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Still on Facebook?! TMI!

May 21, 2010

Yes, you’ve thought about it. You’ve seen it repeatedly change its own rules, slowly eroding our privacy for the sake of “better service.” You’ve seen it become a world-wide ubiquitous monolith. You’ve seen that it can predict with startling accuracy when a relationship will end. You’ve seen people openly disclose and share increasingly disturbing sentiments. You’ve seen both the unintentional security breaches and the intentional resale of private personal information. You’ve seen its CEO’s open contempt for its users, calling them “dumb fucks” for using his service.

You’ve probably even checked it once by the time you’ve reached this sentence.

Yep, it’s Facebook–though it might just as easily have been Google, were it not for the divergence in functionality apart from pure network effects–the most trafficked and addictive substance on the Internet. Subject of much public debate, inner turmoil, and the hallmark of the truly controversial–a cinematic dramatization by Aaron Sorkin–Facebook seems to have past an inflection point in its ascendancy. On May 31, there is a mass-exodus of Facebook planned. And I would encourage you to join me in deleting your account, and taking back some margin of control over our identities. And I suggest you follow this guide, because Facebook doesn’t make it easy to escape its clutches.

Now, before you make your decision, there is still a live debate here, so let’s hash out the choice. You’ve heard the litany of harms to privacy and abuses that Facebook commits on a regular basis: i.e., continuously expanding the scope of its data-collection and the degree to which it shares that information with unauthorized third-parties in total disregard for its users’ autonomy and choices while creating the appearance of caring about users’ needs without actually doing anything about it. Typical neverending mission creep, you know.

When the service first launched in 2005, its privacy policy created a virtual fortress around your personal data: “No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook,” its terms of service read, “will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.” In other words, in the original Facebook universe, anyone who was interested in getting to know you was effectively treated like a vampire: he had to be invited in first. Over the past five years, however, the fortress around your personal information has turned into a drive-through. Late last year, the company announced that a long list of personal details — everything from your profile photo, your friends and fan pages, your gender, your geographic region, and the networks you belong to — were “considered publicly available to everyone.”

On the other side of the equation, Steven Berlin Johnson, the afore-quoted journalist and thinker for whom I have much respect, postulates that the indubitable virtues of public sharing may outweigh concerns of privacy evaporation. Of course, sharing is a good thing: there is wisdom in crowds, and there is obvious value in being able to easily communicate and receive communications; that is the power of the Internet itself. We want instant access to relevant information and communities that we might not have otherwise found just like we want a vibrant marketplace of ideas, and the network society has created myriad methods of reaching out to new constituencies as they reach back and find out about you in return. Johnson suggests that the natural reaction and adaptation to the glut of channels available for sharing has been to self-impose limits on what information we make available to others. We create our online personae out of our own manner of choosing, he thinks.

What we do online is something quite different: we curate our private lives for public exposure. We don’t serve up a raw feed of our existence. We edit out certain bits, and highlight others. We fiddle with the privacy controls at Facebook. We define the circles of exposure.

The problem with Johnson’s thesis is that he gets the causation wrong. We don’t control every input into what defines our online identities. Consumptive decisions that we had considered private (like what books you buy or what news you read) get aggregated with the rest of our data. Our “friends” serve as spies and tell the world all about you. Hell, the sheer process of elimination can say plenty about you if you’re the only one on the block not using Facebook or Google. And even if we did control every aspect of what went into our online identities, Facebook can still send that information to places you’d prefer it not to, and it does. Why should our desire to share mean that we want to cede control of the information to a company like Facebook? Wouldn’t it be preferrable to retain that control and decide how the information gets disseminated? Just because Facebook is intermittently benevolent in how much it doesn’t disclose doesn’t mean that it makes sense to give Facebook ownership of your identity.

Check to see if you’ve set up your privacy properly for yourself. Of course, it doesn’t really matter since you have still ceded control to Facebook. Want to make your friend list private? Nope. Want to have your profile visible only to my friends, not your boss? Sorry. Want to support an anti-abortion group without my mother or the world knowing? Not so much. You start seeing how the privacy question can quickly have implications on other pertinent questions about autonomy and basic freedoms.

