Considerations about Facebook

I have had a Facebook account for a couple of years now, and I am seriously considering disabling or deleting it. The reason is privacy, and not because I have anything bad to hide; I am smart enough to avoid posting things I don’t want anybody to see. The real issue for me is that I would really like to decide who should be able to see what, and I am not able to do that anymore. Believe me, even the tightest privacy settings won’t shield your data from prying eyes anymore.

Many years ago I used Orkut, and it was nice. I met interesting people, some of whom I’m still in touch with to this day, and while I really don’t have many memories of its user interface, it was simple and consistent enough not to be a mess. You wanted to know what TV shows a person liked, you knew exactly where to look on the page. It was not bad, really, until it became a hit in Brazil. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know several lovely Brazilian people, but when a social network’s user base becomes that unbalanced, it stops being useful to the rest of the world. It turns into an enclave, and if you wanted to use it for networking purposes, it just fails to deliver what you’re looking for.

So I moved to Myspace, and yes I still have an account there. I don’t use it in anymore, but it’s there. Myspace. What can you say about Myspace? Many bad things, undoubtedly. However, I met a very special someone there (I love you, Julie), and that alone makes me glad I originally made an account there. Too bad that the possibility of putting random CSS and embedded contents into the pages — and originally even Javascript — turned the place into a living hell. Customization is not bad per se, but Myspace makes it difficult to even navigate the profiles. You can literally move things around, hide them, change them, use hideous color palettes, and put transparent elements above links by mistake, which means that you just can’t click what’s beneath. CSS is powerful, and Myspace is the proof that weapons should be handled with care.

The website itself tends to be slow, sluggish and unintuitive, and it feels like it failed to transpose itself to a more modern “2.0” style. I used to say that Myspace felt like a school project that had overgrown itself. Moreover, the user base is mostly teenage kids with issues, and if it weren’t for the “music industry footprint” that it still retains, Myspace would have died long ago. The exodus to Facebook was only curbed by the fact that it provides a full interface for bands and singers to be in touch with their fans.

Facebook is much different. No visual customization: it’s black on white, with a touch of blue. I do like that. Aside from being able to move photos to a box rather keeping them in a tab, or things like that, it’s usually very easy to find the information you want about a user. Too bad that nowadays you find too much.

See, when I first signed up on Facebook I was amazed at how many people I knew in real life were there. Computer literacy in Italy is very low and the availability of the internet is tendentially abysmal, with even young people not really caring about it. But there were people I went to elementary school with, or even kindergarten. These were people I hadn’t heard from in almost twenty years — and I was 24. So I started adding everybody, and lo and behold, I could mind everybody’s business and vice versa. It was interesting to see classmates from middle school posting drunk pictures to celebrate their graduation as medical doctors, and to notice that my political views were markedly different from those of some people I went to elementary school with.

This is one of the main differences between Myspace and Facebook: while the former is more about making new friends, the latter is about reconnecting and staying in touch with people you already know. Of course, both can be used in any way and everybody has different goals, so neither’s target is necessarily better than the other’s.

As time went by, though, I started getting add requests from people to whom I really didn’t want grant the permission to see what I posted. This was in part because my usage of Facebook had gone from “let’s reunite!” to “pals, look at what these politicians are trying to do.” It had shifted from a personal tool to a broader, and definitely more serious, almost revolutionary, networking tool.

This, coupled with the growing inability to overlook some specific things that many of my contacts posted, led me to begin what I call “deleting sprees.” I will share a secret: I have made some lists to classify my Facebook contacts. The two most important lists are called “I could easily do without them” and “Really useless people.” I’m not kidding. If a deleting spree happens, I am usually merciless: if you are in the latter list, you’re out. I was once told by a friend that I am the only person on her Facebook list whose friends count decreases. I grinned, very smugly.

I had originally set my Facebook privacy to the strictest settings ever, and it worked fine. Let’s suppose I was friends with Alice, who was friends with Bob; I was not friends with Bob. (Those of you into cryptography certainly recognized the typical placeholder names. If not, peek at this Wikipedia page for more information.)

Previously, if I commented on Alice’s post, Bob wouldn’t even see me. At some point this was changed, because I imagine that people got very confused by trying to understand the other comments without getting the full picture. However, even with that change, my picture was not shown and my name was not clickable. There was no way for Bob to access my profile, because I had also chosen not to appear in search results. The only way to have Bob access my profile was for a common friend to give him my Facebook URL, but even in that case, he would see a blank, anonymous page with no links to add me or send me a message. I liked it.

All of this slowly changed. More and more things became public, and it is now impossible to hide yourself from friends of friends (FoF.) You can’t even disable the “add to friends” link: FoF can access your page, and try to add you. And if you are not explicitly changing the privacy settings, they will see your pictures, your personal data, your favorite TV shows, your favorite books, the groups you are in and the pages you like (the ones you used to be a fan of.)

Add to that that all you post on Facebook is not your property anymore, and that Facebook reserves the right to use all your data and handle it to third parties for advertising purposes (unless you explicitly say no), and you get the picture.

It is too easy to say “don’t post what you don’t want to be shared with the world.” I do want to post my pictures, but I want to choose who should be able to see them. I do want to join the group “I keep a ton of receipts in my wallet for months,” but I don’t want the whole world to see that. I am perfectly comfortable with my contacts — or friends, as Facebook calls them — seeing that stuff, but I should be able to shut everybody else out. It’s not a matter of default settings: you really can’t be hidden anymore, not even if you manually go and tweak the privacy settings. The only way to fix it is to delete your personal data (even though you are not guaranteed that they won’t keep the old information), but that kind of defeats the purpose of social networking, doesn’t it?

Then again, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and current CEO of Facebook, pretty much openly stated that the whole concept of privacy is something that belongs to the past. They must certainly think so, given how he bragged about people being “dumb fucks” (sic) for trusting him with giving him personal information. And in 2004 he broke into a Facebook user’s email account. And an alleged Facebook employee talked about the use and abuse of a master password that allows the staff to log in as any user. Not bad, huh? They’re also starting to deploy a system that will allow partner websites to access all your Facebook data without you even knowing, as part of a simplified login process. Oh, and of course, every single Facebook application you use can get all your data too.

What’s sad is that people are relying on Facebook as the main way to communicate to one another. It is indeed convenient, and it s very easy to share links, pictures, videos and send messages on a single website, both on public walls and through private (…?) messages. But is it really worth it? Everybody will have different answers to that.

As for me, I have already deleted my personal information, changed my name to a fake one, and I am only staying there for a little longer.

I will set a “time to quit” and I will stick to it. I won’t even tell people beforehand. It will be a good way to see who wants to stay in touch with me, and who just stays in touch with me because there’s Facebook in between.

For reference, you can see how Facebook’s privacy policy changed during the years, and what information from your profile is now public.