Sunday, September 8, 2013

Facebook - "Ya Gotta Love It."

No, that's not a figure of speech.  It is part of the company's latest "lack of privacy" policy.  If you have a Facebook account you got a notice about it on or about August 30th. It started like this:

"Hi Robert - [Unless of course your name isn't Robert] We're writing to let you know that we are proposing updates to our Data Use Policy and our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. These two documents tell you about how we collect and use data, and the rules that apply when you choose to use Facebook. Our goal with these updates is to make our practices more clear."  Sounds kind and caring, doesn't it?

The New York Times doesn't quite see it that way as they reported on September 4th that "a coalition of six major consumer privacy groups has asked the Federal Trade Commission to block coming changes to Facebook’s privacy policies."  According to the Times this is the problem: "Facebook users who reasonably believed that their images and content would not be used for commercial purposes without their consent will now find their pictures showing up on the pages of their friends endorsing the products of Facebook’s advertisers. Remarkably, their images could even be used by Facebook to endorse products that the user does not like or even use." Hence my assertion "You Gotta Love 'Em" - whether you want to or not, and even if you are represented as making those claims without your knowledge.  You see, Facebook goes on to claim that they may use the name and image of any Facebook member for advertising and commercial purposes, including those of minors, without their consent.  I can see it now, everyone whose Facebook page I ever visited, however briefly, would see a post: "Dr. Schrag loves Facebook! 'Finally they got it right!' claims long time antagonist!"  Jeeeez.

As is normal with Facebook whenever they take total leave of their senses, Information Week is now reporting that - after more that 10,000 users emailed complaints - Facebook will review the complaints to make sure that the proposed changes are "necessary."  Yet Facebook still asserts that the changes will be implemented this week. These kinds of problems are not, I need to point out, social media problems, they are Facebook problems, they are Mark Zuckerberg problems.

Facebook started out as a way for Zuckerberg to manipulate free data for his own benefit; originally using the pictures of freshman female students at Harvard to try to get dates. The underlying maturity of the site has not increased significantly since 2004.  Now the free data he wishes to manipulate are the billions of pictures and comments that Facebook users have posted to the site in the past 9 years. Mind you, the data are "free" only because Zuckerberg simply declares in this recent policy statement that they are his.

This puts Facebook users in a terrible and uncertain position.  Does this mean that if you choose to use the images and comments regarding your friends, children, pets, travels, etc., that you have posted on Facebook to write a book, that you are stealing content that belongs to Facebook?  Could Facebook sue you?  Are your birthday pictures, wedding pictures, cat and puppy pictures all just part of Mark Zuckerberg's personal gallery?  Only an idiot would assume that to be true.  But unfortunately in America we have a hard time realizing that "idiot" and "billionaire" can describe the person.  Our love affair with wealth often blinds us to the idiocy of the super rich. In this case, however, the duality holds and Zuckerberg is the idiot-billionaire who thinks he owns everything you have ever posted on Facebook.

I signed up for a Facebook account as soon as Facebook was opened to schools outside the Ivy League.  I think it was early 2005 or so.  I teach about technology and society, and so it only made sense to play along and see what happened.  I have followed the company fairly closely for the past 8 years, and this latest snafu is only the most recent in a depressing string of blunders that seem rooted in immaturity and greed.  So it was without any feelings of sadness or loss that I permanently deleted my account after breakfast this morning.  It is no big deal for me.  I have posted fewer than five pictures to Facebook and commented just as sparsely.  However, for the folks who started their child's page when the entity was a blip on a sonogram and have religiously posted the child's life to Facebook, Zuckerberg's claim that he owns that record is far more troubling, far more evil.

I do want to emphasis that my issues are primarily with Facebook, and not with social media in general.  Other social sites, Google+, Ning, Pair, etc., seem to be aware of both the potential and the peril of social media's power.  Social media attempt to walk a very thin line between the personal, the private and the public spaces of our lives.  These are spaces that are rarely co-joined in the West, in the 21st century.  They are, by their very nature, separate.  The town hall, the bar, the living room and the bedroom are not simply different physical spaces. In our culture they are spaces that define different psychic and emotional aspects of our being.  Social media, by slapping them cheek by jowl up there on the same screen, co-join those aspects of our lives in ways never before experienced.

As I continue to observe a wide range of social media on a daily basis I am pretty sure that none of them have got that balance right yet.  I am equally sure that Facebook has got it wrong.

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