…and why you probably haven’t noticed.
Facebook, along with its partner in crime MySpace, were touted as the all-singing, all-dancing duo of social networking in the Web 2.0 age. For a long time I didn’t catch on, until about March/April in 2008. It was at that point in time that I decided to open an account on Facebook, to see what friends of mine were up to. And that’s when the trouble started.
When I opened the account, it was quite interesting to see what some of my school mates had been up to since leaving school nine months previously. Some were at University, others were busy making themselves a pocketful working, yet others were having overseas adventures, lounging around on beaches in southern Spain. Altogether, quite interesting. I’m sure everybody who still has Facebook knows this all too well.
I started off by using Facebook once a week, just checking my wall for messages (usually there were none) and reading the current home page looking to see what friends were up to. Of course, to see what friends are up to, you need to tell Facebook who your friends are. You do this by inviting people (via Facebook) to be your friends, and then they accept. So I went around looking for people I knew to be friends with. All good and happy so far.
After a while, I started spending more and more time on Facebook. I also started adding (and got added as) ‘friends’ who I had never met. I can remember becoming friends with a French girl I’d never met, never seen, and only ever spoken ten words to. Our whole relationship was based on mutual membership of a fan club of an Internet hosting company. I mean, come on. If that isn’t tenuous, I don’t know what is.
By the time I quit Facebook ten months later (in January this year), I had 100 and something friends, only about 70 of which I’d ever met in real life (though I do have a number of really good friends I know through the Internet, my girlfriend included), and about 60 of whom I’d actually like to keep in contact with. That’s 40 or more people I added (or got added by) who we had no emotional connection with, other than passing each other in a corridor at school one day.
There were a number of reasons why I decided to quite Facebook. The spark behind each of the ideas can be attributed to an acquaintance of mine, Thomas Karpiniec (who closed his own Facebook account). I asked him about this on MSN, and he agreed to let me publish this:
Jack: If I may ask, what were your reasons for closing your Facebook account?
Tom: There’s a few reasons, some of which stand better than others on their own.
- Having an account makes it easy for people to tag me in photos and unfortunately some friends have no mercy.
- I like to be able to keep my social groups and family reasonably separated, particularly for work.
- The whole ad and annoying app economy of the site is frustrating to navigate around. [Tom says that in his opinion this has since been fixed].
- Web 2.0 is still new. Most people are content to throw all their personal information into the cloud but we haven’t really seen what the consequences of that are (data processing and rationalising is still catching up). I’m happy to put certain information about me online, such as what I write, and my name, and whereabouts I live, but who all the people I know are and their pictures of me is more than I’d want average people to be able to see at will.
As of writing this, Tom has since re-opened his Facebook account. From a more recent MSN conversation, he says that he was a “pain in the butt” for other people using Facebook who wanted to organize events. He mentioned one instance of a friend organizing a party via Facebook, and then sending a special email invitation to a single person: guess who.
You can view this from a couple of different angles, and there are a number of different questions to be asked. Firstly, is Facebook the best way to organize events? Probably. Only a few pieces of software spring to mind as substitutes, and neither of those are perfect. Not a whole heap of people outside the business world have Outlook (mostly because of it’s price, and despite it being the best email application ever) and Google Calendar still has some flaws in this area (it’s good, but not as good as Facebook). In addition, not everybody uses Google Calendar.
The second question raised is whether it’s Tom’s fault that he’s not on Facebook. Over-analyzing slightly, I don’t feel that it’s Tom’s fault that he doesn’t use Facebook. If we go back to the days when things were simple and invitations were done on paper, people used to print out some invitations, either hand them around or mail them out (and if you didn’t either exist or have a mailing address, you probably weren’t worth inviting to the party), and then give multiple options for RSVPing. From my childhood, I could remember being asked to either reply by SMS, send an email, phone up the host, contact them in person, or for more formal occasions, write them a letter back. Now if that doesn’t give enough options, what does? Squishing all our existences into Facebook for the purposes of making event management easy isn’t a good enough reason by itself to use Facebook, nor is it a reason to exclude.
