Thursday, May 6, 2010

Is Facebook Facebad?

The other day, I found a neat article on Lifehacker titled Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook. I noticed that, like all Lifehacker articles, it had a "Share via Facebook" link. The irony was too delicious to ignore - posting a link on Facebook to an article about the top reasons to quit Facebook. I couldn't resist.

But you might wonder - what are my real thoughts about Facebook? Bottom line - it doesn't really matter what I think. Facebook is here to stay, barring several factors coming into play simultaneously. For Facebook to go away, you'd need:
  • A serious, grass-roots campaign to get people off of Facebook
  • A legitimate alternative to Facebook that provided similar functionality with few(er) downsides
  • An accelerant of some kind. A form of "starter fluid" that blew up in enough peoples' faces to convince everyone else that it really was in their best interests to flee.
This doesn't appear to be happening, however, so I don't think Facebook is going anywhere right now. That's despite the almost weekly reports of serious security flaws, security breaches, and privacy shenanigans on the part of this ubiquitous social networking site.

Just yesterday, it was reported that a flaw in the Facebook software had exposed supposedly-private chat messages to anyone on your friends list. Just a few weeks ago, four US Senators asked Facebook to address privacy issues with the site. (article on US politicians aren't especially well-known for their web-savvy, so if these fellows are concerned, there's a pretty good chance that there's cause to be.

My problem with Facebook isn't so much the personally identifying information it exposes. Your name, address, phone number, birthdate and a wealth of other information is easily available already to anyone who wants it. No, I have two other issues with Facebook.

The first is the assumption of privacy that it offers and then repeatedly seems to violate. Facebook gives the illusion to people who don't know any better that their information is being shared only with designated recipients. But Facebook's current direction is clearly to open up that information to paying customers as a way to generate revenue, and that's wrong.

The second issue is tangentially related to the first. It has to do with the information Facebook can collect and share about you that you don't even realize exists. It isn't your email address, rather it's demographic info about what you like, where you shop, what sites you visit online, and a wealth of other factual data that, when you think about it, is deeply personal. It allows them to establish an online identity for you that includes information YOU don't even know - like how often you visit certain sites or your browse-to-buy ratio. It's not clear (to me) how much of this 360-degree virtual identity is already in place and how much is still under construction, but it's definitely the direction Facebook is working toward for one big reason - they can SELL that virtual clone of you to marketers who can then tailor their advertising specifically to you, luring you to buy stuff you may or may not want and using a detailed psychological profile to make it as enticing as possible. It's Big Brother on steroids.

There are certainly a lot of things to like about Facebook. It's an easy way to share your thoughts, interests, news and greetings with friends and family in a manner that's even less intrusive than email - it's completely up to them whether to read it or not, and they don't even have to delete it if they're not interested.

I also REALLY like one of the most privacy-invasive features - the ability to login to certain websites using your Facebook ID, thus saving you the time and effort of creating separate usernames at multiple websites around the Internet. This convenience comes with a hefty privacy price, however, and it's not one anybody goes out of their way to tell you about. Every time you link a website to Facebook, you've both filled in another big piece of their "Virtual Identity" puzzle about you, and you've also potentially given an intruder access to your online identity at a wide array of sites. In other words, someone who hacks your Facebook account suddenly has the ability to become YOU not just on Facebook, but on any other site that you've linked to via Facebook. That's extremely dangerous and should be used with caution and with your eyes wide open regarding the potential consequences.

I'm not what you'd call a Facebook enthusiast. I use it, I check it at various times throughout the day, and I sometimes use the login feature at websites where I'm not concerned about the integrity of my online identity. I wouldn't be heartbroken if the site went out of business tomorrow, but I don't think that's likely, either. Facebook is here for the long haul, the question is whether its users will be able to get informed about the risks its use entails and take steps to minimize its negative impact on their lives. Like with so many other things, I doubt this will happen to any great degree without that missing accellerant I referenced above.

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