Monday, 21 January 2008

..who needs anemones?

This is a response to an article by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian last week concerning his reactions to the rise of facebook and the security and privacy concerns involved. I've interspersed my responses with his text because that was the method that seemed most natural at the time. It makes the post a bit lengthy, but I've done what I can to reduce the size of it.

It took me about a week to actually finish writing it, mainly due to a lack of free time at the moment, so it's a bit waffle-heavy and fairly repetitious at times. For a more succinct and better written view of what I was trying to say, you could glance through here.

Anyway, here goes, with the original article in italics, and my responses in red:

"I despise Facebook. This enormously successful American business describes itself as "a social utility that connects you with the people around you". But hang on. Why on God's earth would I need a computer to connect with the people around me? Why should my relationships be mediated through the imagination of a bunch of supergeeks in California? What was wrong with the pub?"

Missing the point completely. Facebook (and social networking sites in general (and the internet in even more general)) are not something you ‘need’ to communicate, any more than you ‘need’ a car to travel. You may as well ask ‘Why should I need a car to travel down the road and get a paper? What’s wrong with a good old fashioned stroll?’.

If you can meet all of your friends in the pub, any time you want to, instantly, then you probably have very few friends and live in a pub. Failing that, the power of facebook is connecting you to the people around you who you aren’t currently engaged in the act of talking to.

"And does Facebook really connect people? Doesn't it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace, while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk. What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us, Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations."

You mean in the same way as anything it is possible to do on our own isolates us? Reading? Writing? Watching TV? Playing solitare? Sleeping? What a terrible affliction that we should waste our lives in such gloomy pursuits when we could be talking and eating and dancing and drinking non-stop.

As to your friend who spent the night alone at facebook drinking, it is naturally sad that he was choosing to do something as silly as communicating with people rather than the more noble Saturday night pursuit of getting pissed off his face and pulling a random in a club somewhere.

Facebook doesn’t isolate us; we isolate ourselves if we limit our communication and our interaction to impersonal means, as with every other communicative technology.

"Facebook appeals to a kind of vanity and self-importance in us, too. If I put up a flattering picture of myself with a list of my favourite things, I can construct an artificial representation of who I am in order to get sex or approval. ("I like Facebook," said another friend. "I got a shag out of it.") It also encourages a disturbing competitivness around friendship: it seems that with friends today, quality counts for nothing and quantity is king. The more friends you have, the better you are. You are "popular", in the sense much loved in American high schools. Witness the cover line on Dennis Publishing's new Facebook magazine: 'How To Double Your Friends List.'"

Because, of course, without facebook, the whole concept of ‘popularity’ was dying a death. Without numerical lists, people were confused about who to hang out with, and the notion of ‘cool’ was being replaced by a glorious utopia of equality, with rock stars rubbing shoulders with the homeless.

Again, putting forward and artificial representation of oneself in order to get sex or approval is a practice as old as society itself. In fact, in this respect, facebook provides the attractive possibility of being able to in some way validate someone’s claims. Put up a flattering photo? Well I’ll take a look at the other 700 you’ve been tagged in to check out what you really look like. Make an outrageous claim? I’ll verify it with one of your mates in a private message.

Facebook is not providing any new social interactions, it is simply allowing them to take place in a templated format online. If you’re obsessed with ‘top friends’ lists and how many friends you have on facebook, you probably have similar priorities in real life. It’s not like Mother Teresa would have stopped caring for the poor because she needed to log in and boost her friend totals.

"It seems, though, that I am very much alone in my hostility. At the time of writing Facebook claims 59 million active users, including 7 million in the UK, Facebook's third-biggest customer after the US and Canada. That's 59 million suckers, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to an American business they know nothing about. Right now, 2 million new people join each week. At the present rate of growth, Facebook will have more than 200 million active users by this time next year. And I would predict that, if anything, its rate of growth will accelerate over the coming months. As its spokesman Chris Hughes says: 'It's embedded itself to an extent where it's hard to get rid of.'"

