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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who's Looking at all that Information on Facebook?

I received the e-mail below and share some of the same concerns as the writer. I get nervous when someone wants to know who and how I'm related to people. Why do they want that information? Why do they want to know every little nitty gritty detail of my life? And why would I want to tell them? We live in a culture where privacy is considered a weird concept. Why wouldn't you want everybody to know everything about you -- and then the zinger -- UNLESS YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO HIDE.

Frankly, I have lots to hide. I don't want people to know all my personal sins. Some things are between me and God. I don't want people to know every one of my physical, mental, and emotional flaws. Some things are between me and my husband and he doesn't know all of them. I don't want people to know every injury I've inflicted on others or the injuries they've inflicted on me. Some things are between me and my family and my real friends, the people I have REAL relationships with instead of the superficial "friendships" of Facebook.

Currently, I'm off Facebook although I haven't deleted my account permanently -- yet. But the more I think about it, the more prudent it seems. There are a lot of things that are nobody's business -- much less the business of millions of people I don't even know including the administrators of Facebook.

Besides, I have this little nagging knowledge from history. One of the reasons it was so easy for the Nazis to round up the Dutch Jews, was the extensive records Holland had started keeping on all their citizens. If that makes me sound like a conspiracy nut, so be it. History has some warnings to teach us and volunteering too much information about ourselves is one of them.

Subject: I have written this to protect the people I care about. Please read, and share.
Dear Friend,

After three years of active use, I am calling it quits. I find myself disappointed by Facebook's lack of commitment to making features that enhance how a real, healthy social life functions. In addition to bleeding the once unequivocal word "friend" of its meaning, and making it into an umbrella term for any contact whatsoever, Facebook has frustrated users like myself with their disregard for privacy. They have missed opportunities to craft their product into a useful tool for managing human contact in its various contexts and natural complexity. Instead, they seem guided by a bias toward exhibitionism. Their default mode is indiscriminate broadcasting, with little in the way of structure, boundaries, or selectivity. It has always been more difficult than it should be to moderate the proliferation of your own information on Facebook. Perhaps that appeals to a segment of the population, but in view of 800 million users, it seems highly manipulative.

As if having to re-calibrate your privacy settings with each "upgrade" was not pain enough, we now have the mandatory "timeline" feature to contend with. Timeline IS the new profile, NOT part of it. I previewed it, only to discover there is no option to turn it off or opt out. It starts with your "Born" point, and publishes everything you've shared, in chronological order. It beckons you to fill in the blanks with more content, even from before you used Facebook. In a few minutes, any viewer can find out your movements, life events, when you met people, where you have lived, all in perfect, day-by-day, hour-by hour order. Who is THAT for? Anyone close enough to me (or you) to merit knowledge of that information certainly does not need the help of Facebook. Perhaps it’s for narcissists (or the little narcissist in all of us), stalkers, or people who might enjoy creating false personas by altering or inserting events into their past. This ability happens to be a feature! Figuring out who sees what promises to be a nightmare. The default visibility is public, secondary is “just friends”. After that, you have to retro-actively set the status of each post. I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend a month wading through the visibility settings of thousands of individual posts, after figuring out who—among hundreds of friends and contacts—should have access to what. That’s a pain and they know it.

If you are a parent, you should now seriously consider disallowing Facebook use among your kids. I am sure most of you had social lives that were just fine at their age, and likely didn’t even have cell phones or e-mail! Trying to figure out—within Facebook—how to avoid a general broadcast of your child’s information is tricky or perhaps impossible. Nor is it difficult to imagine anyone creating a false profile with a picture of some bubbly smiling face, just to "friend" your kid for a few minutes and discover virtually every move they make, and have made, for years. Facebook made it theoretically possible, timeline now makes it incredibly easy. There is even software available that can download and save information on a person's profile immediately once access is gained, no scrolling, no searching.

Refined and tweaked as it could be, timeline still promises to be a shallow, inauthentic and potentially dangerous reflection of people's lives. More than just privacy is at hand. Timeline is problematic in principle: Knowing years of another person's life events in chronological order ought to be the privilege of really knowing a person, offline, in the real world. It should be something learned, and earned, interactively, with mutual trust. Would you trade the knowledge of three years of your life's activity to someone for three minutes of their "friendship"? Such knowledge should not be a passively consumable, instantly downloadable “perk” of "friending" someone with a single click. Perhaps more control will come along later... or perhaps not. That's not really the point. The point is: whose life should be reduced to this?

Granted, FB is only using information that you have chosen to share. But does that exonerate them? Would that exonerate your bank or e-mail provider, if they packaged all your activity into a neat online page, ready to be viewed or hacked into by anyone? What if Google or Bing created a nice, artfully designed page that published all your searches in chronological order and sent a link to everyone in your contact list? Moreover, they are using the information you chose to share in a way they did not when you chose to share it—and they’re not even asking your permission.

