Facebook Fail: Publicy Backlash

The recent furor about Facebook’s privacy policy changes is the outcome of several factors, the most glaring of which is Facebook’s apparent venality. They seem to consider the formerly private information that users squirrel away on their servers the way the energy industry looks at oil underground: a resource to be mined and exploited for their personal benefit, with little regard for others.

I think that efforts by apologists like Mark Ingram fail: trying to assert a balance between the aspirations of an aggressive company and the need for users to remain aware of changing privacy policies is pseudo rational:

Matthew Ingram, The Relationship Between Facebook and Privacy: It’s Really Complicated

The tension between Facebook and its users — and governments, and advocacy groups — over privacy is one of the biggest thorns in the company’s side right now, as it tries to balance the demands of the network (and of advertisers) with the desires of users, and with the law. And all of this is taking place in an environment where the very meaning of what is “private” and what is “public” is being redefined, by Facebook and other online giants such as Google, and even users themselves sometimes can’t decide what information they want to share with the world and what they don’t.

Over the past few weeks, the social network has been caught at the center of a privacy maelstrom, with consumer groups attacking it — 15 of them filed a formal letter of complaint with the Federal Trade Commission late yesterday — senators sending threatening letters, and growing numbers of users canceling or deactivating their accounts over privacy concerns. The company has been struggling to respond to security holes that expose private data such as chats, and a survey released yesterday by Consumer Reports says that more than 50 percent of people engage in what it calls “risky behavior” on the social network. Another survey of Facebook users finds that their use of the network is inherently shallow and largely unfulfilling.

Even as he is being hailed as a billionaire genius akin to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the empire Mark Zuckerberg has built seems to be taking fire from critics on all sides. But is all of this criticism fair? Probably not. It’s true that Facebook’s launch of recent changes involving “instant personalization” and the creation of community pages related to users’ profile interests has been badly handled. And it doesn’t help that many people are confused by how to adjust their privacy settings, how to control what information is displayed, and how to disable applications (we put together a comprehensive guide to the new changes and how to disable them if you want to).

But it’s also true that Facebook exists, and has accumulated almost half a billion users worldwide, because it makes it easy for people to connect with their friends and family and to share things with them: photos, thoughts, social games, goofy gifts and yes, even birth dates. Plenty of people clearly want to do this, even after they have been repeatedly warned about the risks, because they believe the trade-off is worth it. And perhaps Facebook doesn’t make it as clear as it could what is involved, or how to fine-tune its privacy controls — but at the same time, some of the onus for doing these things has to fall to users.

Except that the behemoth in this case specifically doesn’t care about the implications of privacy policy changes in the lives of individuals: they have a mass relationship with the millions of users who are being treated like cattle.

So Matthew’s arguments – and others – just don’t cast a lot of light on the issues here, because they are too narrow and too specific to Facebook.

Let me lay out a few threads that I think frame this situation.

The Rise Of Publicy

Facebook’s shifting policy from private as default to public as default is a reflection of the open web. Twitter, in particular, has always been based on a public model, where the default modality is that all information is public unless you go to great lengths to conceal it. Executives of Twitter have gone so far as to say they wanted to publish a publicy policy instead of a privacy policy, but couldn’t because of legal requirements (see A Publicy Policy, Not A Privacy Policy).

So, we have seen a very rapid change in people’s thinking about how and how much to share with others. Perhaps that’s why Matthew Ingram thinks we have to lay some of the ‘blame’ on the users.

However, because Facebook is in a sense trying to track a general shift in the web, it is such a large player – and with so many users that aren’t at the forefront of this trend – a lot of innocent fingers are getting crushed in the machinery.

I think Jarvis is onto something when he says that Facebook has lost the difference between the Public and Publics:

Jeff Jarvis, Confusing *a* public with *the* public

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?

Facebook has been playing this tension since its early days. Remember the hubbub over News Feed: When Facebook aggregated our updates into feeds, it freaked users, even though Mark Zuckerberg pointed out that all these updates were already visible to us among our friends on their pages. Zuckerberg’s vision was right in the end; the News Feed is critical to Facebook’s utility, value, and growth and it presaged the appeal of Twitter. But even in the public Twitter, even though we are publishing to the world, we still have a measure of control; we decide whom to follow—that is, which publics to join.

So let me repeat: In Facebook, we get to create our publics. In Twitter, we decide which publics to join. But neither is the public sphere; neither entails publishing to everyone. Yet Facebook is pushing us more and more to publish to everyone and when it does, we lose control of our publics. That, I think, is the line it crossed.

Jarvis confuses things a bit with the various uses of ‘public’, but to restate: when I share things with connections on Facebook I don’t think of it as publishing the NYTimes. It is a social sharing with a specific social network of friends. But Zuckerberg and Co want to imagine everything going to everyone, thus obliterating social scale and tearing down any notion of socially afforded privacy.

Facebook As A Tonedeaf Velociraptor

The comparisons of Zuckerberg with Bill Gates are apt in one regard: he could care less that he is taking policy steps that benefit him to the detriment of users. Gates and Microsoft fought court cases for decades about monopolistic and illegal practices, and we can expect the same to be the case with Facebook, starting with the 15+ suits brought against them in recent weeks.

Zuckerberg wanted to buy Twitter because he was convinced that the open follower model was better than the Facebook architecture in the long run, and he has been pushing to rework Facebook into a system based on publicy rather than privacy ever since. To Zuckerberg, the users aren’t even pieces on the chess board, they are dust underneath the pawns. He’s playing against Ev Williams and Google: he doesn’t give a fig what other people think of him.

As a result, he will continue to delight with Asberger-ish interviews and one liners, like ‘Privacy is dead.’

Facebook Is Not The New Microsoft

So, Facebook might be the new Microsoft, except they don’t have a monopoly on something we absolutely need, like Windows or Office. (Well, we actually didn’t need those either, but it took a long time to get there.)

So a lot of people are simply bailing out. I stopped using Facebook for all intents and purposes several years ago, although I still have an account. My social needs are met by Twitter and blogging, so I haven’t gone through the disruptions of the past few turns of the wheel at Facebook.

We can simply say no. Facebook isn’t essential to life. It’s not even the same Facebook you were using a few months ago. Facebook is betting on people not leaving. Well, that’s what MySpace thought, too.

Open and Governance

There has been no credible open source alternatives to any serious social tool. There has been no open source, wikipedia-like music site, photo sharing site, or video sharing site: the bandwidth and legal issues are too large. There have been attempts for open source movements – like Identica – but they have made little progress in a market dominated by for-profit players. So I don’t think calls for an open Facebook (like Ryan Singel’s) will catch fire.

Perhaps the real question isn’t about ownership, or even privacy, per se: perhaps the real issue is governance. What rights do users have when they are using a service that is owned and operated by a private company? Can the company make policy changes at will? Do the users have recourse if such changes are perceived as harming the users?

Consider the unilateral decision of Twitter to change the sematics of @mentions or the way that retweet (RT) works: many were upset by these changes, and Twitter responded with more grace than Facebook, but that’s a low bar to set.

I think it would behoove any major player to create a user oversight board, made up of users, to help thrash out these sort of issues in advance of any launch of controversial features on an unprepared user community. I don’t believe Facebook will do that, but Twitter and other players might.

Last Word

Publicy is here to stay. It’s just too bad that the fall of privacy will forever be associated with Facebook’s maladroit market moves instead of the benefits of an open web largely built on publicy.

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