The “Quit Facebook” Meme and More

CNN reports on a group organizing on Facebook to quit Facebook on May 31.

Frustrated by Facebook’s recent privacy changes, a group is urging users to delete their Facebook accounts en masse on May 31. The campaign comes amid complaints that the social-networking juggernaut is diminishing users’ privacy with its “open graph” model that adds Facebook connections on other sites across the internet. A handful of glitches during the rollout of the changes have, in fact, put some personal info at risk, if only briefly.

The last line of that report give you a sense of how institutional news media has come around to a certain guardedness when reporting on Facebook, whose good side they seem eager to remain on. (You see this also in the hero worship of überdouche Mark Zuckerberg, a phenomenon surely to worsen when the upcoming book about Facebook’s early days, David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is published.) Those glitches “in fact” happened? Really? Haters didn’t just make them up? But of course the privacy risks existed “only briefly.” Whew. We can trust Lord Zuckerberg to always administer to our social needs with due respect and expediency.

The report largely misses the point about the privacy concerns with Facebook. It’s not a reaction to one security hole, as troubling as it is. Rather, the concerns revolve around Facebook’s ultimate ownership of users’ “shared” data, its eagerness to pimp users and their personal information to third parties, and its whimsical ways of introducing arbitrary layers of complexity into its privacy controls (see this NYT chart) to make sure the users who care about such things have a harder time understanding just what the implications of their privacy settings and the user agreements they have clicked off on are. Facebook seems to be intentionally creating a situation where users don’t know what is public and private, give up trying to figure it out, and then merely trust the company (on no basis whatsoever) to do the right thing with their data. Facebook, despite evolving into something of a utility, as Danah Boyd explains here (“People’s language reflects that people are depending on Facebook just like they depended on the Internet a decade ago”), is under no regulatory obligation to use that data in ways society would deem as socially responsible.

Sadly, in my view, we increasingly need a social-media presence to live what is recognized as an ordinary existence. Others may find it abnormal and vaguely sketchy if you don’t have one. I have a Facebook page, though I share next to nothing on it and rarely check it. It’s there like a listing in the yellow pages, in case I want to leverage my personal brand at some point. I think about deleting it pretty frequently but am honestly too lazy to go through with it. As much as I complain about the company, my own profile often seems like a sleeping dog to me. Facebook is surely counting on such apathy. Maybe now is the time, but I do worry that causal acquaintances linked to me through the service will wonder what’s wrong with me. I don’t actually understand the ramifications of quitting, whether everyone in my friend list is notified about it and whether Facebook gets to keep the photos I previously uploaded in intermittent fits of longing for recognition of my specialness. So I have ended up a bit paralyzed. So I saw some of myself in Boyd’s description of disgruntled Facebook users.

What pisses me off the most are the numbers of people who feel trapped. Not because they don’t have another choice. (Technically, they do.) But because they feel like they don’t. They have invested time, energy, resources, into building Facebook what it is. They don’t trust the service, are concerned about it, and are just hoping the problems will go away. It pains me how many people are living like ostriches. If we don’t look, it doesn’t exist, right?? This isn’t good for society. Forcing people into being exposed isn’t good for society. Outting people isn’t good for society, turning people into mini-celebrities isn’t good for society. It isn’t good for individuals either. The psychological harm can be great. Just think of how many “heros” have killed themselves following the high levels of publicity they received.

I haven’t put much time into building Facebook, but I have done some, and I don’t feel like I have gotten much in return for that labor. I want the social network that I build to belong to me, just like in the old days, before it was artificially extended and rendered plainly visible and manipulatable online.

It would be nice, as Wired‘s Ryan Singel notes in a appropriately vituperative piece, if there were at least an open-source alternative to Facebook (Mefi linked to a few recently): “Think of being able to buy your own domain name and use simple software such as Posterous to build a profile page in the style of your liking. You’d get to control what unknown people get to see, while the people you befriend see a different, more intimate page.” I’d be on board for that, but I’d dread wrestling with the nuances of domain-name logging and coding.

And considering the network effects in play with social media, it’s unlikely that Facebook will be dislodged from its monopoly-provider status without some sort of well-publicized and massive breach of faith. I’m not sure what has happened thus far makes for a massive breach in the mind of regular users, especially considering how CNN was so seemingly eager to spin it away. Also, people have already had the thrill of reconnection with long-losts; they aren’t going to have the same incentive to go through the profile-making process again. And is there really anything else to Facebook for that substantial percentage of its users who don’t log in all that often?

Zuckerberg’s master plan seems to be to make Facebook the keeper of your online master identity — the warehouse for your unified reputational capital. This Social Beat piece highlights Zuckerberg’s telling Kirkpatrick, “You have one identity …The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” That’s a laugh, the thought of Zuckerberg lecturing anybody on integrity. But the point is that the need for a verifiable online identity that travels across the various sites online could be instigated, and Facebook wants to own that identity, so that everything online that pertains to the “real” you would be routed through its servers. The problems should be obvious: That would be analogous to allowing American Express to issue passports instead of the government, and letting it sell the information about where we’ve been and when to the highest bidders without telling us about it.

Sociologists obviously have a lot to say about Zuckerberg’s absurd proclamation about unitary, singular identity, which seems to fly in the face of virtually everything ever deduced about human social behavior. Zuckerberg seems to think, like Steve Jobs occasionally does, that he can change socioeconomic behavior by fiat, on the strength of the adulation the business press heaps on him. Michael Zimmer puts this well: because Facebook’s stated policy assumes everything you upload should be shared to everyone, Facebook wants to impose the idea that “One identity is all you have, all you deserve.”

But Zuckerberg is wrong. We present different identities in different contexts — the narcissistic one anchored to a public persistent profile is a new thing related to the post-postmodern idea of the self as brand.

Anyway, it’s well worth reading the posts by Boyd, Henry Farrell, and Kieran Healy. Farrell, invoking one of my favorite books, Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, argues that “Facebook appears to be deliberately and systematically making it harder and harder for people to vary their self-presentations according to audience. I think that this broad tendency (if it continues and spreads) impoverishes public life.”