Some thoughts on the Facebook backlash

By Richi Jennings. May 12, 2010.

[You may know that, as well as The Long View, I also write IT Blogwatch for this august organ. I try to keep my opinions out of IT Blogwatch, but I'll occasionally use this space to comment on issues that come up.]

In this morning's IT Blogwatch, I talked about Facebook and the growing discontent amongst users: mainly over privacy issues, but also the closed and centralized nature of the system. This seems to be far more than the head-in-the-clouds musings of a bunch of privacy wonks.

For an increasing number of innocent internet users, Facebook is the internet. Are we in danger of selling them short?

Some of the strongest criticism stems from the belief that Facebook has reset users' privacy settings on several occasions. In other words, user data was being shared when the users believed they'd earlier told Facebook not to. People found that information was being published to their Facebook 'wall' and visible to anyone, not just to their friends.

Sadly, Facebook VP Elliot Schrage's apologia read like unadulterated spin. If companies should be judged by their actions, the phrase "the incorrect perception that we don’t care about user privacy" is meaningless.

Some commentators have personalized the debate, notably the ever-publicity-shy Jason Calacanis. He points the finger of blame in the direction of Mark Zuckerberg, calling Facebook's fearless leader an "amoral", "backstabbing", "cheating", "double-crossing", and "untrustworthy" entrepreneur, with "a horrible ethics problem", who "screws over his users again and again". (I'm kinda offended by Jason's appropriation of "Aspergers" as an insult, but let's gloss over that.)

My instinct is to reject such a tight focus on individual leadership roles within organizations. In my experience, the company culture is more than just one CEO. Indeed, in many cases a culture survives -- flourishes even -- despite a leader (HP under Carly Fiorina springs to mind).

But isn't this just the nadir of 21st-century American capitalism? I do hope not. Users have invested significant effort into their Facebook memberships, based on implied promises from Facebook that increasingly appear to be misleading at best.

Probably that's just unplanned 'mission creep' rather than a deliberate evil plan hatched by a teenage Zuckerberg. But that doesn't absolve the company of the responsibility to aggressively fix the problem. Make no mistake about it: this is a huge PR crisis brewing for Facebook; Elliot Schrage's platitudes aren't going to help.

Users aren't stupid for publishing private information. This seems to be a frequent counter to privacy concerns, but I think it misses the point. The Facebook of today isn't the Facebook that I and many others signed up for; it's changed, insidiously; almost beyond recognition. 

I also can't help thinking that Facebook isn't the cuddly, friendly place that their mission statement implies to new users:

Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

Fans of free markets can blithely talk of the need for 'sticky' services -- that is, ones from which users can't easily escape. In my view, that's fine so long as the glue isn't made from boiled-up bait-and-switch.

Voting with their feet is hardly a credible option for most disaffected Facebook users.


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Richi Jennings, blogger at large
 

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email: TLV@richij.com. You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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