Another way of looking at it, as Ben Casnocha puts it, is that Facebook demands that we begin considering the nature of our identities by forcing us to share our biographical information with the world. That sophistic explanation suggests that Facebook encourages the user to live a more Socratic “examined life,” since we have to make choices about how we want to be perceived. Of course, when it comes to the parts of our identities that are fixed, exogenous, or simply not subject to bending to our will, this line of argument doesn’t work so well. Saying that Facebook helps us learn how to craft our identities is like saying that we should make people start considering their genome in terms of how they wanted to be perceived.

Quite apart from the impinging effects on one’s freedom brought on by external actors, what about the lack of freedom caused by the inherent addictiveness of Facebook? How many of you think you could just quit if you wanted to? Like most addictions, Facebook implicates complicated neurochemical reactions that lure us in with hedonistic rewards (e.g., voyeurism, boasting, gaming), and keep us there because the long-run costs quickly fail to outweigh the concentrated and accumulated short-run benefits. However, like addictions, it is becoming clear there is some core element of choice in addiction, which suggests the possibility of treatment even in Facebook’s case:

It may strike some as insensitive to insist that addiction is a disorder of choice. “I have never come across a single drug-addicted person who told me [he or she] wanted to be addicted,” Nora Volkow, the current director of NIDA says. Exactly so. How many of us have ever come across a person who wanted to be fat? So many undesirable outcomes in life are achieved incrementally. In a choice model, full-blown addiction is the triumph of feel-good local decisions (“I’ll use today”) over punishing global anxieties (“I don’t want to be an addict tomorrow”). Let’s follow a typical trajectory. At the start of an episode of addiction, the drug increases in hedonic value while once-rewarding activities such as relationships, job, or family recede in value. Although the appeal of using starts to fade as consequences pile up—spending too much money, disappointing loved ones, attracting suspicion at work—the drug still retains value because it salves psychic pain, suppresses withdrawal symptoms, and douses intense craving.

At some point, however, even these benefits come to be outweighed by adverse fallout. The balance shifts and the addict tips into recovery. The idea is to accelerate the process by, as Heyman says, “chang[ing] … conditions that markedly reduce the value of the drug relative to the nondrug alternative.” This can be achieved through treatment, imposing credible threats—recall the case of impaired pilots and physicians—or the development of new modes of gratification that compete with drugs.

So many of us are afraid of quitting on May 31 because we worry about all those parties that our friends will be organizing through Facebook or wonder about that random friend from high school whose phone number we might just randomly need to access some day. Of course, somehow people survived and socialized for millenia without Facebook, but newer and better modes of gratification are coming. That’s why I have donated to Project Diaspora, a promising, privacy-respecting, open source alternative to Facebook that has gained a lot of momentum and attention recently; given the importance of network effects here, that centralized attention to Diaspora as an alternative to Facebook is critical. (Disclosure: the project was inspired by Professor Eben Moglen at Columbia Law School, who incidentally inspired the majority of these posts). And of course there are other social networks that respect privacy much more than Facebook.

I’ll be right there with you should you decide to quit. And if you need some more forceful help quitting, you could also consider the patch (i.e., the NoFacebook userscript).

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jason Benhaim permalink
    May 21, 2010 10:15 am

    To be honest, I think privacy is way overrated. Seems to me that if everyone’s (and I mean everyone’s) entire biography were “out there,” the world would be a better place. Nobody could judge anybody else, for fear of casting the first stone. Total transparency would lead to greater understanding and better decisions. I know this scenario is an imaginary extreme – but still, I think it’s worth thinking through, and discussing.

    No, what pisses me off about Facebook these days is the corporate bullshit. While I’ve always had a problem with the notion that a person could be “defined” by the things they like (books, movies, television shows, etc.), it didn’t use to be that you were forced into “subscribing” to “pages.” Many of my friends would do creative and interesting things with their profiles, instead of merely listing their top five everything. Now they have no choice. I’m exposed to more than enough advertisement as I move through my days; I don’t need to know that so-and-so “likes” Starbucks and Amoeba Music. This, really, is what might push me over the edge.

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