Sorry, what ID card information is that? I didn’t give them any information off my non-existent ID card. Frankly, as long as I don’t see any more ads than I am going to anyway, I would rather the ads I see are targeted at me, because at least then there’s a slightly higher chance I’ll see something of interest, rather than just being surrounded by interminable emoticon ads and fake contest notifications.

"All of the above would have been enough to make me reject Facebook for ever. But there are more reasons to hate it. Many more.

Facebook is a well-funded project, and the people behind the funding, a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have a clearly thought out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world. Facebook is one manifestation of this ideology. Like PayPal before it, it is a social experiment, an expression of a particular kind of neoconservative libertarianism. On Facebook, you can be free to be who you want to be, as long as you don't mind being bombarded by adverts for the world's biggest brands. As with PayPal, national boundaries are a thing of the past."

Oh my goodness – look at me, I’m being bombarded by the worlds biggest brands. Need to buy a Sony Playstation … to release … the ... capitalist… guilt…

Seriously, it’s all very well talking about advertising revenue, but unless I’m looking at a different version of facebook to everyone else, there is very little actual advertising at all, and certainly no bombarding by ‘the worlds biggest brands’.

At this point, Tom Hodgkinson takes us through the background of Peter Thiel, one of the original investors in the facebook idea developed by Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz.

He takes a pretty detailed look at Thiel’s philosophy and politics, and while I certainly wouldn’t say that I agreed with them, I also feel that there are limits to being choosy about the products you use. I try to buy free range eggs, because I can see that the practice of battery-farming chickens is cruel, but I don’t have a problem using something financed by someone with a political view that differs from my own. Is there really a difference between these two stances? I don’t know. If there is one, I think that it is in the difference between the actual physical pain caused to chickens to produce battery eggs and the potential emotional pain caused by an increase in revenue for someone who I disagree with.

One could argue that by using facebook (and indirectly generating advertising revenue for Thiel), I am essentially sponsoring (and hence promoting) someone who’s views I disagree with. I don’t believe that this is the case, mainly because facebook in itself is not a product with any political stance. To get an indication of this, browse through the innumerable political groups available and have a look at some of the arguments going on. Ignore the trolling, flaming and poor grammar and spelling if you can, and just look at the range of views on show. Far from facebook being a political tool, it is a veritable smorgasbord of differing views and healthy discussion.

In this sense, then, I have no problem using such a service. I don’t believe that my use of facebook implies any more about my political views or my support or lack of it for investors than my watching programs on Sky shows tacit support for the politics of Rupert Murdoch, or my support for Newcastle United an endorsement of Sports World.

In the middle of this segment, Hodgkinson comes out with:

"Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries - and then sell Coca-Cola to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway."

This seems like a ridiculously cynical approach to the concepts involved. You may as well ask whether Google makes money out of curiosity, or ebay out of materialism. Yes, these companies do make money, and yes, they don’t create a physical product, but this is because they provide a service. And yes, they mediate in relationships that were happening anyway, but they are only able to do this because they improve some aspect of the relationship. If google did not make finding digital information easier, no one would use it. If facebook did not make communicating and keeping up-to-date with large groups of people easier, no one would use it. Ultimately, if Hodgkinson has a problem with capitalism, with the service industry or with advertising, there are surely bigger fish to fry than this particular website.

"The creators of the site need do very little bar fiddle with the programme. In the main, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their favourite consumer objects. Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers, or, as Zuckerberg puts it in a recent blog post, "to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web". And indeed, this is precisely what's happening. On November 6 last year, Facebook announced that 12 global brands had climbed on board. They included Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. All trained in marketing bullshit of the highest order, their representatives made excited comments along the following lines:

"With Facebook Ads, our brands can become a part of the way users communicate and interact on Facebook," said Carol Kruse, vice president, global interactive marketing, the Coca-Cola Company.

