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Facebook Apologists Are Missing The Point: Facebook Isn’t The Future

As the Facebook ‘privacygate’ affair swells and swells, most recently fed by the leaking of Zuckerberg instant messages from years ago, various members of the tech commentariat are starting to come forward to defend Zuckerberg and suggest that the media have gone too far.

My sense is that these apologists are going too far in supporting Zuckerberg and the actions that Facebook has taken; for example, Michael Arrington [my comments are italicized.]

Michael Arrington, The Media Attacks On Facebook And Mark Zuckerberg Are Getting Out Of Hand

Friday is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 26th birthday. My guess is he’s won’t be enjoying it as much as he should, given that the top tech story of the day is a look at a private instant message exchange he supposedly had six or seven years ago at Harvard. The messages show a callous disregard for personal information added by early Facebook users. Given that Facebook is in one of its regularly scheduled privacy scuffles right now, the connection is just too juicy. The press has gone wild.

It’s completely out of hand, and it’s just another example of an online mob getting out of control. I’m embarrassed to see people I respect stopping one step short of calling for physical violence against Zuckerberg. And they certainly aren’t stopping short of calling him every nasty thing they can think of. The Huffington Post actually compared Facebook’s privacy issues to the BP oil spill. Shameful.

Why are you ashamed of your colleagues, who are justifiably incensed by Facebook’s actions and their ham-fisted response to the controversy? Just because a large group of people share similar concerns about Facebook’s policies doesn’t mean that this is ‘mob justice’ — some unthinking swarm of torch-bearing Jacobins hoping to murder anyone better off than them. It could simply be a growing awareness of serious problems; ones that need careful reflection and discussion by our tech pundits.

The Facebook privacy issue is a reasonable thing to debate. Whether or not Vice President of Communications and Public Policy Elliot Schrage gave a reasonable defense of the company’s privacy policies to the New York Times is also a reasonable thing to debate. Even a high profile person saying they’re going to close their Facebook account, obviously for competitive or for promotional purposes, isn’t going too far.

A more investigative analysis of Schrage’s Q&A on the NY Times by Dan Tynan shows that he is either misinformed as to how Facebook’s privacy system works, or he is intentionally misinforming us about it (“lying”). Even leaving Schrage’s Q&A aside, Facebook has clearly not done as much as it could to clarify their privacy position and what it means for users. And considering their market position, they have an obligation to do so.

This is one of the major issues: that Facebook seems determined to not be open and honest about privacy, and they are obviously not making it easy for users to understand the privacy system and the changes they are making, and most importantly, how a user should proceed to get they privacy they want.

One simple observation is that users will not be able to get the privacy they want (or think they already have, or at least had in the past) in today’s Facebook.

But what Mark Zuckerberg said or didn’t say six years ago isn’t relevant to anything. It isn’t an indication of his character, or how he views privacy today. It’s nothing, a snip of a private conversation without context and certainly without the benefit of knowing more about him as a person.

Who here hasn’t said something stupid when they were 19? Who here hasn’t done something dumb when they were 19? None of you. If you’re getting all self righteous, you’re lying to yourself.

On the other hand, Zuckerberg’s nefarious dealings with his former partners at UConnect, the actions he took to squelch the discourse about that, and so on — all actions that took place at the founding of Facebook — do reflect on his character and the company’s DNA.

Six years ago Zuckerberg had no idea what Facebook would become, or how much he’d have to change and mature to handle it. He’s the CEO of one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. He is leading a team that is recreating and redefining our culture as a society.

This line of argument just doesn’t make sense. On one hand, he was a young kid, who didn’t know he would one day be a powerful CEO, and he was unaware of how much he had to grow to handle that responsibility. Ok, granted. But now he is that CEO, and he must be judged on the actions he has taken as CEO of Facebook, even going back in time.

And frankly, none of what Facebook is doing privacy-wise should be a surprise to anyone. At a high level anyway. Facebook is trying to invent, on the fly, an entirely new way or organizing the Internet. 500 million people a month visit the site. They can’t do anything at all without angering some portion of them. And since the service is growing and evolving so fast there’s no way change won’t happen.

Facebook’s privacy misadventure may not be much of a surprise to market-watchers like you and me, Mike, but it is a surprise of some 17-year old in Poughkeepsie or a 35-year old secretary in Los Angeles who still don’t know about the privacy changes, and who are operating under the assumptions they had last year. And while those of us in the bubblicious tech world accept the nosebleed-inducing future shock of incessant and radical change on the web, most people do not. It is completely inadequate to say something like ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ when the eggs in question are people’s lives.


I am no fan of threatened violence (although I have yet to see any of that in this Facebook flare-up), but I believe that Facebook’s users have a solid basis for being seriously pissed off. Even though I am an advocate for publicy — living life in the open on the web — I am by no means an advocate for having it jammed down our throats by a unilateral change in the Terms Of Service agreement by a powerful corporation.

Facebook has shown a studious and callous disregard for the impacts that the company’s decisions are having on people’s lives. What Arrington never really addresses is the fact that Facebook is obviously involved in creating a business model that is strip mining information about users who believed that info would be kept ‘private’, where ‘private’ is a very slippery concept. The only recourse for users at this time is to stop using Facebook altogether, if they want to live a truly private life. This is exactly the fear that Zuckerberg and company are banking on: that users get so much from socializing on Facebook that they will not quit the service, even if they feel that they are being exploited.

Others (like Scoble and Venturebeat ) are softsoaping the flare-up and offering advice to Zuckerberg to get over this public relations hiccup and get back to conquering the world. Meanwhile, aside from the stories about the old IMs, new figures about dropping growth rates by Danny Sullivan suggest that Facebook defection is rising and that the furor may be stopping newbies from signing up.

It’s clearly a turning point for Facebook and the social revolution on the web.

I am an outspoken advocate for social connection and the rise of social tools to help us accomplish that. On the other hand, I am concerned about the centralization of too much control in the hands of a single company; and most especially, in the hands of a single company that seems to be uninterested in the needs of users, and completely motivated by a corporate and financial agenda.

At this point, I would suggest that Facebook’s management and Zuckerberg in particular are not equal to the challenges that confront them, and that even if they get this particular mess behind them, things will start to unwind. Large corporate partners who may have been heading down the road to integrate Facebook into their websites or applications will start to reconsider. Users will opt to spend more time in smaller, more specialized social networks, rather than a single, all-encompassing social context. Application developers will want to create more distance between themselves and Facebook, which increasingly looks like a competitor, not a platform.

And in the final analysis, the next generation of operating environments may turn Facebook into a quaint oddity (and tools like Twitter, as well), because the next generation operating platforms from Google, Apple, Microsoft and others will have sociality built in a fundamental level.

We will be able to ‘follow’ friends — where they are, what they are watching on TV, and what they think we should be reading — across all devices, applications, and contexts — obviously, subject to our own notions of privacy and publicy controls. But this advance — which will be as fundamental as the rise of the web has been to date — cannot be sparked by a player like Facebook. This will come from those who are busy on the foundations of the next generation web, which is not Facebook, despite its dizzying market valuation. Look to interoperable social standards — the future equivalent of HTTP, XMPP, and email protocols — to be forged by competition between Google, Apple, and other foundational players.

We are headed for a time when files and directories are all tidied up, and buried in the gearbox of operating platforms, but where social connection and social networking will be treated as a first class element of the web. This is the social revolution, at last. And Facebook will become a footnote in that history, like SixDegrees.com, Friendster, MySpace and, yes, even Twitter.

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