed up for Diaspora soon after kicked off; I also signed up for Google+. I returned to Facebook in 2012, a few months after starting my blog, because it was the only way I could see to distribute my posts. Diaspora and Google+ never ‘took off’; a certain kind of ‘first-mover status, and its associated network effects had made sure there was little social networking on those alternative platforms.

Since then, I’ve stayed on Facebook, sharing photos, bragging about my daughter and my various published writings, and so on. I use the word ‘bragging’ advisedly; no matter how much you dress it up, that’s what I’ve been doing. But it has been a horrible experience in many ways: distraction, lowered self-esteem, envy, have been but its most prominent residues. Moreover, to have substantive discussions  on Facebook, you must write. A lot. I’d rather write somewhere else, like here, or work on my books and essays. So, I desperately want to leave, to work on my writing. But, ironically, as a writer, I feel I have to stay on. Folks who have already accomplished a great deal offline, can afford to stay off; those of us struggling to make a mark, to be noticed, have to stay here. (Consider that literary agents now want non-fiction writers to demonstrate that they have a ‘social media presence’; that they have a flourishing Facebook and Twitter presence, which will make the marketing of their writings easier.) I know, I know; as a writer, I should work on my craft, produce my work, and not worry about anything else. I know the wisdom of that claim and reconciling it to the practical demands of this life is an ongoing challenge.

So, let’s say, ‘we,’ the user ‘community’ on Facebook decide to leave; and we find an alternative social network platform. I’m afraid little will have changed unless the rest of the world also changes; the one in which data is monetized for profit, coupled with a social and moral and economic principle that places all values subservient to the making of profit. The problem isn’t Facebook. We could migrate to another platform; sure. They need to survive in this world, the one run by capital and cash; right. So they need to monetize data; ours. They will. Money has commodified all relationships; including the ones with social network platforms. So long as data is monetizable, we will face the ‘Facebook problem.’

Facebook and Writers’ Status Messages

My last post on Facebook led me to think a bit more its–current and possible–integration into our lives, especially those conducted online.

As ‘net users are by now aware, almost any site you visit on the ‘net features a Facebook button so that you can indicate whether you ‘Like’ the page and thus, share it with your ‘Friends.’ Of course, in so doing, you also leave a digital trail of sorts, indicating what you have read, what music you have listened to, which videos you have viewed, which jokes you found funny, and so on. As Eben Moglen put it rather memorably at a talk at NYU a few years ago, (and I quote from memory):

In the old days, the East German Stasi used to have to follow people, bug them, intimidate their friends to find out what they read, what they got up to in their spare time. Now. we have ‘Like’ buttons that do the same for us.

The surveillance, the generation of data detailing our habits, our inclinations, our predilections, is indeed quite efficient; it is made all the more so by having outsourced it to those being surveilled, by dint of the provision of simple tools for doing so.

I personally do not get very creeped out by the notion of hitting ‘Like’ on a article that I enjoyed reading–though, struck by Moglen’s remark, I have not done so even once since returning to Facebook in 2010. I do however find it very creepy that Netflix asks me if I would like to share my movie viewing preferences with my friends on Facebook; that seems excessively invasive. 

In any case, I do not think the limits of this kind of ‘integration’ of Facebook with the information we consume and the software we use have yet been reached.

Here is at least one more possible avenue for Facebook’s designers to consider. Many ‘net users access it via an ‘always-on’ connection. Thus, even when they are not actively using an Internet application–like say, a word processor, or a spreadsheet–they are still connected to the ‘net. In the not so distant future, these programs could be designed–by close cooperation between Facebook and the software vendor in question–to supply information about our usage of these applications to our ‘Friends.’ On a real-time basis.

Thus, for instance, when I would open a file on my word processor, my ‘Friends’ would be so informed; they would then learn how long I had continued editing, how many breaks I took, (and of course, if those breaks were online, they would be told which pages I had opened, and how long I had spent there), and so on. Our software would come with this feature turned on; you would have to opt-out or customize your sharing.

This way, all those status messages we are often treated to on Facebook: ‘Hooray, first draft complete!’ or ‘Finally got five hundred words written today’ or ‘I just can’t seem to get anything written today’ could be automated. Extremely convenient, don’t you think? Examples like this–for other kinds of applications–can be readily supplied, I’m sure.

