farewell to facebook

What happens when technology ceases to be a tool and becomes, instead, a lifestyle? As Facebook continues to gain momentum and evolve through the deployment of new social networking concepts such as Timeline, the question becomes critical as we attempt to control our identities online and in the physical world. On a broad level, the issue is the degree to which our lives – our experience of living – has become defined by technology-mediated change. Without necessarily looking to the catastrophic – our vulnerability in the event of a technological failure or collapse – the rapid changes we experience in the name of so-called progress impacts our quality of life and the way in which we relate to each other.

Superficially, Facebook has certainly earned its reputation for innovating social networking, outperforming lesser attempts such as MySpace by delivering a seamless, streamlined, user-friendly platform with which to enable connections between friends. Although in large part a sinkhole of banality, like Twitter, it is possible to achieve meaningful communication. If there’s a reason not to feel unconditional revolutionary glee at deleting my account and unshackling myself from Facebook, it comes from the loss of those meaningful connections, however robust or ephemeral. Whether on the scale of an epic or a mere tidbit being able to share images or news, Facebook made it easier for people to keep each other in mind, at no monetary cost. That counts for a lot in a culture driven by constant attention shifts, increasingly high work demands, and a fast pace of living.

Yet at what point does the price of “free and always will be” become too high? As regrettable at it is to cut off a line of communication, many of the concerns raised over the years, from privacy to (lack of) anonymity, have only magnified as Facebook has grown to encompass over 800 million users and an internet presence capable of reaching into the political processes of countries around the world. That magnification has, at last, reached the critical threshold in which Facebook is too much of a juggernaut for users to be able to effectively manage or mitigate the very real threat it presents to us on a number of different fronts. The question is, as visionary as Mark Zuckerberg might be, has he perhaps so much vision that he can no longer see his blind spots? Assuming, of course, that the peculiar ethical quandaries created by Facebook are the result of blind spots and not calculation.

When considering privacy, the challenge of preventing status updates or other posts from reaching the wrong audience – coworkers, for example – is trivial in comparison to reports of, for example, Facebook’s use of facial-recognition technology to identify and tag users in photos uploaded to the site. Combined this with Facebook’s notorious changes to privacy settings with a tendency to require users to opt-out of new features rather than opt-in, this is the sort of practice that undermines the very possibility of privacy within the network. And what about the new granular privacy controls and friend lists that ostensibly allow users to control how their information is shared? While a step in the right direction, the clunky implementation highlights the way in which privacy controls are really an afterthought layered on a network model that is fundamentally based on the idea of sharing information. In other words, Facebook is trying to force its square privacy safeguards into the round hole of its dedication to public sharing. The resulting confusion has, on a user-experience level, finally taken away the zest that made Facebook such a compelling alternative to MySpace. Instead of being fun, Facebook has now become software requiring a great deal of time and attention to sort through the various account and privacy settings, manage friends, and otherwise administer our Facebook experience. Of course, Facebook can only share what users themselves put into the network. If users don’t fill out their profile with interests, or upload photos, or share every little trivial detail of their lives, Facebook has nothing to publicize. This partly defeats the purpose of being able to share freely with friends, in the sense that in order to maintain privacy it is necessary to entirely exclude Facebook, not just particular fellow Facebook users. Crucially, this ambiguity highlights the extent to which our ability to trust Facebook is compromised.

Furthermore, the illusory nature of privacy on Facebook is undermined by a system designed to make everything shareable across the web. With like buttons and more popping up everywhere, we have reached the point where Facebook aims to do nothing less than mediate our experience of the Internet. One result is, naturally, the aforementioned sinkhole of banality where users share every little link, every location, every bit of information about themselves. Again, users are under no obligation to do this, but Facebook encourages it through a platform specifically engineered to reinforce sharing behaviour as well as deploying themselves across the Internet and mobile devices. At this point, one could ask if Facebook really is an information sharing service or something worse: yet another manifestation of corrupted media. More and more, Facebook confirms that we have entered, as media theorist Jacques Baudrillard suggested, an age of the hyperreal where the simulation has overtaken and replaced that which it simulates, namely, the real. We can go beyond Wikipedia’s definition of information as an “ordered sequence of symbols that record or transmit a message” to view information as something that produces knowledge, perhaps even wisdom. Compare this to data, a mere qualitative or quantitative unit comprising information that may or may not be informative in itself. Saturated as we are by data to the point where it is impossible to credibly evaluate and consider what is meaningful information, we have become mired in trivialities, confirmation biases, and data that even functions as anti-information. Hyperdata, in other words, which is to information what hyperreality is to the real. As a medium for hyperdata increasingly integrated with websites across the Internet, Facebook is very much a simulation and not merely a representation of one form of social experience. And as Facebook infiltrates the physical world to the point where traditional methods of communication are rendered irrelevant or, at least, partially obsolescent – social media is now de rigueur for marketing businesses, for example – the simulation becomes everything.

