Disillusioned with Facebook

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Like more than 400 million other people on this planet, I belong to a little site called Facebook. I was what you might call an “early adopter”, at least in New Zealand. I joined when the site was only open to university/college students (requiring one to have a university email to register). I believe it had been running for a couple years before they added New Zealand universities to those eligible for registration. I was literally within the first hundred or so people to sign up for it at the University of Auckland, on the 26th of February, 2006.

That’s more than 4 years ago now, and it’s kind of saddening to see how Facebook has changed in that time. When I first joined, I immediately liked it for the following reasons:

  • It did photos better than any other site I’d seen, with photo tagging and a simple interface (I was on MySpace, Friendster and Bebo at the time, none of which had photo tagging).
  • You couldn’t do any customisation of page appearance. Everyone’s profile was clean and uncluttered. (BIG contrast with both MySpace and Bebo). There wasn’t any extra cruft, and you couldn’t add images and music and videos and so on into your profile. This alone made me love Facebook more than anything I’d used before. My eyes would no longer bleed when looking at peoples’ profiles. No more sparkly stuff, or god awful music that started playing as soon as you opened a page. Thank God.
  • Privacy was the default, not a hidden option. You couldn’t see anyone’s stuff unless they opted to make it public, or you added them as a friend.

Overall, it just felt much nicer and cleaner than anything I’d used before. I promptly told all my university-attending friends about it, and a few months later, ditched the other three sites. Then started the slow and steady decline. You may or may not have been around to see some of these changes:

  • The opening of registration to anyone and everyone. Suddenly the site was full of preteens and teenagers that (quite frankly) I was happy to have left behind on MySpace and Bebo. When it was only open to university students, it had an “exclusive” feel to it, which was nice.
  • The introduction of applications. This one particularly pissed me off. I was getting constant spam from other people “inviting” me to use the applications they were using, and my news feed was full of junk about other peoples’ application activity. Worst of all, the thing that originally had me most excited (the clean, uncluttered appearance of profiles) was now pretty severely compromised. While you still couldn’t change the appearance of your page in terms of background colours/images, and while the layout was still roughly the same, pages were now full of “fishtanks” and “DO U LIEK ME?” questionnaires, and other such junk. This is now better under control, with applications appearing either in the small column to the left of profiles, or in the “Boxes” tab, but it was certainly annoying at the time.
  • The gradual erosion of user privacy over the years. This has almost happened so slowly that it’s been unnoticeable, but Facebook is (at its current stage of development) trying to stick its finger in too many pies. It is pandering to its partners and developers, by giving them more access to user information, at the cost of user privacy. With the likes of Beacon (now shut down, two years after its inception), Connections and Open Graph now making your public information available to third parties, it has now reached the point where it seems they no longer care about their users as anything other than a revenue source. The information being shared with third parties notably includes information that you can set the “Visibility” of to “Only Friends” in your privacy settings. Apparently Visibility only refers to other Facebook users, and some third parties are exempt from such restrictions. Users essentially have no control at all over where this information could end up.
  • Along with the occasional reduction in default privacy settings (or removal of privacy completely from certain items), Facebook seems to be deliberately making it difficult for you to opt out of these settings.

Perhaps even more worrying, is how few people are actually even aware of this erosion of privacy. Facebook have done a good job of keeping it pretty well hidden, or glazed over as “enhancing the experience”. Of course, most people (myself included) don’t read privacy policies (often pages and pages worth) every few months.

Of course, a social networking site is only useful if there are a good proportion of the people you care about using it. With that in mind, Facebook is still good from the perspective of sharing photos, organising events, and communicating with friends. However, I have stripped most of my personal information from the site (bar photos), and will gladly move to a new platform if it can grab me in the same way that Facebook did when it first appeared on the scene.

In particular, I’ll be keeping an eye on Diaspora, an intriguing project about to start development, which promises to deliver on the concept of an “open source” social network. In a nutshell, it’s a network of personal “nodes”. Each person on the network owns their own node, to which they can add whatever information they like, and access it from anywhere. In turn, they have fine-grained control over who can see that information. Think about it like your own personal house that contains your personal information (basically everything that you’d otherwise be sharing on Facebook/Flickr/LastFM/Twitter/etc), and you can open the door two whomever you (and only you) choose. Because you own the house, you can demolish it at any time, or add and remove furniture as you please. It’s also being developed by a bunch of super nerds, so I can totally get behind it.

Hopefully it amounts to something! My biggest concern is that it’s very technical and geeky at this point in time, so they will need a good marketing team with a pitch for the masses before it gains any real ground.