Facebook and Privacy

Lots of hubbub since this article has run:

Talking at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25-year-old chief executive of the world’s most popular social network said that privacy was no longer a “social norm”.

So, Zuckerberg’s inaccurate and shockingly inarticulate speech (“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built” — oy vey!) aside, what exactly has changed? When Facebook altered its privacy settings last December, they encouraged users to make their data public to the entire internet (i.e. Google search results). Here’s a video that shows how to change most of these settings.

I would add that you should never use Facebook apps, since these are third-party developers that now have access to your information. Always read the labels, people! Fan pages probably do the same thing, but I don’t use them — I’ve grown out of my “flaunt my tastes” phase I think.

These issues have brought other issues to the surface as well, including lots of underinformed paranoia. I saw this interview with a Facebook employee linked with accusations of “Evil!” attached. To my mind, the idea that Facebook employees could read your information or that Facebook stores everything that occurs on its site should not come as a surprise. Practically everything offered for “free” on the internet comes with a (barely) hidden price: your data. Social networks were, from the beginning, potential troves for data-mining operations. Web-based email functions the same way: Gmail has been reading your email for years. And, if you didn’t know, the IT department at your workplace or university can read emails from those accounts as well. Cookies track your web usage. Yes, Virginia, private corporations are trying to make money off your internet activity!

In fact, the privacy statements of Twitter, Google, and Facebook are remarkably similar, though Facebook has made its privacy settings overly complex and tedious, probably so the lazy or less savvy won’t bother. They agree to track your web usage, save and access anything you do on their networks, obey requests by law enforcement, and use your information for data-mining operations. The main reason to mine your data is to target ads at you. So install Ad Blocker on Firefox, and never see an ad again. I’ve never voluntarily clicked on an ad in my life, but apparently other people do.

Instead of the hysteria over privacy settings, I’m more interested in how social media networks coerce human behavior into ever-more self-disclosure. For many people, especially young people, if you aren’t on Facebook, you can’t fully participate in social life. You won’t be as up-to-date on goings on, you will miss invitations, and you won’t be able to judge everyone’s music and film tastes as efficiently. I know someone whose romantic life was stymied because he refused to be on Facebook — some girls wouldn’t date him without being able to do a background check. He has since succumbed. As Mark Andrejevic has written brilliantly about, we are seduced and disciplined into welcoming ever more surveillance in our lives, through varied means such as traffic cameras, reality television, and yes, social networking. We are encouraged to divulge information as a means to find romance and employment — in the neoliberal world, where you must continually market yourself as the “entrepreneur” of your identity/personal brand (and thus, if you can’t find a job it’s YOUR fault), turning yourself into a walking advertisement is practically essential. Look at this guy: he makes more than a lot of people I know who have college degrees, and he probably isn’t even on LinkedIn.

In hyperreality, we’re all celebrities and we’re always on the clock. So, yes, insist on greater privacy on Facebook (though it’s been a month, so any mass movement is probably too late out the gates). But as Trotsky said about the German parliament giving dictatorial powers to Hitler as long as he didn’t abuse them, “To demand such promises is ridiculous, to hope for their fulfillment – utterly stupid.” Facebook is a corporation, with a CEO who strikes me as stupid as he is narcissistic (guess that’s what happens when you throw a billion dollars at a 20-something). The only way out is to limit what you put on Facebook (I put very little original content on there, and my profile consists of varying levels of tongue in cheek), or commit digital suicide.

Rather than these half measures, I think it’s more productive to look at what an internet run by private corporations has wrought. The Big Brother of 1984 was a Stalinist government, but it turns out that capitalists are just as into surveillance and tracking as The Man, and far better at marketing it. The consumerist narcissism that we’ve been raised on in the West dovetails perfectly with “voluntary” self-disclosure of all our valuable data. It’s fun to have our iPhones automatically update our longitude and latitude coordinates on Twitter; after all, there aren’t any Predator drones after us! We enjoy being on display, marketing and being marketed to, even being stalked — it flatters us.  We have to make ourselves into commodities, otherwise no one will want to date us, or buy our book, download our sweet remix, or give us a job. Social discourse has been commodified. We’re vying for attention in the gaudy supermarket of humanity and it turns us on.

I’d advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. We’ll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people won’t even be able to afford the internet.

One Response to Facebook and Privacy

  1. […] to Gavin Mueller for raising this possibility, if more cynically, many months before: I’d advocate turning social networks into public […]

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