"We view this as an innovative way to cultivate relationships with millions of Facebook users by enabling them to interact with Blockbuster in convenient, relevant and entertaining ways," said Jim Keyes, Blockbuster chairman and CEO. "This is beyond creating advertising impressions. This is about Blockbuster participating in the community of the consumer so that, in return, consumers feel motivated to share the benefits of our brand with their friends."

"Share" is Facebookspeak for "advertise". Sign up to Facebook and you become a free walking, talking advert for Blockbuster or Coke, extolling the virtues of these brands to your friends. We are seeing the commodification of human relationships, the extraction of capitalistic value from friendships."

Again, this is a massive exaggeration of the advertising methods used, at least as far as I can see. Unless Hodgkinson has some kind of insight into the future advertising tactics to be used by facebook, I don’t know what he’s talking about as far as users becoming ‘walking, talking advert[s]’.

Brands are interested in advertising on Facebook because it is so popular, not because it is a capitalist paradise. An unsolicited recommendation is the most powerful form of advertising, and so the companies are naturally interested in getting people to recommend their products to each other. Facebook is simply an excellent platform through which this can happen.

Hodgkinson can talk about marketing bullshit, facebookspeak and evil corporations all he wants, but I can’t see that there is anything to worry about as far as advertising tactics go on facebook. Unlike in the real world, where changing a supplier for a service can be annoying and time-consuming, all it takes to change from facebook to any other social network is a few minutes and an internet connection. This means that facebook in particular (and internet-based service providers in general) have to be very careful about their user experience. If I get annoyed with Virgin Media because my internet keeps cutting out, I’m less likely to look for a new supplier, because I know that it will be annoying, disruptive, and more than likely, expensive. With facebook, however, the issues of privacy, information control and advertising could easily cause people to look for new social networking solutions.

Since the only thing holding the facebook community together is, well, the community itself, there exists a critical rate of user decline which causes a more devastating exodus to other pastures. This could be triggered by a deterioration in facebook service or in a perceived improvement in a rival (Orkut, Bebo et al.), or even the appearance of a totally new service (social networking startups are appearing and disappearing all the time) that offers enough of a benefit in the realms of data security and perceived freedom-from-oversight to leech off some of facebook’s users.

Hence facebook needs to be careful about the steps it takes. Users can be slow on the uptake initially, but if the online community turns against facebook, it could find itself dropped very quickly. The issue that has clearly appeared with regards to facebook is privacy, and so this is the area that they will need to watch in order to maintain their status.

"Now, by comparision with Facebook, newspapers, for example, begin to look hopelessly outdated as a business model. A newspaper sells advertising space to businesses looking to sell stuff to their readers. But the system is far less sophisticated than Facebook for two reasons. One is that newspapers have to put up with the irksome expense of paying journalists to provide the content. Facebook gets its content for free. The other is that Facebook can target advertising with far greater precision than a newspaper. Admit on Facebook that your favourite film is This Is Spinal Tap, and when a Spinal Tap-esque movie comes out, you can be sure that they'll be sending ads your way."

How annoying would that be – having an advert appear on your screen to tell you about a movie you might actually enjoy, based on movies you have enjoyed in the past. Those slimy advertising bastards, what will they think of next?

I am, of course, is assuming that this targeted advert is appearing in place of what would otherwise be a totally random ad. If facebook are going to start filling my screen with random extra ads, or God-forbid, target me with message- or email-based mailshots, then I’ll be shouting my disapproval with the rest, but I have no problem with ads on my page that are going to be there anyway being tailored to what facebook perceives to be my interests.

"It's true that Facebook recently got into hot water with its Beacon advertising programme. Users were notified that one of their friends had made a purchase at certain online shops; 46,000 users felt that this level of advertising was intrusive, and signed a petition called "Facebook! Stop invading my privacy!" to say so. Zuckerberg apologised on his company blog. He has written that they have now changed the system from "opt-out" to "opt-in". But I suspect that this little rebellion about being so ruthlessly commodified will soon be forgotten: after all, there was a national outcry by the civil liberties movement when the idea of a police force was mooted in the UK in the mid 19th century."

