I don't hold out much hope that this month's protests over Facebook's porous privacy protections are going to accomplish much. The 2008 boycott over the site's new design doesn't seem to have brought back features users wanted; I doubt next Monday's "Quit Facebook Day" is going to have much impact either.
It's tough enough for paying customers to use their economic clout to encourage large businesses to change. But when you're using the service for free, well, it would take a lot more than the 14,000 or so people who allegedly pledged to terminate their accounts to cause Facebook -- which claims 400 million users -- for the site to take notice.
Let's just say I'm not jumping to conclusions after a poll claimed a majority of Facebook users are mulling quitting the site over privacy concerns. It was an online poll at a security Web site, hardly a representative sampling of Facebook users. And even among those users, it's more likely they wanted to register their dissatisfaction with Facebook's policy than they were actually planning to delete their accounts.
Facebook does seem aware of the discontent, And sure, it's nice that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted privacy mistakes and pledged changes coming. But I'd be a lot less skeptical if we hadn't heard this before -- numerous times before. Facebook Beacon, anyone? "People need to be able to explicitly choose what they share," Zuckerberg said more than two years ago after a flood of criticism over Beacon, an advertising system that collected and shared user's activities on some outside Web sites. Yet "instant personalization" was implemented not long ago that, oh, shared information about us from outside Web sites unless we specifically blocked the app.
Again and again, Facebook simply can't resist the temptation to Do More with all that valuable data on its servers.
The best way to change Facebook's cavalier attitude on what they do with our personal data is for some competition to emerge. The reason so many of us are on Facebook is because, well, so many of us are on Facebook.
The site has become a handy way to keep up with what's going on among a circle of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And it's got critical mass, moving beyond college kids and early adopters/fast followers to a broad swath of the Internet-using public. What other site outside of Google could, say, reunite so many high school chums decades later?
What I like so much about Facebook is the way it encourages people to share information casually -- things they wouldn't normally send out via e-mail blast to everyone they know. Many people are more comfortable posting a few photos from a vacation than e-mailing a link (or the actual photos) to 130 or so of their closest friends (130 being the number of connections the average user has on Facebook).
It's no coincidence that privacy issues started cropping up ever more frequently as Facebook was emerging the winner in its battle with MySpace. Remember MySpace? It ran neck in neck with Facebook for awhile, but ultimately couldn't broaden its appeal beyond young users (and musical specialty pages) to be seen as a must-log-in for the average Web surfer. In an era of information overload, few outside of the social networking addicted would relish having to maintain a presence in both places.
Truth is, there's simply nothing quite like Facebook that has anywhere near its reach. Even mighty Google hasn't gained much traction beyond the Web/tech community with its social networking foray, Buzz.
So, I'm not prepared to shut down my Facebook account, even though I'm extremely unhappy with Facebook's constantly changing, difficult-to-parse privacy policies. But that doesn't mean all stays as it was. Here's how I've responded:
- Cut back usage. To be honest, this is as much that the novelty's worn off as it is a deliberate protest. For both reasons, while I'm still on frequently, my sessions are shorter, I post less often and the number of "friends" I actually follow regularly is quite a bit lower than the 180+ "official" friends in my profile. (While Facebook still wants to shove their algorithm-created "news feed" at us, whether or not the people showing up there are those we care most to follow, it's still possible to create our own friend list of "important updates" and then bookmark that list to head directly there.)
- Only post what I'd want appearing on the public Web. Several years as a security reporter have left a lasting legacy of paranoia; even so, at the beginning, comfortable that Facebook wasn't the "public Web," I was a bit freer in what I'd put there. No more. If I wouldn't want an item appearing on a public Web site or blog, to live forever in a Google index, it's not going up on Facebook, period.
- Limit my circle of Facebook friends to those I can't find elsewhere. These days, I encourage professional contacts to connect up on Twitter, LinkedIn or other such platforms, and I keep Facebook largely to those personal contacts I'm unlikely to find elsewhere.
- Be on the lookout for alternatives. Right now I don't see anything that replaces Facebook in my personal life; there are too many friends and relatives posting items of interest that I simply can't get anywhere else. Yet. But in an especially fertile startup era, there could soon be a combination of sites and technologies could offer most what I now get from Facebook. The "critical mass of users" part will be the toughest to replicate. It will depend in large part on whether the bulk of Facebook users are as unhappy as I am -- or whether Facebook's management team truly gets the message this time that they need to be on the side of users who want and expect that their personal communications with family and friends to be kept private by default.