28 March 2012

Can't Tag This

I chose to follow some good advice for today's post: for what may prove to be my longest update so far, I'm not going to bore you or take up bokoos of space on my front page by listing the whole thing.  Instead, it's going to be available "below the fold."  So if you are interested in reading this week's latest intrigue, Why I Don't Use Facebook, please click the "Read More" link below.  Else, keep reading this otherwise normal post and enjoy your day.

I took to heart some other good advice and got a haircut on Monday, and am constantly reminded of it everywhere I go (even from strangers who ostensibly recognize me, but I don't recognize them) – but in a good way!  In fact, some of my friends indicated the change was very beneficial, saying the 'do looks "really, really good" now, whatever that means.  I did, of course, meet with a few awesome people who lamented the passing of the shaggy mane, but I assured them that it would have a fair chance to return in 8 months' time.

I kind of feel inundated with small things to do – apart from my job search, which is inseparable from a small sense of urgency and priority, I have these innumerable small tasks to think about, each too small to focus on but too relevant to ignore.  The stress isn't getting to me, though; someone out there in Internetland must be praying for me, because I've been emotionally buffeted all week since last weekend, but have managed to keep my head above water, so to speak.  I'm not getting down on this job search, either, though the progress is slow and, as always, ambiguous.  But maybe a third bit of advice explains well the reason for my buoyancy: it is always easier to search for a job when you have a job, or as in my case, something to do with your time.

Congratulations to all of you (I guess?) for reaching the next milestone on this blog: 7,500 pageviews!  Thats 83.33% of the way towards earning a special reward for your consistency.  Keep reading, and don't be afraid to use any media sharing apps to spread the word.

Okay, now for the good part:

For those not "in the know," I, Christopher Nelson, am not on Facebook.  That is to say, despite starting university in 2004 and being constantly reminded of its existence ever since, I have never started a profile or held any standing on the site.  This is strictly by choice – it should come as no surprise to anyone that I have had manifest opportunities to begin a Facebook account, and even potential and real incentives to do so.  Certainly all of my friends at Georgia Tech were and are active on the site, and this has not changed since joining the Peace Corps – all of my colleagues and most of my friends and students also manage profiles on Facebook.  I'm sure this all-pervasive phenomenon jives well the reader's experience.

When it comes up in conversation that I cannot take part in any activities linked to Facebook, like poking, liking, file sharing, posting on someone's wall, tagging, sharing my relationship status, sending and receiving event invites, etc., I am almost always faced with some sort of reaction that spans the spectrum of curiosity to hostility.  Some, quick on their feet, ask me why I choose not to partake – they realize that if I've gone this long without joining, it means it must be a choice.  Others, clearly affronted, audibly postulate (incorrectly) that I must have no social life, and thus no reason to get on Facebook.  But one thing remains constant across the gamut: it is assumed that I am either against, or choosing to not take part in, social networking.  Just that!  Because I have chosen to not use Facebook as my social networking tool, I must not do social networking at all.  This is, of course, an incredible fallacy.  And I find it alarming that we as a society have held up Facebook, a single entity, to the level of equating it with its industry.  But more on that later.

I want to be very clear: I have no personal complaints against Facebook the company, no real issue with the man Mark Zuckerberg or how he does business, and no qualms with the advent of social networking.  For proof of the last, I offer a perfunctory overview of my own involvement in other social networking communities:

Date Joined     SN Site         Nature of Networking          Participation Level      
09 DEC 2004     StumbleUpon     Internet Content Sharing      Active Member
29 APR 2005     OCRemix         Video Game Music Forums       Active Member
15 SEP 2006     YouTube         Video Hosting/Sharing         Active Member
25 JUN 2009     LinkedIn        Business Professionals        Active Member
26 JUN 2010     Blogger         Personal Blog Hosting         Active Member
05 NOV 2010     Playforia       Social Games Hub              Active Member
29 APR 2011     2 Out Rally     Baseball MMORPG               Active Member
07 MAY 2011     Twitter         Micro-blogging Hub            Follower (Non-poster)
01 SEP 2011     Google+         Social Media Sharing          Follower (Non-poster)
01 MAR 2012     Fitocracy       Fitness Enthusiasts           Active Member

For proof of the other two, you're just going to have to take my word on it.  I'm a business professional and former business student, and as such I can in no way condemn Facebook for epitomizing a still rather novel business model that may prove to yield the highest initial public offering in history.  Quite the contrary – I marvel at the company's innovative initiatives, fully in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due.  Furthermore, I fault no one person for choosing to participate in the social networking activities Facebook has to offer; it would be nothing short of hypocrisy to call my choice a personal one, and to then claim it is the best for everyone else.  Instead, I offer up this argument as the reasons why I will never, so long as these problems remain unchanged, join Facebook (and don't think that you will be the one to change my mind!).  And with that disclaimer, I move on to the reasons:

The personal information given to Facebook
becomes its property.

