Ironically Facebook and Its 500 Million Friends Remain Largely a Mystery

by Zachary Houle

9 September 2010


The Pros and Cons of Having 500 Million Friends

The team at Facebook, which now numbers some 1,500 employees, went to extreme ends to remain a viable force. Kirkpatrick relates a story that, leading up to the launch of the site as a platform for developers to make their own applications that could run in Facebook in 2007, many were working late into the night and on weekends for months to ensure that everything went smoothly. Many went without sleeping for days and, as Kirkpatrick notes, “[s]ome of the programmers took an alertness drug called Provisual so they could stay up another night. They were semidelirious. They joked they should mix Provisual with cocaine and call it Blow-visual.” Such details are telling and utterly fascinating. Kirkpatrick really does offer a window into the inner-workings of the company at both the high level, right down to the feelings of those working in the trenches.

People interested in Facebook and what it represents will probably have to read both books and make up their own minds as to whether or not Zuckerberg is a creative genius or an outright plagiarist.

While the first half of the book is told in a fairly linear narrative style, Kirkpatrick more or less tosses that out about mid-way through to focus in on specific chapters dealing with Facebook’s issues with privacy, launching as a development platform, and the impact the social networking site is having on society and government worldwide. This is where the book begins to weaken a bit, particularly in the section on privacy. Kirkpatrick brands Zuckerberg at points as a bit of a champion on privacy, even though Facebook has notoriously done things that are an affront to the user’s right to remain private while using the service. Kirkpatrick notes that Facebook was designed to provide people with one identity with the belief that “in a more ‘open and transparent’ world, people will be held to the consequences of their actions and be more likely to behave responsibly.”

As a justification to erode the ability of the user to control what information gets passed around Facebook, I find that to be a pretty weak argument. From personal experience, I used to have a friend who texted messages to Facebook while driving. I called this friend out on her risky behavior right on her Facebook news feed earlier this summer, which merely led to my comment being deleted by her, which, after a bit of a shouting match on my part for having the comment turfed, led me to being “unfriended”. She hasn’t spoken to me since.

If Zuckerberg thinks he is going to build a Utopian society through transparency of information, he’s not living in the real world. This is not to speak of the fact that human resource departments in many companies are trolling Facebook to find pictures of drunken debauchery and other negative expressions of behavior as an excuse not to hire people. (A 2009 poll of US employers found that 35 percent of companies had rejected applicants because of information they found on social networks.) A lack of privacy leads to real consequences that can, in turn, have a negative impact on one’s life – we are not saints as human beings, after all.

It is to Kirkpatrick’s discredit that he didn’t grill Zuckerberg on this, nor did he go out and interview people who are concerned about privacy on Facebook. For instance, Kirkpatrick doesn’t mention that the Canadian Privacy Commissioner ruled in 2009 that Facebook was not complying with the country’s privacy laws in the relevant chapter on the subject, though he does mention this briefly in the last chapter of the book about Facebook’s future and possible government intervention into the service as it becomes bigger and bigger. It seems as though Kirkpatrick sidesteps some real issues and makes excuses for the site’s stance, even offering up this contradictory line: “[M]any people do not understand or take advantage of Facebook’s often-complicated controls for their own information.” If the user experience regarding setting one’s privacy controls is complicated, would that not be a failing of Facebook – not the user? Shouldn’t Facebook do more to address the issue of privacy, instead of arbitrarily setting the default privacy setting as “open”? Not everything posted for a few friends is worth sharing with everyone, after all.

Of course, the matter of personal responsibility—what one chooses to post on a social media website—should be taken into consideration when discussing privacy issues, just as taking personal responsibility for the safety of yourself and others while driving—and foolishly texting—will be considered should an accident occur. The problem with Facebook, however, is that you sometimes can’t control your own content. If someone takes a picture of you at a party with a lampshade on your head, they can post this to Facebook and tag you as the person with the lampshade. It’s then up to you to remove that tag, if you’re interested in preserving your privacy, but the picture doesn’t get deleted as it resides on another person’s account.

This is opt-out as opposed to opt-in, and to me, is not a respectful approach to privacy. It’s getting to a point where Kirkpatrick even notes that some frat parties now have darkened rooms for taking shots of alcohol where it’d be impossible to get a good picture on a cellphone or digital camera due to the lighting conditions. If Facebook is trying to make the world a more open and transparent place, in effect the company is helping to drive certain illicit behaviours further underground (or at least, is helping to hide them) with its approach to privacy (or lack thereof).

There are similar issues with the chapter on how Facebook made it possible for developers to make their own applications to run on top of the social network. Kirkpatrick waves his pom-poms and says, “The platform brought Facebook a gravitas it never before possessed. It caused both technologists and ordinary users to sense that this service was more than they’d reckoned. In Silicon Valley and among techies worldwide, it suddenly became uncool not to have your own Facebook profile.”

While this might be true, Kirkpatrick didn’t go out and talk to some of these developers to gain some perspective. I used to work for a web development firm that came up with a Facebook application that made it possible for people to send a message to their friends at a future date. (Handy if you want to break up with someone via Facebook at a predetermined time, or if you’re going to be away camping when a friend is having their birthday party.) The problem was that Facebook had a habit of updating their application programming interface, or API, on Thursday mornings without telling anyone, which usually resulted in the application crashing, leading developers at the company I worked for to have to hustle every week to fix up code so that it was compatible with the changes Facebook made. Had Kirkpatrick gone further afield and talked to other people outside of Facebook culture, he might have come upon stories like this. 

Additionally, The Facebook Effect, as with any book about emerging technology, already is a little past its “best before date” in some respects. It covers everything right up to about early 2010, but it already feels a bit behind the times, which is a tough criticism because Facebook is such a moving target that it would be impossible to lasso it effectively to the ground. This, of course, means that you’ll find nothing here about the recently launched Facebook Places, which allows you and your friends to check into locations, Foursquare-style – though Kirkpatrick does note in the concluding chapter that the future of the company might be built on offering such geo-location based services.

You’ll also find nothing here about Quit Facebook Day, which occurred in May 2010 after Torontonians Matthew Milan and Joseph Dee organized a mass protest of sorts in response to the way the site manages and stores user information. More than 37,000 people logged off Facebook for good on 31 May, which might seem like a drop in the bucket against the tens of millions of people signing up each month, but the protest did force Facebook to backpedal and offer up increased privacy controls in response to the user base erosion. Since Facebook seems to have no end to its success, a book about the site is bound to suffer from having no natural conclusion, other than to attempt to crystal ball-gaze into the future.

One can position The Facebook Effect as a single circle on a Venn diagram, with The Accidental Billionaires posited as another circle. Where the two overlap is probably a closer approximation of the truth behind Facebook’s meteoric rise, and a more sobering account of the various issues that the network raises. That overlap, though, represents a book that hasn’t yet been written.

For now, people interested in Facebook and what it represents will probably have to read both books and make up their own minds as to whether or not Zuckerberg is a creative genius or an outright plagiarist. The Facebook Effect obviously makes a case for the former, but it’s too bad that Kirkpatrick didn’t go farther afield to find out the other half of the equation, to make a more fair and balanced read. Overall, though, The Facebook Effect is a zippy, engaging book, and it’s definitely well-written and, for the most part, thought out. Given the prominence of the social networking site on the world stage in such a compressed timeframe, its subject begs for a closer examination of both the pros and cons that being friends with some 500 million people can bring.

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