Monthly Archives: May 2010

On the failure of Quit Facebook Day, Social Utility and Privacy

"How to split up the US" by Pete Warden

At 10:19 PM EST tonight, the organizers of Quit Facebook Day reported that all of 33,313 people had dropped out of the Facebook universe. That figure represents a tiny fraction of Facebook’s 400 million users.

That miniscule percentage does not represent all of the people that have quit or deactivated their accounts in the past month, but it certainly implies that there hasn’t been a widespread movement to leave the social networking giant.

I’ve been a Facebook user since 2006. I never had the “college experience” of having an electronic Facebook  but found it instantly useful as a means to stay in touch with family, friends, classmates and former colleagues.

It was, clearly, just what its creators said: a social utility. I didn’t care for Facemail much – and still don’t – but many features, like IM, the newsfeed, photos, people search and video are powerful methods for augmenting Facebook’s users to communicate with one another.

Facebook has become the Information Age’s White Pages, for good or ill, extending the service it provided Harvard students with contact details for one another back in 2004 to hundreds of millions around the world.

The changes to privacy and publicy from the past six months, however, fundamentally shifted the reality of using the platform for many users, particularly those who had trusted the site with sensitive information about their lives, friends or other affiliations. For those who never shared information that could be damaging, the shift to a public default meant little. For people with more to lose by virtue of the nature of the cultures they live within, gender or health status, such changes have much greater significance if revealed to a school, parent, employer or government.

By and large, research cited by digital ethnographers like danah boyd shows that many people remain ignorant of how public their updates are. And people care about their online reputation in 2010, given that every organizational gatekeeper or first date is rather likely to Google you.

Recent amendments to the privacy policy and user interface notwithstanding, concerns that those who have the most to lose are not being considered persist amongst privacy advocates. Reports of account deletions, page takedowns or harassment in other countries, with limited recourse for users, also reflect uncertainty over the future of the Internet’s #1 site. Recent shifts to Community pages have also resulted in consternation on the part of both brands and government, though Facebook’s spokesman promises that such features are in development and will be improved.

I have not quit Facebook. I continue to find it useful as a social utility, as before, applying Facebook as a “people browser” for those with whom I want or need to stay connected. I use LinkedIn as a business utility and Twitter as an information utility. I doubt those use cases will change for me personally this year, although I’m watching carefully to see how the most recent privacy controls are implemented.

Recent decisions of Facebook’s management around privacy and personalization may bring its operations under regulation by the FTC, as is already the case with privacy commissioners in Europe or Canada. If consumer harm due to management actions were proven by any of those entities, it would significant implications for the innovation in this sector, although it might also cause developers to build privacy into such platforms from the outset.

As government entities continue to create pages, they will likely be obligated or even required to archive conversations there using Facebook API or other tools. After all, there’s substantial utility to measuring and analyzing the interactions there for those that wish to understand public reaction to policy, candidates or initiatives. If the terms of service are not clearly described to those interaction with government employees, additional layers of complexity around privacy and the rights of consumers will also be in play. And problems in Facebookistan, as Rebecca Mackinnon writes, extend abroad to exposing at-risk members of society to abuse, deleting activist accounts and taking down Pages.

There’s much more to electronic privacy than social networking, not matter how large Facebook becomes. Putting online privacy in perspective is essential. And I tend to agree with danah boyd’s position that quitting Facebook is not enough, especially for those of us in the tech media that have some degree of influence in informing the public and holding the social networking giant’s management to the standards they and law set for ethics and business practices.

But, fundamentally, human relationships are about trust. If we cannot trust that the manner in which we connect, filter and share information with one another will not change with the business needs of a platform, our relationships will be damaged. We have only to look at the statistics on jobs lost, applications denied and romances sunk through virtual actions to understand how those consequences may play out in our offline lives.


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2010 Rolling Thunder D.C. Motorcycle Rally


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Dupont Circle Farmers Market [May 16, 2010]



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Cycling from the Mall to the towpath of the C&O Canal and back


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