The Facebook backlash

Paul Raven @ 10-05-2010

Pride comes before a fall, so they say… and hubris is pretty much the same thing. Facebook’s rise to the dizzy heights of top-dog social network has been swift and relentless, but it looks like they didn’t know when to stop.

Suddenly it’s not just the data privacy wonks and open-source street-corner preachers that are bashing Facebook’s underhand and exploitative approach to user data (though organisations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center are busily filing FTC complaints in the US). Here’s Wired‘s Epicenter blog calling for an open alternative to Zuckerburg’s baby:

Setting up a decent system for controlling your privacy on a web service shouldn’t be hard. And if multiple blogs are writing posts explaining how to use your privacy system, you can take that as a sign you aren’t treating your users with respect, It means you are coercing them into choices they don’t want using design principles. That’s creepy.

Creepy is about right – The Guardian points us to a very pretty (and alarming) infographic thingybob by Matt McKeon that shows the evolution of the privacy sphere on Facebook. Quick summary: it’s taken five years for almost your entire profile to transition to public-by-default.

And then there’s the nefarious Facebook Connect system, which signs you up for applications without your consent should you happen to visit certain “partner sites”. Thankfully, Connect is pretty easy to squelch if you’re a Firefox/AdBlock Plus user [via Jason Ellis].

Part of me is tempted to hail this backlash as an inevitable and positive emergent function of a networked world – perhaps it’s now impossible for any one organisation to become disagreeably exploitative without the network becoming aware of it and alerting the general populace to the dangers. Like a governor for corporate greed… push the punters too far, and the loudest and most clued-up will make a lot of noise and start looking for the alternative. Or perhaps business models just have an exponentially shorter shelf-life these days… which is something I dearly hope to be true every time I see a new iteration of the Farmville genus of “games”.

But perhaps I’m being over-optimistic here; sure, pundits aplenty are banging fists on tables, and those of us for whom the internet is more home than hobby are justifiably concerned, but what about the vast majority of users for whom Facebook is just a fun and convenient way to waste time and stay in touch with people? These are probably the same people who have obvious passwords and who click on spam emails just to see what’s in them, and if the persistence of spamming as a lucrative career says anything, it says that no amount of telling people to think twice will actually make them do so.

Maybe Jason Stoddard’s model of the non-evil corporation is flawed, as it assumes that Joe and Josephine Average are more engaged with the issues underlying the services they use than they really are…

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One Response to “The Facebook backlash”

  1. Jason Stoddard says:

    Paul–you’re right–this is what (seemingly) inevitably happens when a corporation (or other entity) has decided “people have no other alternative.”

    I’m seriously considering falling out of Facebook. This is getting stupid.