As esoteric as this may seem, this huge amount of data underlies a fact we Facebook users often gloss over: we are not merely Facebook users but the ore in a vast commercial data mining operation. The overarching commercial use of our data means that privacy in any meaningful sense is absent, everything we post – obligatorily tied to our real name, although aggregate data for advertisers isn’t supposed to be personally identifiable – is subject to analysis, targeting, advertising, and marketing. That businesses and customers with shared interests are connected isn’t in itself a bad idea. It’s arguably better to receive advertisement for products and services that are relevant than otherwise. But the price of admission to Facebook is the complete erasure of distinctions between the individual as a private entity and the individual as consumer. The personal IS the commercial in Facebook. All our personal data becomes grist for a business simulation to identify and reach customers. Activities once the province of community with reasonably defined boundaries have blurred into standard methods for building brand loyalty and selling stuff. For example, it’s no longer enough for customers and companies to build a mutually beneficial economic relationship through superior products and professional service, that is, for economic transactions to create business accountability because a customer can take his or her money elsewhere if dissatisfied. To achieve “brand loyalty,” businesses must now build communities and offer social interaction – simulated friendships – to create a collateral value that will attract customers and convert to sales. In some quarters, this is a quality to be admired. In a blog post for ZDNET titled “Humans First, Technology Second. Why Facebook Will Win,” Rick Harris argues that Facebook will defeat Google because “After the launch of Timeline, it was made perfectly clear that Facebook knows that the golden nugget of marketing is an amazing story that resonates with other humans. Their biggest announcement at f8 demonstrates that they understand this better than most. Make the personal human experience amazing and the business opportunities will fall into place because you already have the people.” In my view, this is a mixed benefit.

The issue is not, as a matter of principle, that brands attempt to relate on a more personal level with customers – far from it. Business and customers should have good relationships that benefit both. But the lack of transparency, clarity, and genuine choice in regards to these relationships through Facebook is deceptive and damaging. Of course, by not paying for services, we have no leverage with which to pressure Facebook to implement honest privacy policies, opt-out of data mining, or give users a choice about using or foregoing creepy Truman Show-like features such as the upcoming Timeline. The only recourse is to quit altogether, delete the account, and nurture the unlikely hope that Facebook really does delete user information instead of merely making it inaccessible.

Although I am not opposed to technology or deny the progress that can result from it, the way in which we have allowed technological advances to change our lives strikes me as the product of an addiction to novelty rather than the end-result of careful deliberation that attempts, however fallibly, to map out consequences both good and bad. File me under better late than never, but the latest round of Facebook changes has finally prompted me to examine the social network with greater skepticism. That skepticism even prompted me to consider other aspects of my internet use, resulting in my ditching Google for DuckDuckGo.com on account of privacy and tracking issues. At least I can say I’ve always been cautious about what I post to the Internet, so I’m not worried about some embarrassing or otherwise dreadful piece of Internet stuff coming back to haunt me.

So what does the Internet look like for me post-Facebook? I still want to enjoy the benefits that comes from a social network. Would I be willing to pay? Sure, but in this era of “free” the question is whether a pay-to-use service would gain enough traction to support even a fraction of the kind of network size Facebook has. Another option is a social network that is everything that Facebook isn’t, but still free from a monetary standpoint: open about how it makes money and an honest broker of relationships between businesses and users. As it happens, two promising Facebook alternatives have come to my attention that are worth considering. The first, anybeat.com, is a response to Facebook’s “walled garden” approach of restricting user networks to known contacts. Recalling the glory days of BBSs and chat-room, AnyBeat aims to offer a safe, constructive platform that encourages people to interact with people they don’t know – anonymously, if so desired. Next is Unthink.com, which takes dead aim at Facebook's defects and espouses a socially-conscious philosophy based on giving users control over their network presence. Business has a place at Unthink.com, which is well and good, but even brands are encouraged to be agents of positive change in the world who don't simply see customers as an exploitable resource.

Until these services come online for me to evaluate as a viable alternative to Facebook, I plan on enjoying a break from the rumpus of social media. I'll post more at this blog, pay more attention to growing my fashion blog, and just go where the river runs.


quick film review - Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga'hoole

Based on books by Kathryn Lasky, the story of this animated film is the usual fantasy fluff: a coming-of-age tale nested in the battle between the noble and the base, the wise and the fascist. The twist is that the characters are owls, who somehow manage to forge helmets and steel talons among other technological goodies. But forget the plot, which is serviceable despite feeling like the cliff notes presentation of a much more elaborate tale – this is film that invites immersion in its astonishing visuals. Proving that Zack Snyder does have the skill of a visionary, however stunted by the lack of a signature vision, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole features jaw-dropping attention to detail, the whole experience draped in a lush realism that employs motion so effectively it’s hard not to feel the wind in one’s hair. And that is just about all that needs to be said; a beautiful presentation of a lacklustre story.