Taking this further, we might suggest that Facebook makes us lazy. I have another example: Back in January my sister (who lives interstate) rang me up to wish me luck on my overseas holiday. My sister doesn’t ring me very often, so I was interested in what made her call now. According to her, she was just going to leave a message on my wall on Facebook, something along the lines of “good luck in Berlin”. However, my Facebook account had been closed by that stage, so she called me instead. Although it was only a quick call, I appreciated it much more than I would have getting a Facebook message. An email even would have meant more than a Facebook message. A bit of effort goes a long way in these things.
There are definitely upsides to using Facebook though. Let’s say you have an album of photos (say, of your birthday party), and you want to share them with your friends. You could email them (which would use a crapload of bandwidth), or you could mail a CD (which is a pain in the neck). You could post them on Flickr, but the average person doesn’t have a Flickr account, nor could be bothered with one. But almost everybody has Facebook (apart from the people who don’t). And of course, this argument is a logical fallacy, but most people couldn’t care less about that either.
The biggest issue with the Internet today (and especially the Web 2.0 part) is privacy. A lot of the time we give out more information that we either realise or would desire. A fairly standard Facebook page would have my name, full address, phone numbers, age, etc. Basically anything required to steal my identity. And I don’t have a lot of control over how that information is used. Once it’s on a Facebook page, any of your friends can see it, and depending how your security settings are set, everybody else as well. Compare that to say, this website, where I have full control over the information I give out (in my case, quite a lot, but others are more private).
We haven’t had Web 2.0 around long enough for the privacy thing to play out in full. This is the opinion of Tom, who I quoted earlier. He says that it’ll take some time for the consequences (if there are any) to show themselves and play out, and until that time he is going to err on the side of caution. Which I say is fair enough. Me personally, I give away a lot of information anyway, so it’s less of a concern, but I do like knowing exactly what information is out there. Facebook gives a false sense of security in that the ‘private’ information may not actually be private. I know my information is public.
Facebook is also, in my opinion, a complete waste of time. I have a lot of things to do, like go to Uni, do homework, cook, work, sleep, browse forums, write blog posts, etc. I find that Facebook takes up a lot of time to do properly, and worse yet is that the more time you spend on Facebook, the more time it begs you to consume. It’s a lot like smoking in this regard. People who don’t smoke (such as me) never feel like smoking a cigarette. Likewise, my father (who, as a policeman, sees the ‘un-private’ nature of Facebook every day) has no desire to even open an account. But once you’ve taken that first puff, you want more. So you have more, and the cigarettes keep calling to you. I’m sure cigarettes are addictive and crazy and bad, but you can see the parallels to Facebook.
One thing that a lot of Web 2.0 sites do (such as Flickr) is allow you to separate who sees what. On Flickr, you can set some images as only visible to friends, others only to family, and others to public, so that everybody in the whole wide world can see them. While on Facebook you can (in theory) set some things private and some public, you can’t separate family and friends, not in a meaningful way at least. You can set them as relations when friending the other person, but this does nothing meaningful in terms of information sharing.
A lot of people would remember a chain email sent around a few months back (during the Australian summer, traditionally a time of copious drinking). For those who haven’t, a brief history: An employee emails her boss, saying she is sick and can’t come to work (the ‘sickie’). Boss emails back with the contents of her Facebook page, where her status is something along the lines of ‘X is not going to work today… bit hard on the drink last night’. Although it was actually a fake, it does illustrate a point. You don’t want your boss knowing that you were drinking last night. Nor your clients, or probably your mother either (though, mothers being mothers, she probably already knew).
I find the biggest problem with Facebook is that you can’t actually delete your account. If you decide that Facebook is bad, like I have, then you want to close your account. Well you can… sort of. What happens is that after filling out 10 minutes of forms and “why are you closing your Facebook account?”, they ‘suspend’ your account so you can come back to it later, but you can’t actually delete your information off their servers. Which, in my honest opinion, is a big flaw. A VERY big flaw.
As for ‘… and why you probably haven’t noticed’, consider this: there are millions of people using Facebook. If one of them disappears, even if it’s one of your 150 friends, you’re unlikely to notice. It’s just hard to keep track of that many people.
I’ve reached the end of my spiel now. I think I’ve said everything I need to say. In conclusion then, I hope you’ve found these points useful. Let me know if you do close your account because of this, or whether you think I’m talking crap, or whether you think I’m crazy (although I already know that). If you don’t have a Facebook account, I urge you not to open one without thinking long and hard about the issues of privacy on Facebook.
Update: Tom has published his side of the story, here.