Technology works well when there is proper discretion. Mark Zuckerberg appears deficient in it. If you watched "The Social Network", then you know he got his start by hacking into university databases and publishing people's personal information for his own sordid amusement. Perhaps old habits die hard. Neither is it insignificant that another founding member of Facebook, Sean Parker, also got his start by creating a program that illegally distributed copyrighted information, namely, Napster. It would seem that a casual disregard for others’ rights and information is hardwired into Facebook’s corporate DNA.

So what is timeline really for? Facebook is primarily a business. I shudder to think how timeline has been programmed on their end to package information for marketing companies, or even governments. I am sure that many institutions would be interested in knowing, through a single database, your major life events, thoughts, movements, tastes, and travels, all perfectly cross-referenced in real time. Time is a pivitol factor in economics. That, along with its blatant appeal for your voluntary additions, makes the timeline scheme far more powerful and insidious than anything that has gone before. Sophisticated algorithms will analyze the data, predict movements, purchases, and ultimately put more information about you into the hands of more people, and in more countries, than ever before. Where search providers alone could tell anyone “what” you are looking for, Facebook will be able to tell them “why” and “when”. The new "add life event" feature asks you to fill in things such as when you moved, how you fixed your house, if and when you quit smoking or drinking, when you started seeing someone, when you broke up, even the date of your "first kiss"! There is even more... They want to know about your voting in elections, your health information, how much weight you have lost, whether you wear glasses or contacts, your eating habits, your illnesses, your types of tattoos, and when your loved ones have died! Facebook now asks that you volunteer all of this. Don't believe me? Take a look. It would be utterly naive to think that what we will see as the "timeline" is not simply the public facade of a profitable venture on the back-end. If someone asks Facebook how many blue-eyed 26 year old left-voting women drive Toyotas in a particular zip code, they will answer, "fat or thin?" "smoking or non?" Feel free to add events to your past, with willful abandon! They are counting on you to fill in the blanks and make their product even more valuable. They are also counting on you to be stupid.

I am not against social networking. I love to share photos, events, and jokes with friends, family and acquaintances. I find it useful to publish a thought now and then, as this letter aptly demonstrates. I understand that the convenience of sharing information online incorporates exposure and risk. I know that these services must be profitable for them to exist at all. I can live with all of that. But this a step too far. It is immoderate. It is absurd. With Facebook’s changes in particular, an inherent pitfall of social media has now become mandatory with admission: Social media can condition us to share our intimate selves thoughtlessly, outside of the structure of real, healthy relationships built carefully upon mutual trust. Is it any surprise that Facebook's model of socialization was born out of the hookup culture of the college dorm? There has never been better evidence of this than timeline. It would have us accept a lack of prudent boundaries and outright voyeurism as the norm in human relations. Some ways of relating to others are destructive. It is regrettable to learn them at a formative age, and sadder still when they are reinforced long into adulthood. Unfortunately, this ominous conditioning and reinforcement now appears integral to Facebook's business model.

I will stay on Facebook until Christmas. Feel free to message me until then. After that, I may consider coming back if the platform matures beyond its present absurdities. I will retain my Google+ account for now, in view of its lack of a timeline and rather good, “up front” controls for selective sharing. Look me up there if you choose. Thanks for reading. If you would like someone else to read this, please feel free to share. Perhaps it will make a difference.
– Milo Persic
December, 2011


Adrienne said...

I haven't updated my status for months and have decided to delete my account. It's a silly waste of time...

Ray Schneider said...

You probably should not be on the Internet at all if privacy is a major concern for you. BTW that's a rhetorical you -- not aimed at anyone in particular.

I'm not a believer in privacy ... I think in the modern techno-heavy world the word has lost most of its meaning.

I don't mean to suggest that I want my private information out there, but I have nothing really to hide and I know that with all the electronic databases and communications media, and so forth that there are lots of points at which anything I say, do, share, write, etc. can be intercepted and compromised unless I invoke special measures like encryption which is a pain in the neck and also a signal that I'm hiding something. So I just don't worry about it.

However I think we do have a right not to have our private lives invaded and violated. It's just harder and harder to make it difficult so that unscrupulous characters can do it whenever they want.

It's a bit bizarre. I'm fascinated enough by the whole techno-scene that I just hang out there to see what happens.

Restore-DC-Catholicism said...

I don't believe in throwing out the baby with the bath water. Knowing that the Obama cartel used Facebook, Twitter et al to win the election, I don't believe that avoidance of these tools is an option. I just think we need to be very focused on what our reasons are, and don't deviate one iota from them. I had no illusions about building all these "friendships" and thus I don't put out there much personal info. Using statcounter, I can tell you that a decent percentage of blog hits come from the posts that I put on my wall. That's not too shabby.

Anonymous said...

Ceecee says:
For me all these problems have an easy solution. Just don't publish anything on Facebook that you aren't comfortable having the whole world know about. I have ADHD and hatemongers love to lie about, and wage war against, people like me. So I don't tell where I work on Facebook, lest someone call my employer, and tell them a bunch of lies to get me fired.
As an author, I learned a long time ago: every sentence you write, you have to ask yourself; Is there someone on this planet that I'd rather they not read this sentence? If there is, then push the delete button before you publish. Do the same with Facebook and you'll have no privacy problems. Just ignore the messages that beckon you to add information you've previously not entered.