In truth, we should have known that Facebook was headed in this direction all along. We should have admitted to ourselves that all the little quiz questions and games that we so “innocently” played when we first joined were really just information gathering tools, undoubtedly created by advertising agencies that were already well down the road with Facebook in terms of creating usable databases about us. We knew, but we pretended that we did not. We waited for someone to tell us, and we waited too long.
And meanwhile, yes, we willfully turned that information over, mostly because it was the first time anyone ever asked us to share such silly details with each other, but also because the founders of Facebook knew, in their own cynical way, that on some level, we yearn to share ourselves with each other. There’s a psychology to advertising, and Facebook implicitly understands this.
Still, we didn’t ask to have all those details about our lives turned over to third parties where they could be reconstituted in the form of ads and cookies that follow us wherever we go. That wasn’t what we agreed to when we started. If we wanted to know what magazines our friends read, what fashion sites they visit, what opinions they have of the politicians we voted for, we could have asked them. Now that information is being dug up from places well outside of Facebook, and thrown in front of us in ways that feel uncomfortably revealing.
Essentially, Facebook has changed its business model, and therefore its social contract with us, and in doing so, it has managed to take away our privacy, our walls that make up our very homes. Worse, we didn’t ask or invite them to – though we did, in fairness, understand that such might be coming. We knew all along that Facebook needed to find a revenue stream to keep it going.
So now it has found one, it is generating income, and it most certainly does not want us to have those walls back.
And therein lies the turning point for many users. In this country, privacy is a right, and when it is taken away, there are ramifications.
Obviously, there already are alternatives to Facebook (MySpace, Friendster, Bebo, Hi5, Twitter, Plaxo, LinkedIn, etc.), but before we sign up for a mass exodus or as some have suggested, a mass suicide from Facebook, as others call it, we might want to understand what it is we would be leaving and why.
Most importantly, we would be leaving a monolithic entity that believes it knows better than we what the world needs to know about us. An entity that believes privacy is old school, way back there with the other things we learned in grade school, like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. And maybe they are right.
Cleverly, Facebook would have us believe that the next generation doesn’t care about privacy, is comfortable sharing itself in infinitesimal detail, and has no qualms with being relentlessly bombarded with advertisements and marketing schemes. In fact, we know on some level that this, too, is true, for we have seen it already in the television programming they watched as children, and in the radio stations they listened to as teens. And troubling as it was to see, we knew that their obsession with video and PC games foretold and easy trust of technology, instead of the “healthy mistrust” that the older generations feel. Today’s twentysomethings have been absorbing electronic advertising from they time they could sit up.
But that doesn’t make it right.
The Facebook that we thought we knew was social insofar as we shared ourselves with others we “friended” — that is, we knew them, we trusted them, we decided of our own volition to communicate with them. It was a pure dialog with a known group of people we loved, some from as far back as our childhoods, some only recently created.
That’s what we thought we had when we first contracted with this platform, but what we have now is an environment where “friendship” is just an illusion. In reality, every small detail about our lives is being sold to others who would profit from that knowledge.
And that’s not what we signed up for. Our skepticism served us well. But does that mean we should leave?
Clearly, there are other social platforms that offer little in the way of privacy.
When you tweet something on Twitter, the whole world can see it, whether you “follow” them or not. I can learn as much about the daily routine of an astronaut as I can a housewife in Cleveland. Still, this fact is well understood. So whenever someone tweets a message on Twitter, he or she does so with the full understanding that it is broadcast for the world to see. It’s a different social contract on a larger scale, with a very different set of downsides. (Chief among these is ability to rapidly pilfer and profit from others’ hard-earned original work, but that’s a blog for a different day.)
So, where would we go from here, and how would that be different?
If you are waiting for Moses to come down with some commandments for Facebook’s executives, or a 10-point guide to the promised land, you’re wasting your time. There will be many who stake such claims, but the choice of what to do next has to come from us.
A far better path is to figure out what we want out of a social media platform, and find one that best suits our needs. Here are some questions to consider:
Am I just looking for a place to chat with my friends? Will texting or instant messaging work well enough?
Do I want to save my chats or am I ok if they just go away after each session?
Do I want to get into social games, virtual worlds or dating? If so there are many better choices.
Do I want to share photos or videos? Do I want my photo albums to be my own, and can I save them?
Am I trying to market my talents or my business? Do I want to add music links or design my own page?
Am I a promoter or entertainer or a business-to-business type?
Do I need a social network that has a solid reputation on mobile platforms?
Do I need people to know where I am at any given moment?
Do I want to expand my reach beyond the country I live in? Are there certain regions I want to target?
Do I want to market my blog, website or video channel?
Which is more important, my fan page or my website?
What is my budget like? Can I afford to move off my fan page, or does that work for me?
Am I willing to forgo the safety of a private space in favor of the exposure that an open platform provides?
Am I anticipating that my site will go mega, that is, that I can afford to play with the big dogs for advertising, SEO and immediacy?
Am I afraid of exposure, and if so, why am I on social media in the first place?
Once we answer these questions, we’ll have a much better idea of what social network(s) we want to be on and why. We may even have a better idea of a social media platform that we wish to create.
It may turn out that Facebook is, after all, the best platform for all our needs.
But if not, consider this: We can never really leave Facebook.
Last year, Facebook shut down the only company that had software that could completely erase the footprint of an individual from the social website (interestingly, their product probably would not work today, due to the changes in the way Facebook saves and distributes personal data).
As I read Singel’s article and commented above, I was reminded of a song by The Eagles that aptly describes the experience of being on Facebook, so without further delay, here is Hotel California: