Today my good friend Brett McCracken wrote a post on his blog The Search that touched on the subject of Facebook and privacy. Brett posits that the recent privacy outcry on Facebook is "really just a scapegoat/smokescreen that covers up for our own frightful inclinations toward exhibitionism." But he concludes that
Talk of privacy is a joke and an absurdity when people are getting up each morning to voraciously begin a day of tweets, or to post a thought about the weather on Facebook, or to blog about what they did over the weekend (or to blog about most anything, for that matter). If you want privacy, quit putting anything of yourself on the Internet! The Internet is inescapably, necessarily, and wonderfully public. It is open, free, limitless.
...Half a billion people are on Facebook. And they are there for reasons that have much more to do with unabashed exhibitionism than with the preservation of interior, personal, and private existence.
Naturally, I disagree with the idea that by having a Facebook account we are willingly relinquishing any semblance of anonymity we might have on the Internet. And though Brett is discussing privacy on the Internet as a whole, which includes blogging, Tweeting, and any other form of social media, what he more pointedly refers to in his post is Facebook's recent privacy concerns.
Well count me one of the concerned. I tend to agree with the side of the fence that leans toward irrational paranoia, but most of you already knew that. And in this case, it's not irrational and it certainly isn't paranoia that causes me to question the practices of a juggernaut who has managed to gain the trust of its users only to betray that confidence by doing the very thing that should cause people to get rankled: using trust as a commodity in a transaction that begins and ends with advertisers, money, and bottom lines.
I've been using The Good Book since 2005, back when you had to be a student in a university, back when it was a real stretch to include high schools into the mix, back before mini feeds and even banner ads. That's how it all started, and that's how Facebook won the trust of its users, who willingly forked over personal information about themselves that they might not have otherwise released to sites like Myspace, Twitter (back then still an egg of an idea. I kill myself.), or Blogger. The problem is in the quiet and methodical chipping away at the fortress of Privacy that Facebook built around its thriving e-tropolis.
Changes have been made over the years which have slowly acclimated users to diminishing levels of privacy and control. Changes which have been nearly subliminal in impact, some barely causing a ripple and others creating an agitated froth of users who, despite squawking indignantly at first, warmed up the idea eventually. The problem is that the water's been coming to a boil for so long, most people aren't aware that the time is likely coming when they'll have to leap out of the pot or get simmered and served in an advertiser's bouillabaisse.
The problem, of course, is that once trust has been gained by a website or corporation, it's very difficult to shake that trust because most Facebook users don't find themselves questioning what all these changes mean. And why would they? It's a social networking site that allows the kind of connectivity that pen pals in 1985 never dreamed of! It certainly isn't, at least not to most users, the holy grail of private user information which can be used as a ballast for advertisers seeking to proliferate a world already infected by subtle manipulations with, well, a whole lot more of the same. Remember Youtube before the pop up ads? Remember Facebook before the banner ads? Remember a time when we weren't constantly and relentlessly bombarded with poorly designed, poorly devised, poorly executed cultural filth whose sole objective is to transfer money from our wallets to someone else's? No? And you won't, because unless you're upwards of 90 years old, you've been inundated since the day you were born.
In an article for the December 2008 issue of GQ, Alex French discusses the very idea of user information and a flimsy sense of trust at length:
Jeff Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy, says most Facebook users have no idea that their personal information is being commercially harvested and sent out to the thousands of third-party developers whose applications populate the site. He and other privacy advocates worry that rogue developers might profit from that information by selling it to marketers (who would then flood your in-box with spam) or by committing illegal acts, such as identity fraud. At bottom, for critics like Chester, the issue is whether or not users have complete control of where their information winds up: You should have the right to opt out of targeted advertising, and if you choose to opt in, you should know which companies are getting your information and what they plan to do with it. The worst case is an Orwellian scenario in which all Web content is fully determined by user targeting. "We are going to live in a world completely dominated by advertising," says Chester, "where advertising plays the key role in the creation of most of what we see."
The issue isn't that our information is being used against us (it is), it's that Facebook has shrewdly created the illusion of trust with its users, most of whom are barely aware of what's at stake and certainly aren't keeping a close eye on the near-monthly changes that affect the fidelity of that trust. Sure, we're throwing our information 'out there' willingly, but to whom, exactly? And should we trust that the almighty Facebook will treat our personal data with as much strident commitment to privacy as we do?
I'm going to go out on a fairly sturdy limb here and say no, we definitely shouldn't.