Facebook and Impoverished Sharing

A few days ago, on this blog, I excerpted a couple of passages from Richard Klein‘s Cigarettes are Sublime, and wrote of a little episode in my life centered on smoking cigarettes as a way to kill time.  Once I had written the post and published it here, as is usual, I posted links to it on my Twitter feed and my Facebook page. As I did so, I wondered if I should tag the friend of mine who had gifted me the book almost twenty years ago–he is on Facebook too, just like me. My tagging of him would be a kind of public acknowledgment of his gift, maybe even a late thank-you to add to the one I sent his way when he first gave me my birthday gift. Perhaps I could tag him in the comments space, writing something like:

Hey D___: remember you bought me this book for my birthday in 1995? Well, I’ve read it – nineteen years later!

I didn’t do so but I’m still tempted to–somehow it seemed like the ‘reasonable’ thing to do on Facebook. For such tagging, such calling-out, is eminently the norm on Facebook.  If you post something on your Timeline, and if any of your friends is somehow potentially interested in–or, as in my case–connected somehow–to the subject of your post, well, then, you tag them, you alert them–you ‘share’, you ‘link’, you ‘network.’ Of course, when you do so, you do so publicly.

In an alternative universe, I might have written my blog post, and then separately emailed my friend to let him know that I had finally reached up into my bookshelf, read his witty inscription, and read the birthday gift he had so generously purchased for me (on a graduate student’s salary, no less). That epistolary interaction might have turned into a longer one if he had replied, perhaps with a reminiscence or two about that period of genteel semi-poverty, perhaps with a rueful acknowledgment of how long cigarettes had been a presence in our lives. If I had done my tagging on Facebook, we might have had the same interaction but in public, not in private. Its content, which we might have imagined more appropriate for email, would have been visible to all our ‘friends.’  Or perhaps we might not have had the same conversation; perhaps we would have found an unhappy middle-ground where, subconsciously aware of our ‘audience’ we would have made our exchanges less revealing, less forthcoming. And yet still remained in the public eye, not moving our correspondence to email.

The structure and features of Facebook are–as I’ve noted here previously–set up to shift a great deal of communication, previously imagined to be private, to public spaces, available for inspection by your ‘friends’, all in the name of sharing. Its impact on privacy is much talked about; one of the dimensions of that impact is how we may subscribe to its sharing model while retaining some of our intuitions about what we consider shareworthy, thus impoverishing our interactions with our ‘friends.’

Reflections on Facebook, Part Two

Facebook’ problematic relationship with privacy issues infuriates most of its users; it has ensured that no contemporary discussion of online privacy can proceed without a Facebook-related example. This has largely been the case because Facebook set out to provide a means of social networking and communication with an architecture designed to induce behavior in its users that would violate conventional privacy norms. Its default options were set for maximum information exposure and changing them required opting out via a complicated, cumbersome interface. This has had precisely the effect its designers had in mind: user behavior observed on Facebook established new social norms for information sharing, which then facilitated the conclusion the modern social networker was not as concerned with privacy as his forebears. This conclusion in hand, Facebook could defend itself against the charge it violated the privacy of its users by pointing to their behavior. The trap had been set, and Facebook users had walked right into it. Facebook shows quite clearly that the architecture of a system can create new social norms quite easily, in this case, those pertaining to privacy.

Perhaps the prime example of Facebook’s privacy-damaging architecture is the Wall. This has been a feature of Facebook ever since its inception, and nothing quite shows off how privacy norms have changed than the way that Facebook users use it. From the very beginning, Facebook urged user X to ‘write something on Y’s wall’. Note, write on the Wall, not ‘send them a message’. That is, write them a public message that everyone can see. Soon enough, Wall messages had begun, and very quickly, a pattern emerged: what people used to write in email messages was now being written on Walls. I remain amazed at the content of Wall messages: dates are planned, medical test results discussed, break-ups commiserated over, the list goes on. Indeed, I am astonished when someone bothers to send a message using Facebook’s messaging facility, so ubiquitous has the Wall scribble become. It’s the first thing you see when you see a user’s page, and the temptation to write something there is strong. And not easily resisted; I have succumbed to it myself on many an occasion. Similar behavior is observed in the comments spaces of Facebook posts. Here too, users engage in communication which might have previously remained confined to email messages. The architecture isn’t particularly to blame but these are users who are by now, acculturated to speaking loudly and openly in public. And of course, the Facebook status space encourages announcements and proclamations, which often would be better kept private; these in turn, provoke replies subject to the same caveat.

Facebook has changed some of its policies in response to some vociferously expressed concerns over its architecture but the features I’ve listed above are not going anywhere, and indeed, have never served as a focal point of any these complaints. But  they are as important as any of its default information-sharing options in changing our collective, social, reasonable expectations of privacy in social spaces.