It’s hypocritical to expect privacy from Facebook

This tactic also worked on Iraq.

The increasingly hungry uroboros that is the World(-)Wide Web has been aglow with anger this week over Facebook’s new policy of sharing user information with third-party websites. The social networking site has propagated its “Like” button to a number of partners, including the Washington Post, whose users immediately took exception to their friends seeing a list of articles they’ve shared with their friends. Facebook has also made all the bands, movies, hometowns and whatnot on its users “About Me” pages into active links that point to other pages—a move which, as of this writing, has led to the creation of fanpages for the movie, TV show, book and activity “fuck you.” If you clicked on that link, you probably saw not only the groups but also a list of your friends’ status updates containing that phrase—the top of my list was a picture of my friend Aaron saying, “Fuck you, Broncos,” which was enormously satisfying—followed by, disturbingly, a scrolling list of people you don’t know who’ve used “fuck you” in their various posts.* Herein lies the problem. If I can see everybody who wrote “These Banana Republic chinos totally kick/accentuate my ass!” on Facebook today, then so can Banana Republic. The idea that Facebook has compiled my likes and interests and favorite bands for ready sale to whatever weird marketing ghosts are constantly trying to drag me into their fashion spirit world seems like a betrayal. That’s my life, Facebook! Except, of course, that’s what Facebook has been doing all along. Their entire dang raison d’etre has always been to aggregate marketing data and serve online ads. The new linking and information-sharing policies are objectionable for only two reasons: first, they put it out in the open, and second, it forces us to confront the reason why we all signed up for Facebook in the first place.

The most obvious complaint to be made against Facebook’s new information-sharing policy has to do with privacy. The concern that the personal information in our profiles—in many cases given freely years ago on the assumption that it would be viewable to no one but our specifically nominated friends—will now be accessible to anyone with the money to buy it is a legitimate one. The situation is worsened by the byzantine difficulty of opting out of the new “features,” which are so fun and popular that you have to uncheck a series of hard-to-find boxes in order to stop using them. If you’re wondering how to do that, by the way, here you go. The combination of surprise info-sharing and default agreement has attracted the attention of four senate Democrats, who have decided to do us and Michele Bachmann a favor by calling on the site to change it’s opt-out policy to an opt-in. Until their government takeover of the internet takes effect, our privacy will be at the mercy of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who—according to the unattributed remarks of some dude who works for him as described in the Twitter feed of a New York Times technology blogger—”doesn’t believe in it.”* It looks as if our fear that Facebook will give strangers intimate access to our lives is well founded. It only looks that way, though, because it is based on the same fundamental fallacy that is the reason for Facebook’s existence.

Marketers are willing to pay a bunch of money to Facebook because they care how many of us like the new Ke$ha album. They want to know how to program the machine that makes Ke$shas in the future, so that they can trick an even greater number of us into liking her again. Facebook is invaluable to them because it provides correlated data; they can look at it and see that people who like Ke$sha also like Hollister and Tylenol Retard,* so they will know to put that CD single/retard medicine collector’s pack in Hollister stores in the future. They care about that stuff. What they do not care about is who likes Ke$ha. They are trying to get at your Facebook profile because getting at everybody’s Facebook profile will give them a clearer picture of the market, but they do not give a rat’s ass about your life except as a data point. They are saving all their rats asses to pay data mining algorithms, because while your interests may interest them, you do not.

This fact is obvious when we think about it, but it is the inverse of what we want from Facebook. Our Facebook pages are supposed to be our avatars, the online expressions of ourselves that girls we made out with at Union Pool can use to reassure themselves that we like TV On the Radio and are, therefore, okay. We are unique people, after all, and we are of sufficient interest to others that A) our new friends deserve to know what we’re into, and our old friends deserve to know what we’re doing, and B) people who don’t know us aren’t allowed to find out. Part (B) is key, and it’s why Facebook is so much better than MySpace. By enforcing privacy, by telling people who type our names into search boxes that they aren’t allowed to view our information, Facebook raises our tastes to the level of our persons. It’s a not a survey we filled out about what TV shows we like; it’s ourselves. Of course you want it, and of course you can’t have it, because you are not our friends.

When we filled out those forms, we imagined that the people who wanted to know about us were not marketing firms so much as girls with asymmetrical haircuts who read a lot. Facebook’s new information-sharing policy reminds us that that is not the case. Nobody cares that you can’t believe it’s only Wednesday, just as nobody cares that I like Titus Andronicus. Those things are extremely important to us, but everyone else is too interested in their uninteresting interests to care. My current Facebook status is “Snow.” It’s snowing outside my house, which is disappointing and potentially symbolic to me, but I can’t really see how that could be of use to others. I guess I subconsciously assumed, when I posted it, that a bunch of attractive people would reassure me that it’s unfair that it’s snowing, considering how clever and desirable I am, but that seems unreasonable now that I think about it. Facebook, it would seem, is an instrument by which I entice people to care about me as much as I do.

That is ugly. The only thing uglier would be if I did that and the only people who responded were trying to sell me boots. The new Facebook policy doesn’t sell our privacy, because our privacy is valuable only to us. It doesn’t turn our personalities into marketing data, either; we were the ones who, when we signed up for the site, mistook marketing data for personality. The information we provided may be About Us, but it isn’t us—any more than our chirping back and forth with our Facebook friends is actual friendship. The interesting part of our lives is not the interests but the living, and we choose our friends not based on what they like but the ways in which our lives have overlapped, have been lived together. The rest is just content mistaken for form. Let the marketers have a list of my favorite bands. That’s my worst self anyway—the part of me that wants to fix who I am in a list and be loved for it rather than for what I do. That’s not me. That’s not us. None of that tells you anything, unless you’re trying to sell something.

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  1. Facebook isn’t some screwball forum for self-aggrandizement and attention-seeking, or at least it isn’t just that. It’s a communication tool. You can use it to see your friends’ kids all big and toddling about, grandma’s new art project, or hell, to ask out the friend-of-a-friend you smooched at Union Pool but whose number you were perhaps too terrified to ask for? Or yes, you can also just hope she sees your awesome list of bands. But criticizing Facebook for being full of inane posturing is like criticizing English for the dumb shit people actually talk about.

  2. Also, I agree with Mose on this one. Perhaps Dan has time for good old fashioned, regular, heartfelt phonecalls with all his friends. Or lives close enough to meet up for coffee all of them. Probably not, though, and most people don’t. I’ve been able to communicate–in an admittedly fragmentary manner, but much better than nothing–with awesome people who otherwise would have remained only dim memories: old high school friends, former coworkers, people with whom I’ve done creative projects in the past. Granted, I’m socially limited in that I’m bad on the phone and don’t go out a lot, so the medium is ideal for someone like me. But I think facebook enables the same sorts of friendship-lifeline connections for most users.

  3. Your blithe release of personal information to marketing machines makes me question my own motives in preferring to have Facebook wipe my profile rather than link it to the matrix. What does it say about me?

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