Wait, what? People will forget about a massive infringement of trust that was almost universally condemned because they forgot about the annoyance they felt at the introduction of the police force? Are you against the police force? I thought you were arguing against the libertarian tendencies of the facebook backers? I think that the acceptance of the police force was less to do with the public forgetting national outcries and more to do with the fact that a police force turned out to be a pretty good idea. The internet community has long memories and instant communication – too many infringements will tip the balance, and facebook knows it.

"Futhermore, have you Facebook users ever actually read the privacy policy? It tells you that you don't have much privacy. Facebook pretends to be about freedom, but isn't it really more like an ideologically motivated virtual totalitarian regime with a population that will very soon exceed the UK's? Thiel and the rest have created their own country, a country of consumers."

I genuinely don’t understand how you can compare facebook to a totalitarian regime. Totalitarian means a restriction of freedom, an allegiance to one ideology at pain of punishment. By this logic, the 59 million facebook users are all little libertarian prodigies, desperate to unleash themselves on the world. Whatever the intentions of its creators, facebook is a site connecting people digitally, not some sort of mass-hypnosis device, and no amount of hyperbole will escape the fact that it is built around people communicating in the medium that provides the most free speech ever experienced in the history of society. Such a system simply cannot be described as totalitarian.

Secondly, neither Theil nor anyone else has ‘created’ a country of consumers, the consumers already existed in their own countries. Countries, indeed, that have often been derided for their consumerism. Once again, facebook is taking things that already exist and grouping them. Facebook is not a country, any more than people who believe in communism form a country, or people who eat shredded wheat. It is a collection of separate and disparate individuals connected only by their use of a service.

"Now, you may, like Thiel and the other new masters of the cyberverse, find this social experiment tremendously exciting. Here at last is the Enlightenment state longed for since the Puritans of the 17th century sailed away to North America, a world where everyone is free to express themselves as they please, according to who is watching. National boundaries are a thing of the past and everyone cavorts together in freewheeling virtual space. Nature has been conquered through man's boundless ingenuity. Yes, and you may decide to send genius investor Thiel all your money, and certainly you'll be waiting impatiently for the public flotation of the unstoppable Facebook.

Or you might reflect that you don't really want to be part of this heavily-funded programme to create an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodites on sale to giant global brands. You may decide that you don't want to be part of this takeover bid for the world."

It doesn’t matter how much you talk about people being on sale, or us paying money to American investors, the fact is that the only people paying money are the advertising companies.

"For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven't read Keats' Endymion?"

Absolutely; why communicate at all when there is so much of interest in undiscovered solitary pursuits? Wait. Weren’t you decrying the society that led your friend to make just that decision on a Saturday night?

"And when there are seeds to be sown in my own back yard? I don't want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking."

Yep, new technology is bad and trying to destroy nature. Thank you for opening our eyes to this danger we were blind to. Let us all return to our villages and our ploughshares. Good luck with the talking, but be careful you don’t use a phone there, because without the face-to-face experience of communication you may as well be burning down forests for all of the damage you are doing to nature.

"Facebook's privacy policy

Just for fun, try substituting the words 'Big Brother' whenever you read the word 'Facebook'

1 We will advertise at you

"When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form groups, set up events, add applications, and transmit information through various channels. We collect this information so that we can provide you the service and offer personalised features."

Facebook could not operate without collecting and storing information. Without a database of personal information there would be no friends lists or groups or any data at all on the site. If data storage is suddenly linked to advertising then what can the national census be but a giant plot to get us all to buy government bonds.

"2 You can't delete anything

"When you update information, we usually keep a backup copy of the prior version for a reasonable period of time to enable reversion to the prior version of that information."

