The Facebook compromise

If you’re at all active online, you’ve probably seen the recent hubbub about Facebook and privacy.  Every time Facebook changes its privacy settings, the articles start floating around, but this time it’s more serious.  The NY Times has dedicated space to the story, and Facebook itself has called a meeting of all its employees to discuss the issue.  At least one colleague of mine is deactivating his account, and I’ve decided to take an audit on my use of the service and rethink my assumptions around it.

So my first question was what I get out of Facebook.  Why do I use it?

  • Stay in touch with extended family
  • Stay in touch with geographically dispersed friends
  • Reconnect with old friends
  • Share photos with family, friends, and colleagues
  • Deepen and personalize business relationships
  • Information from businesses and product brands I have relationships with
  • Information from local businesses

I can get a lot of those things in other ways, but none of them with the same ease of use that Facebook provides (especially with the awesome mobile interface).  It’s a unique collection of services and has a unique penetration into the market.  It is, in effect, something worth paying for, but which I am not paying for … in cash.

So what am I paying with?

Information.  Facebook derives value from my information.  From my network to my location to keywords in my status updates, I’m providing Facebook with a ton of information for them to consume and even repackage and sell.  And I’m fine with that.  That’s an informed compromise I’ve made and continue to make.

So what concerns me?  What’s the other half of the equation?

First, Facebook isn’t just a product, it’s a capital-V Vision.  Like Apple’s vision for the iPhone, Facebook has a vision for the social web.  And like Apple, they have the power to attract the market and enforce rules which bring that vision about.  Their vision is one of public-by-default in every way, of partner messages intermingled with social content, of people discovering the world around them in the context of Facebook.  And what they have shown, over the years, is that they are willing to make disruptive changes which bring previously-private data to public light, and ask forgiveness instead of permission.  It’s particularly bold of them to take something which used to have a toggle and remove that ability, burying the change deep in your agreement.

Second, while my consent to Facebook is well-informed, my friends’ may not be. Confused by numerous privacy options, most users accept the defaults.  I’ve seen people say they’d rather quit than try to understand the privacy options in Facebook.  And so while I may build a well-structured safe way to share my information on the site, my friends probably have not done so.  When your safety online is predicated on your friends’ understanding the rules, your risk is increased.

So what’s my plan, my strategy for Facebook?

I behave as if it’s public, but still lock it down appropriately.  I carefully groom the public aspects of my profile, and review what they look like to someone outside my network.  I post status updates to different audiences using friend groups; boring stuff goes to “friends of friends” and more personal stuff goes to a small group called “trusted” which I hand-pick.  I think about every piece of information I open up, and think about why I want it public, what value comes from it.  And I accept that tomorrow, Facebook may change it all, and I realize I have to be ready for that.  That means I pick and choose what I share, because some things which are personal and yet worth sharing to some people never get shared.  I’m intentionally getting less out of this service because of my concerns.

Let’s not beat around the bush — Facebook has done some nasty things, and has a vision for the future which many of us don’t like and don’t want to be a part of.  But their product is so compelling that I’m willing to accept that compromise.  Facebook is a private company and can do whatever the heck they want to in bringing their product to market.  Any of us can choose whether to use the service or try and build our own competitor.  I feel the same way about Apple and the iPlatform.  I, for one, am sticking around.

For now.

(For some other views on the subject, check out Scoble’s recent article and this great privacy visualization.)

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Kodiak on 06.02.10 at 11:33 pm

There is just one small problem with having a “trusted” group for more limited postings. With the way Facebook is not only now, but consistently pushes on people via numerous “Privacy Setting Revisions” in which they RESET everyone’s settings to the loosest possible, keeping any sort of group posting private is next to impossible.

To make matters worse, it is not only your settings that matter, but the settings of those you write to. With how Facebook works these days, a person replying to one of your posts that does not have the proper privacy settings constantly checked and updated themselves can result in a previously-private posting being made much more public than was originally intended.

With all the games they have played over the past year, I took the next best step to deleting my account and removing most identifying information altogether. If I need to reach a group of people, it is back to the old-school mailing list for me.