The discerning reader will know this to be the case.  But in the event there is any doubt, let's take a look at Facebook's Data Use Policy:

Facebook then sees fit to further muddy what information refers to here, in the legal sense:
Facebook's Legal Terms Provision 17.3 says, "By information we mean facts and other information about you, including actions you take."  By intentionally including the word in its own definition here, Facebook is basically leaving the interpretation of what constitutes "user information" to some future judge presiding over a civil suit brought against Facebook – one that doesn't end in a settlement before it begins, of course.  It stands to reason that this is because, so long as Facebook has no real incentive to better define what qualifies as information it can legally claim, it won't limit itself.  Why would it, when the information it is gathering from its users is convertible into marketing tools and ultimately income?

But is this data collection necessarily a bad thing?  After all, my Firefox browser takes information on pages I frequent and sends it to Google Analytics, ostensibly without my express permission, and to roughly the same economic end.  The difference here, however, is twofold: firstly, my experiences with Google and its services (Blogger, YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, etc.) has served to verify my own suspicion that the worst Google can do with my browsing history is recommend relatively benign GoogleAds and the like.  Google as an institution has no real interest in, or for that matter access to, information that could be used to steal my identity (barring of course hijacking my gmail account, which has occurred before, and was handled over time with the most discretion and effectiveness that could be asked of a free service).  Facebook, on the other hand, has a vested interest in having access to all of the personal information that users are required to submit: more information means more suggested connections for each user (in the form of Friend Requests, activities, or online subscription services, to name a few), which statistically means more real connections for users over a period of time.  More real connections in the vast social network space of Facebook means more money for Facebook, as advertisers, game services (e.g. Zynga), and others will spend a premium on getting their wares associated with the undisputed largest social network in the world.

Secondly, since Facebook claims property over this information in its User Agreement, no user would have legal recourse against Facebook for grievances against unauthorized distribution of personal information – any actions taken by Facebook have already been, effectively, legally authorized by the user.  Maybe the average user of Facebook is comfortable with this arrangement; certainly for my part, I've grown to a level of comfort with using various Google services that I would be willing to entrust the company with certain things that I wouldn't be comfortable divulging to other unproven entities.  If that is the case, then fine – proceed at the user's risk.  For my part, however, I see a clear corporate-directed movement away from keeping users' private details private.  Which brings me to my next point:

Facebook has demonstrated a history of making
the user's privacy preferences less and less meaningful.

I'd like to use a personal anecdote here: after a friend of mine "deleted" his Facebook profile, his intention was to make it appear as though he was stepping away from the 'Book entirely – a sort of virtual death, if you will.  But, it was faked: he restarted a "soft" account shortly thereafter with only a select number of contacts carried over and all his visibility preferences at their lowest setting.  Not long after, I had occasion to make new friends at Ross University, one of whom I started dating, and she looked up my friend's Facebook profile with little to no difficulty.  It even had some of his contact info available, despite the two not having made any connection yet.  This alarmed my friend, who was of the understanding that his profile was not searchable to users outside his network, let alone viewable and with personal details to boot.  Furthermore, even when he went to his Privacy Preferences pane to remedy the situation, he could see no obvious way to further privatize his account – it appeared that all of the security settings had already been set accordingly.

The user has likely shared in or heard of a similar incident, or else experienced firsthand the apparent ambiguity with which Facebook handles its user privacy gauges.  Now, as an amateur coder myself, I understand that there is a often lots of room for interpretation when dealing with even basic user interfaces, let alone ones that have global impact on a website translated into over 100 languages for ≈850 million worldwide users daily; when bits here and there go lost in translation, no one would fault a well-meaning website/company for that.  Instead, there appears to be a corporate bent, tracing it origin all the way to upper management, to subvert the inviolability of its own privacy settings, making for a very unpleasant revelation about how Facebook feels about its army of users.  I am not one to stand for having my intelligence insulted, and I expect a stifling minority of FB users would disagree with that sentiment.  And yet, time after time, Facebook management takes it upon themselves to unveil new changes to users' privacy settings, almost exclusively towards publicizing user data, and often without the permission or knowledge of the user.  How can Facebook, a company that ultimately relies on its user base to stay profitable, treat said base with such disdain?  The answer is obvious: with no alternative, where else are FB users to look for high-quality social networking?  Google+?  Well yes, that among many others, but in the end, the switching costs are too high: re-friending hundreds of users, most of whom will not be on the replacement source, and re-learning the tools and functions available to the user will take more time than any reasonable user would be willing to put up with.  It's much easier to just update the transitory security settings and deal with any loopholes as they manifest themselves.