Yep, backups are bad. If the backups are accessible (by other users of the site or a third party), then that is a separate, and concerning, issue, but the simple existence of the backups is not suspicious at all.

"3 Anyone can glance at your intimate confessions

"... we cannot and do not guarantee that user content you post on the site will not be viewed by unauthorised persons. We are not responsible for circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures contained on the site. You understand and acknowledge that, even after removal, copies of user content may remain viewable in cached and archived pages or if other users have copied or stored your user content."

Anyone, that is, who can hack into the site. Without this policy, the site is open to complaints (and lawsuits) from people who were password-guessed, or who left sessions open. There is no way to guarantee data online is safe when there is a user interface to it, so facebook are covering themselves in case people are lax in their own security. Alternatively, take the view that if you don’t want other people knowing something, don’t put it online. If it’s only written in your paper diary, even the best hacker in the world can’t see it.

"4 Our marketing profile of you will be unbeatable

"Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (eg, photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalised experience."

This is the only one I’m a little iffy about. I don’t really know what it means, and I’m not sure how it would work. I think that if facebook is actually practicing this then it would be useful to know how they are going about it, although it seems as though at least some of this particular passage is out of date.

"5 Opting out doesn't mean opting out

"Facebook reserves the right to send you notices about your account even if you opt out of all voluntary email notifications."

Because they don’t want to run up against their own policies if they need to send you emergency messages. If people who opted out were getting tons of messages, there would be a serious outcry, as there was with the Beacon disaster.

"6 The CIA may look at the stuff when they feel like it

"By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States ... We may be required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies."

In the same way that they can look at anything stored digitally in the US, as long as they have the specific legal backing to do so. Again, this is at least partially addressed here.

In addition, these privacy policies are hardly unique among services provided online.

My aim in this response was not to explicity defend facebook as a company or as a service. There are still security issues, and security issues are inevitable with the incredibly rapid rise over a couple of years to a population greater than that of the UK. However, I think that the actual security issues have been mostly missed by Hodgkinson in this article, hence my response. I think that he seems to have issues with the internet, advertising and social networking in general, but very rarely facebook in particular. As the largest in its field, perhaps it has to take some of the general criticism on itself, but I think that in general the claims made against it are spurious or badly-phrased.

In particular, Hodgkinson mentions the companies hoping to advertise on facebook and notes their “marketing bullshit”. The point in this case that he seems to miss is that the companies are genuinely excited about a new business opportunity. The social networking boom has in some senses been going on for a decade or more, but the filtering through to every level of society is now really beginning to show, and no one really knows how some sectors are going to react. Advertisers themselves have no idea how they are going to utilise this new medium and structure without alienating users, and it is the solving of this problem that they are excited about.

I explained in a fair amount of detail why I didn’t agree with a lot of the more personal attacks on the investors and their philosophies further up this post, so I won’t go into it any more here.

One of the major issues with facebook that Hodgkinson totally misses is that of identity theft. The major problem in today’s society is how we can be open and communicative in the online world without being vulnerable to identity theft, and this is one that every social site will need to solve if it is to retain users. Another issue not mentioned is that of users being taken advantage of over the network. If an employer can check a user’s profile, photos, group memberships, etc, then there is the potential for biased appraisals and job interviews or even job losses.

Apart from a few previous issues with people being fired over blog entries, this is not a situation society has really reached before, and until we work out a way to completely granularise the security of the data presented about us online, problems are going to be encountered.

I hope it is clear that I am not fully in support of either side in this case. I don’t believe that facebook is perfect, and I think there is a long way to go, but I think that the article by Hodgkinson neither delves into the real issues, nor provides a convincing case to leave the site. As with anything, it is your personal decision, and the personal decisions of the 60 million using the site will decide facebook’s future. Personally I will continue to use it, since I find it both useful and entertaining, but will continue to look out for alternatives. The internet is the ultimate buyers market, and the ‘sellers’ will need to continuously adapt to survive.

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