The biggest story in social media over the last couple of months has been the rapid decline in trust between Facebook and its users. Far from being a phenomenon restricted to techie activists, Facebook’s campaign to push an ever increasing volume of user generated content out to search engines and “partner sites”, and its data-mining, accompanied by a bewildering series of shifts in ever more difficult to customise privacy controls, has generated a real backlash among users.
While some of the discussion has focused on some of the more extreme scenarios about the misuse of people’s information, there’s no question that the routine use of Facebook has now become much more problematic for many. Jason Calacanis, as part of an impassioned post, provides some useful links to enable readers to understand the scope of the problem. Few might leave Facebook, but, conversely, the company’s approach to “radical transparency” has undoubtedly flayed a trust already fraying because of resistance to constant shifts in functionality.
Within the techie community, the response has been to call for “an open alternative”. Yet, here, problems of scale arise. Despite increasing attention to privacy issues from regulators, legislators and the media, Facebook’s trump card is its pervasiveness. As danah boyd comments, it’s become a “social utility”. As I’ve commented previously, Facebook is now just part of the communications landscape. While it’s certainly possible to envisage a mass of users migrating to another site, the precondition for such a ‘network effect’ in reverse would be a competing commercial entity able to raise enough capital to compete.
An open source alternative is unlikely to generate the scale necessary.
The claim from Facebook, and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, that the site is just reflecting shifts in contemporary understandings of privacy can be dismissed easily. Social norms against oversharing still exist, users modulate (or try to modulate) what content and information they want seen by various groups of others, and it’s simplistic and arrogant to claim that all would be just peachy if only dumb users could understand sophisticated privacy settings. The point, precisely, is that the company now affords users only limited choices about how open they wish to be. And Jeff Jarvis is right that Zuckerberg and co. confuse “public” with making a plurality of micro-publics.
So what has gone wrong, and what can be done?
danah boyd is, again, spot on:
What pisses me off the most are the numbers of people who feel trapped. Not because they don’t have another choice. (Technically, they do.) But because they feel like they don’t. They have invested time, energy, resources, into building Facebook what it is. They don’t trust the service, are concerned about it, and are just hoping the problems will go away. It pains me how many people are living like ostriches. If we don’t look, it doesn’t exist, right?? This isn’t good for society. Forcing people into being exposed isn’t good for society. Outing people isn’t good for society, turning people into mini-celebrities isn’t good for society. It isn’t good for individuals either. The psychological harm can be great. Just think of how many “heros” have killed themselves following the high levels of publicity they received.
Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what’s best for the privileged class.
While she is absolutely on the money in contending that the desire to be “public”, in a certain sense, is one that isn’t open or chosen by all, and a desire that is differentially shaped by class, cultural capital and gender, she doesn’t quite put her finger on the basic issue. What we are seeing now is a result of the commodification of personality which, in late capitalism, creates value for corporates. We are all unpaid labourers in the social media industry, whose lives are fodder for the accumulation of capital. Facebook profits from our sociality.
The politics of this issue is, to large degree, shaped by the dialectical conflict between libertarian urges and their commercial capture, which is one way of reading the story of the web. But, because the root cause is that Facebook wants to monetise its ‘content’ (ie – us), a better lens with which to view the problem is a socialist or social democratic one. Facebook is a social utility, as boyd says; a communications medium, but also a public commons.
As such, we’re not in the realm of “good” and “evil” but in the realm of Capital – Zuckerberg has far less agency than he thinks he does, because his duty is to monetise endlessly. It’s not that Facebook is evil, but that it’s a private company providing a public purpose. So the inescapable conclusion is that it should either be heavily regulated, or a public entity should occupy its position. Just imagine the cries from the press if the ABC were to offer social networking as a public service, and you’ll know I’m right.