And I don't want to be guilty of whistling the same tune as some of those anti-Facebook pages, but this timeline hosted at Electronic Frontier Foundation goes a long way towards further demonstrating my point.  Please understand that in no way am I trying to frighten or mystify the reader – this is not some dogmatic and ill-informed Facebook Is Bad article filled with political hyperbole and scare tactics. ("Facebook is a deliberate experiment in global manipulation..." LOL)  These are simply three truths that I had occasion to observe over the past 8 years.

I don't want Facebook to manage my social circles for me.

My social network already operates fine IRL.  In fact, everything that a bona fide Facebook user can do, I can do using other social networking tools and apps.  Things like using the now ubiquitous "Like" buttons – I have StumbleUpon for this.  What about connecting and being introduced to friends of friends for job searching purposes?  I have LinkedIn.  Status updates (Blogger), social gaming (Playforia, Sporcle), photo tagging and sharing (Photobucket), media sharing (YouTube), event invites with RSVP capability (Gmail), VOIP, SMS and text chat (Skype, telephone) – all of these things I can do, and have been doing, all the while Facebook was merging these capabilities into one service.  I see no problem with my choice to continue using the services I am comfortable with, in spite of the argument that I somehow make it harder on myself by having to remember so many profile details, like usernames and passwords.  But should one of my friends set up a Facebook-exclusive event, then wonder why I didn't make it – some of the reactions I have received in the past have been so belligerent, you'd think I openly boycotted the event.  The other side of this particular coin has been true at times, too: I have missed important social gatherings that (seemingly) everyone else knew about, simply because nobody saw fit to take the time to write me an e-mail or send me a text.  And I have felt both guilt for missing the event and outrage and lonesomeness for being overlooked.  But I cannot believe that we, as a society, have moved to a place where Facebook is the be-all end-all life management portal (Like, say, my MacBook is to me. *wink*); if this were the case, why can't FB users send out event invites to third-party e-mail addresses?

Besides, I've found that, at times, certain degrees of anonymity are socially required.  For example, in my abbreviated relationship with a Ross student here on-island, she never had occasion to see virtual evidence of my past relationship with my ex-fiancée, and barring a few posts to that end on this blog, the corollary opposite is probably true as well.  With the use of Facebook to centralize all of my contacts, this would be nigh impossible, what with the advent of Relationship Statuses and the costs, real and otherwise, associated with un-Friending a contact.  Ask any frequent user of FB – s/he will tell you that it is very difficult to un-Friend a contact or ignore a Friend Request.  The negative real-life social implications are usually enough to overcome the virtual awkwardness of Friending an acquaintance you'd rather not have on your contact list.  "And what's the harm?" the reader may ask.  Well, probably not much – all I can speak to personally is a situation my girlfriend faced.  When an acquaintance from a long time before would try to contact her through FB Chat a few times a week, she would always ignore him.  She did not feel comfortable chatting with him, especially in light of his fervency, but did not see fit to un-Friend him either.  She preferred to just ignore his chat windows that kept popping up.

This story also has another point I wish to make here: my girlfriend paired her Skype chat with her FB chat, which meant that every time a Skype contact chatted with her, she would receive two messages, complete with two announcement bells.  This became annoying very quickly, and all in the interest of using Facebook to do what it does best: centralize the user's social networking tools.  And I mean that sincerely – I am usually all in favor of combining all of the related services of an industry into one entity.  Why wouldn't this be a great thing?  Because once tied into the system, the enormous switching costs begin to rear their heads.  Suppose I don't want all of my acquaintances, close or otherwise, to know everything about what I'm doing at a given time (see example above).  In fact, many of my friends, soon after becoming demystified with Facebook, decided that their lives would be better off without FB at all, and expressed an interest in removing/deleting their accounts for good.  A few even managed to do just this, though it should come as no surprise that they were faced with some difficulties in the mechanics of doing so.  Even still, I can't think of a single one of them that managed to keep to their decision without going back and either reinstating their account or starting up another "soft" account.  This attests to the fact that, the more one uses FB and its resources, relying on it as an address book, media and content outlet, first line of contact, or social forum, the harder it is to transition away to alternative resources that accomplish the same thing (sometimes even better!) in a decentralized format.  Isn't it fair to be comfortable with having my former boss on my Business Network on LinkedIn, but not in my friend's list on a social network?

All in all, Facebook is unarguably better than the competition at taking users' information and transforming that into connections, and it is no surprise that it is not just the largest and most financially successful social networking site on the Web, but also the single largest site in the world by IP traffic.  Still, I hope the reader will see that, despite being ostensibly built for everyone, Facebook may not, in fact, be for everyone.

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