Remember when Facebook wasn’t evil?
“My interpretation of Facebook: What if I told you that you could tell a private company all your interests and friends…. for free?!”
Well, I hope all of our readers who use Facebook have been following the latest wave of mild user abuse. But if not, here’s my “take” on what’s going on. There are a lot of good articles out there about the annoyances on the user side, like this one from Electronic Future Foundation. I myself am a little bit peeved that when I tried to remove personal information rather than create a linked profile, Facebook held on to it. But nothing on the user side seems that different, so — what’s the fuss?
Facebook’s master plan is worth thinking about. Right now, when you log on to a website without doing any fancy tricks, the website can figure out your location, browser, and operating system. If the site’s got a cookie in your system, they might have a lot more: records of past visits, things you bought in their online store, etc. But the website can really only recognize your computer and whatever user account you might have there. What Facebook aims to do is let the website recognize you. This is what the pros call “demographically verified visitor stats tied to people’s real identities.” Not only Facebook verify your identity; they’ll provide information about your place in the “social graph.”
That is to say, when I log into Amazon right now, Amazon knows that I’m William Brafford and that I’ve bought a bunch of stuff from them in the past. But let’s imagine a scenario where Facebook succeeds in transforming the web the way it wants to. Then, if I’m logged into Facebook and I go to Amazon, Amazon will probably have access to at least the following information:
- All the “pages” I’m associated with on Facebook
- My friends on Facebook; particularly, the friends that share relevant interests
- What my Facebook-enabled friends have recently purchased from their site
- The kinds of things I have recently “liked,” both on Facebook and around the Internet; for example, the songs from Pandora.com to which I’ve given a thumbs-up
- The kinds of things my friends have recently “liked”
(Remember, this isn’t how things are now; it’s just where we’re headed.)
One sneaky thing Facebook’s done is move from privacy controls to “visibility” controls. You actually have a pretty high degree of control over what other Facebook users can see when they look at your profile, but your ability to restrict applications and other websites from getting your info is pretty low. It’s actually kind of tricky (and sometimes impossible) to opt out of a lot of this stuff. Apparently it takes a lot of effort just to delete your account.
Naturally, Facebook and its partners are going to use this stuff to offer you sweet deals on items their algorithms think you want. And maybe this is a good trade. We trade information about our buying habits for discounts all the time — I mean, I’m signed up for a bunch of “rewards programs.” But there’s the problem — I signed up for that stuff. I didn’t ever want this with Facebook.
But here’s the truth: a small group of internet users getting worried about this stuff and deleting their accounts won’t make any difference, and if Facebook does win the battle for the internet, we’re just going to have to make accounts all over again. The real action is in the battles for control of the internet: Facebook vs. Google vs. Twitter vs. whoever else comes along next. We’re just spectators at this point.
So here are the rules I’m making for myself:
- No new personal information for Facebook. They’ve got all my old info, and, sure, they can hang on to that stuff. I’m just not giving them anything else.
- Log out of Facebook when I’m not actively using it. It might even be worthwhile to have a Facebook-only browser.
- Check and cull my applications and pages lists regularly. Never, ever use a third-party Facebook app.
Any other suggestions? I’m pretty pessimistic about making a difference with any of this stuff, but I do think it’s worth knowing what’s going on in the big picture.
Just kidding with the title of the post, by the way. Facebook is always already evil.