I’ve had it with Facebook. Ultimately, it’s not just because of their continually worsening privacy policies, deliberately obtuse privacy settings, and occasional outright censorship. No, it’s because we already have an internet and it works just fine. If I want to be able to read your webpage or send you an email, I don’t need to first give Mark Zuckerberg my name, photo, gender, location, and a list of all my friends, especially when he intends to make that public to the entire world, on the grounds that the age of privacy is over. No, all I need to do is to get access to a computer which is connected to the internet and use freely-available software to connect with you. For those of you too young to remember when AOL gave away CDs and ran its own a private internet (with 30 million users at its peak), think of it as being like a shopping mall’s food court. At first glance it looks like public space, just like a city park, where anyone can hang out and chat with friends. But try to go in while protesting against one of the mall’s stores, or looking homeless, and you’ll soon learn that this space is not very public at all. It’s owned and controlled by a company which ultimately offers it to the public on their terms for the express purpose of making money off of you, and if you get in the way of that goal you can’t expect them to like it.
So how does Facebook make money? By highly targeted advertising, which means collecting as much data about as many users as possible, and sharing this as widely as they can. Just think of all the information you’ve given Facebook since you joined, and how together it gives their advertisers a complete profile of you. Sure, people have tried this before, but this unparallelled data mining opportunity lets Facebook top a billion dollars in annual revenue.
Given all that’s at stake, Facebook has understandably made it as difficult as possible to choose to keep the data you give them private. I fully admit I can no longer figure out their overly complex privacy policies and settings, despite the fact that designing and building complex websites and online communities has been my day job since 2002, and I suspect few people can. I don’t want to have to read online guides on using newly available privacy settings, or running third-party applications that check your Facebook privacy settings, like the one at reclaimprivacy.org (although if you do use Facebook, I hope you will).
It seems like every month Facebook turns off more of their privacy settings, like when they made it impossible to only show your list of friends to your friends, or started sharing your data with sites you never signed up for. When asked why this sort of thing was not “opt-in” and private until you decided otherwise, Facebook’s vice president for public policy responded that in their opinion users opted in by posting information to the site, and from there it was fair game. On those terms, I no longer see any choice but to opt-out of Facebook completely.
So, how can you still stay in contact with me after I leave Facebook? Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts, we still have an amazing global network for freely sharing information on our own terms. You can send me email at mvcorks [at] alumni.uwaterloo.ca, or read my posts on the open-source social networking site Identi.ca (they’re also syndicated to Twitter). You can also read my blog on Livejournal, or browse my photos on Flickr. All of these companies have clear privacy policies and terms of service which I trust, and Livejournal and Flickr allow me to share some content only with people I know. If you’re a friend of mine and you have an account on any of those sites, let me know and I’ll likely grant you access. Better yet, come over for tea and scrabble, and then we can really stay in touch – my number’s in the phonebook. And please, don’t put me on your Facebook.
Update: This is exactly the sort of thing I’m hoping will replace Facebook in a few years. It’s like Bittorrent in the same way that Facebook is like Napster.
Update 2: From a co-worker, here’s an example of what the world could be like if Facebook gets its way: a French cellphone service provider is offering net access for mobiles, for 1€ a month – but you can only access Facebook and Twitter.