Singin’ the Facebook Blues

I’m trying to work up a good headfull of outrage about Facebook’s ever-changing privacy “policies”…and really, I can only get as far as “that’s kinda skeezy” followed immediately by “but what exactly did you expect from a for-profit entity?” Plus: “and you’re paying how much for it?”

Anyway: I will concede that it would be far, far better if Facebook were honest with its users, if it simplified users’ abilities to keep private whatever users did not want publicly available, and that the most troubling item on the litany of recent changes is that third-party app developers are often granted access to some of this info by default (since users know they’re revealing info on Facebook, that it’s in some way available to users of Facebook seems implicit).

I think what we’re seeing is inevitable for any business trying to find a way to monetize eyeballs while keeping its service free to users. (All those bogus warnings that Facebook plans on charging money? They’re not about to – and if they were, they certainly wouldn’t just pop everyone with a flat fee all at once.) And something that started as, essentially, a way for a smallish crowd of college buddies to keep in touch has mushroomed into one of the largest portals on the internet: the changes that have occurred are, as I said, pretty much inevitable in a capitalist system. (Short microrant: so if you don’t like it, please direct your protests at the economic system that makes it possible, since in fact that’s what’s really screwing you. And in many much, much worse ways.)

But let’s look at this for a moment: what sorts of information is Facebook making “public,” and what are the consequences of that? The basic strategy seems to be: Facebook wants to make information about people’s likes and preferences available to marketers, so marketers can try to sell stuff to users by way of Facebook, by which Facebook would get itself a cut as intermediary.

So are directed ads annoying? Actually, I would say they’re annoying if they meet the following conditions: (1) they’re intrusive to the experience someone’s using the website for; (2) they’re inaccurate (gmail’s ads are laughably so, for example, based only on decontextualized language fragments); and (3) they reveal information to others or to the general public which a person would rather keep private.

Looking at the last point first: Facebook’s blundered Beacon thingy is an excellent example of bad usage of info: publicizing to one’s friends the things one has just bought can obviously go badly wrong if, for example, one wants to surprise a friend on his birthday. As for more serious sorts of private info: I would say that that sort of info shouldn’t be revealed on Facebook anyway. I mean, if you don’t want people to know you dress up like an enormous squirrel and get off only if someone dressed as Mark Trail punches a man with a mustache in front of you, don’t “like” a Facebook group dedicated to fans of exactly that.

But the other two are, I think, more serious problems, since a lot of the information users reveal might seem trivial in itself, but the cumulative effect of that info being made available to marketers might create unanticipated problems. But what causes those problems? I’d propose this: if the only ads you ever saw were accurately targeted (i.e., they were about items or information that you actually were interested in) and were not intrusive to your web-browsing experience, would you really mind? Why would you? If it’s not interfering with what you want to be doing, and it’s actually providing you with information you want, why would you be upset? The usual problem is that ads are obnoxious and intrusive and they’re only vaguely accurate. Just because you liked The Big Lebowski doesn’t mean you want to see every movie that features a Bob Dylan song. Curiously, though, in theory the solution to the problem of vague matching is…more information, better analyzed. Which is to say: the more you reveal, the likelier any targeted ads are to actually be relevant to you.*

I guess I’m also puzzled about the outrage, given that Facebook is a “social network”: that is, it seems inherently a medium wherein information is shared, not kept private in an in-group. And I think it’s that sharing that’s driven its growth: part of the fun is the unpredictability of which ghost from your past might pop up, or whom you might find listed among the friends of a friend of a friend, and so on. I’ve gotten back in touch with people I hadn’t heard from for years, and I don’t think that would have happened with a rigidly private network.

I’m certainly willing to change my mind: if my e-mail inbox is suddenly flooded with random ads from products vaguely associated with concepts I mentioned once in a six-month-old status update, that would be a problem. But that sort of “throw open the gates of information to any and all spammers!” approach doesn’t really seem close to where Facebook is, or even where its going. It knows that most of its newer users never knew the micro-Facebook of a few years ago, and that plenty of slightly older users are pretty well hooked, with Facebook now their primary means of retaining contact with large numbers of friends (actual friends, not just nominal friends). I’m thinking that for myself, I’m likely to remove my e-mail addresses from my profile (in case that info does end up being sold, purposely or accidentally) and avoid third-party apps (I already do that), but otherwise, really, I don’t particularly care if marginal ads target my interests: either I’m interested, or I’m not, but (a) they’re pretty ignorable for most people and (b) better yet, completely ignorable for those of us using AdBlock and the like.

But it doesn’t really seem to me that the sky is falling, nor that Facebook is busily dismantling its supports. If something seems free, it probably isn’t: most often, someone is likely trying to extract information from usage patterns in order to alchemize that info into dollars. That’s true pretty much anywhere online. (And again: see my parenthetical microrant above if that’s displeasing.)

*It occurs to me that one thing that might bug people is the Sherlock Holmes effect: a synthesis of browsing info and other data that truly accurately guesses one’s likes and dislikes seems creepy and uncanny, even if upon explanation, the derivation of that synthesis might seem obvious, even trivial. Then, it’s also ironic that most people in this world seem to go around constantly advertising their likes, dislikes, and other preferences, making sure their social and subcultural status and identity are clearly legible, at least to anyone to whom those people want it to matter. The fact that the phrase “emo haircut” makes sense proves as much.

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4 Comments

Filed under geek, thinky

4 responses to “Singin’ the Facebook Blues

  1. elizabeth

    I applaud companies finding ways to monetize their services and I actually LIKE targeted ads, but I still have major issues with Facebook’s recent changes, and mostly with the fact that they involve making chunks of info public and then waiting for users to catch up and figure out how to hide them again.

    For you or I, this might mean a brief window in which the whole internet can learn that we have joined five separate Sigue Sigue Sputnik fan pages. But for people who are being stalked, or are in the legal system (family courts and foster care particularly, or are in professions where it’s crucial to have boundaries, it can be really serious. It’s not for me right now, but I have been stalked in the past, and I have no problem imagining a scenario where someone ends up dead because their location was suddenly made public, or one of their posts showed up on one of those secret “likes and interests” pages without their knowledge. Sure, you can say, well maybe they shouldn’t be on the internet then – but for people in these situations, or hiding from an abusive partner, this was one of the rare ways they could maintain any kind of support system.

    Probably most Facebook users don’t have these problems, but I have a real issue with their not considering that some users do and at least giving them a chance to bail out and keep themselves safe.

    Other than that, A++ service, would use again!

  2. I definitely see your point about changing privacy standards and waiting for users to catch up – and as I said, it would be way better if FB were more open about those changes.

    But while your examples about those being stalked, or iffy family situations, etc., initially seem compelling, I guess it seems odd to me that anyone being stalked, or needing to keep a potent firewall between some aspects of one’s life and others, would ever put up any of that vulnerable info online…anywhere. I feel a bit odd even saying that, since you noted you’d been stalked, but…you surely wouldn’t put your address and phone number online in that situation anyway? Maybe I’m way off, but if I were in one of those iffy situations, I think I would keep any info certain people shouldn’t know offline entirely. But maybe that’s not fair, and I’m overlooking something.

  3. Janet

    Oh Jeff, you know I wanted to just keep my mouth shut. Really I did. I will keep it brief. Per Elizabeth’s excellent points, I know quite a few families in varying degrees of “iffy” situations, and am just wowed by the power (& necessity) of online support networks. Said people do tend to be very cautious about what information they share online with anyone. But, if Person A wants to cause Person B grief or harm, he/she may not need the explicit tip of B’s address and phone number, or other “vulnerable information”. The background of a photo might be sufficient, or B’s presence on an event attendee list, or a friends list, or some such.

    FB presented itself to me whenever I signed up (2 years ago? 3? I should be able to find that out on FB, right?) as a service on which I could select which people to share my stuff with. So I’m Person B and I need to maintain my privacy and be very wary – but it’s OK, because this service lets me draw my own boundaries. Until, as it turns out, it doesn’t, and the photo of my kids in front of the house is suddenly visible to everyone. Maybe I, Person B, should have known better all along. But typically, I just didn’t.

    This is probably an aside, but I think it’s potentially interesting: As a sort-of privacy exercise, some time ago I stopped including my kids’ names in online communications (other than those such as email or IM which I – with hope, not mistakenly – still think of as private), and refer to them simply as J. and B. (not to be confused with Person B). Note: I may not be 100% consistent in this, but I try. Anyway, I find that others don’t follow my lead; in comments on posts or photos, or in their own writings, others as frequently use the kids’ full given names as not. So it seems another hazard for those using social networks but having particular privacy needs is keeping the population of their network in line w/regard to their rules.

  4. As I said: it would be very much better if, when Facebook changed any policies, it either defaulted to the existing policies (so people could opt in to the changes, not have to opt out) or at least very clearly explained what the changes were and how to revert to the previous privacy standards. They’ve been quite poor in this regard.

    I would say, though, that in some respects the very nature of any social network, no matter how private it might be, no matter how choosy one can be about which info is shared, tends toward the public. I’ll consider your kids example: first, unless you explicitly had stated that you were writing “J.” and “B.” for reasons of privacy, rather than just brevity or nicknamey-ness, people might well assume those reasons. And, of course, even if people knew there was a privacy issue, and remembered most of the time to use the initials, if they know you and your kids’ names, inevitably they’re going to slip up and use them. (I suppose this sort of thing is why folks so unfortunate as to be in witness protection programs are compelled to sever all ties with their past.)

    I don’t know about the photo thing: of course, I can’t tell what changes automagically and what doesn’t – but I do note that different photo albums have different privacy settings…which means that if you have a “public” album (such as your profile photos) and a “private” one, transferring an image from the private to the public will make the image public. I think, in other words, the private/public character is by album not by image.

    There, too, though, we see a drift toward “publicness.” Again using your kids (since you brought them up): you could say that you’ll never put up a photo of your kids, or that if you do, you’ll only identify them by initials…but of course you can’t control what other people do with their photos of you and your family. (Actually, you can detag photos of yourself…and only FB members are truly tagged (that is, linked to their pages): other names captioning images are just plain text.) I suppose you could diligently search your friends’ photos, or ask them not to post photos of your family…but now we run into the more general issues of public/private and photography. I believe US law is fairly clear that if you are in a public place, you can have no expectation of privacy re photographs (although I think if you’re individually identifiable and there’s proposed commercial use of the image, you do: I remember a person being airbrushed from the cover of a Lotion CD for that reason…). Other nations think differently: I think I read that Britain is considering a law that would prohibit publishing any image of people (other than, one assumes, public figures) without their permission. As you can imagine, photographers are up in arms…since such a law would effectively ban photography in public places unless those places were utterly deserted.

    Ultimately, beyond the disappointment I note in my first paragraph of this lengthy comment, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect anything more than allowing users to have control over what’s public and private – wait, I take that back: users should not only have control, such control should be as straightforward as possible (i.e., not take 50 clicks to get done). But there is simply no reasonable way to expect a user of a social network that includes photos to control any and all photos of that person.

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