How Facebook threatens “the social network” [UPDATED]

It won’t have gone un-noticed to any readers of this blog that I’ve been quite impressed at Google+ – what it can do, and more important what it could be possible of doing to our use of social networks. I’m particularly impressed at the implied movement away from the “social graph” to what has been described as the “interest graph” and the focus on task-related posting rather than people-focussed posting. In fact the demise of Google+ which has been trumpeted by the tech media press is almost certainly the result of posts disappearing from the “public stream” with more selective posting to Circles. A success story therefore you might argue for anyone who values their privacy.

Copying is said to be an indication of success too, and we’ve seen a “re-launch” of Posterous, trumpeting a feature that was always there which looks very similar to Circles, and of course there’s been the changes to Facebook. These have been thick and fast over the past few weeks, culminating in the announcements last week. First of all, I have to hold my hand-up … I’m not a great, nor active, Facebook user. It’s just too complicated to get the privacy controls correct, and as they keep on changing things, there’s just that nagging doubt always present in my mind that I might inadvertently be sharing something with people I don’t want to share with. So what goes on Facebook (from me) is generally of little interest to my “followers”, or it is factual and not likely to cause me any concern. But all that’s just changed because Facebook wants to change “the social network”, hold even more information about you – which you can’t get out without deleting your account, and wants to share that information with even more people that you don’t want to share it with.

Every time Facebook changes the timeline, or your profile, or whatever, a groundswell of complaint can be heard “from those in the know”. Of course Facebook probably doesn’t care about them (us) anyway – they’re more interested in the information they’ve trapped inside the Facebook firewall provided by the far greater number of users who don’t know, or who prefer not to know, what they’re doing. However, this time there’s been an up-welling of comment that beats most previous announcements and I thought I’d share some of that comment with you.

First of all take a look at the summary of features listed here. [If you want a sickening few minutes (you won’t want to stay to the end) watch the video of Mark Zuckerburg’s launch address.] “Is Facebook trying to kill privacy” – well yes it is, and this is seen by their view that “the social graph” should be open, so that everything you do can be made visible to just about anyone – read a review from Wired here. All those apps that you’ve allowed access to your Facebook profile, well now they will be following you, and what you do, even though you’ve not given them permission to do so – read Phil Bradley’s excellent post here, and as he and others have commented – it’s shameful that The Guardian has signed-up to this invasion of our private lives, and I’ll be even more worried if The Independent follows suit.

Two more links I ought to share with you as well are this one, detailing how the social reading apps will work, and this one which gives very wise advice – never leave your browser logged into Facebook, the cookies may be tracking everything you do.

[UPDATE: The storm doesn’t seem to be abating – @briankelly this morning (26/09/2011) tackles some of us who were tweeting that Fb is a walled garden with a riposte that suggests Russell Group (and presumably all Universities) can not afford to ignore it as there are so many fans using Fb Groups and suggests its not a walled garden anyway. However, my doubts are beginning to firm up even more and you ought to read “Facebook’s New Features Might Not Be as Private as You Think” and some of the comments that follow to help you come to your own conclusions.]

So … I’ll be reviewing my applications on Facebook again. I won’t be taking any of the new features and if I’m forced to change I’ll be deleting my account. My “followers” will always be able to find me on Google+ where I can then decide whether I want to follow them, or more importantly, post updates to them. I suspect The Force will remain undisturbed by any actions I take!

12 Replies to “How Facebook threatens “the social network” [UPDATED]”

  1. When you don’t pay the piper, you can’t call the tune. We all have the right to join or not, and that, ultimately, is our control over privacy. The rest just becomes academic because our eMail addresses have been floating in the ether for years, have been captured by all those with an interest in targeting us and once there are packets with your data on the Net, you will never get rid of them. By nature, the human species seeks self-aggrandisement and Facebook is an ideal platform. Once such self-aggrandisement creates a negative critique, people suddenly shout that it invades privacy. Put your head on the block, and someone will chop it off.

    1. Love the analogies Tom. I’m certainly not wanting to get my head chopped-off and so will just cautiously be watching where the debate goes. I certainly don’t “need” a Facebook account in the same way as I feel I “need” a twitter or Google account, but yes I agree with you total privacy is impossible if you want to gain benefit from what the net has to offer. I think the main thing I felt about what’s happening with Facebook is that you’re being taken to a place you didn’t ask to be taken, and moreover you have very little choice as essentially they operate an opt-out policy. Others are either transparently public (twitter) or operate a model where the user has more control over content and how visible you want to make it (Google and nearly all of the other social media platforms that I use – Posterous, Vimeo, WordPress, Everytrail, etc etc).

      Really interested in how the URL ‘’ appears under your name in this comment – I presume there’s a very good explanation 🙂

      PS Hope you don’t feel I’m after self-aggrandisement – just trying to while away the hours and do something useful 🙂

      1. When Tim Burners Lee initiated the first http protocol exchange, essential ‘inventing the Internet’. He never designed it as a platform for any kind of privacy. The entire structure of the net is very open-source and as a result of that any notions of privacy are very artificial. Any person who demands a high level of privacy you should not be using the Internet. Basically, when you visit a website, that is as essentially as public as visiting a shop in the high street, since exchanges of IP addresses need to be conducted allowing anyone to trace your vague location. This is how the Internet was constructed and people frequently forget how transparent it really is.

        1. Fully aware of this, regretably many are not and most of them are also probably Facebook users. As I’ve just written in a reply to another comment, where there’s the possibility of controlling the privacy of certain personal information so that only those who I chose may see it (other than the provider of the service of course because that’s the way I pay to have the service) then that’s the way it should be!

  2. No1 priority for survival at The Grauniad at present is “Conquer America”. They’re not going to do that in print, hence the Facebook move. However, like many people, I’m currently rethinking my use of Facebook.

  3. I find the social net diametrically appealing and appalling. I take long breaks from all interactions, but when I do join in, what makes a valid interaction for me can be practical, learning, or emotional, but above all else, valid. I like sharing my social activity, but not always; I often learn from others, which I value, but sometimes I, like many, allow emotions to overtake. Parsing the semantics of interactions are hence so complex, they can’t really be defined by a bounded set of parameters. So all we can do is reassure ourselves that the medium we use satisfies our needs in terms of relevance and perceived privacy.

    As we increasingly get Cloudy, we must never forget that ultimately someone can read our data far more easily on a remote server than on an encrypted local drive. People are involved in providing services, and people can ultimately, do what they like.

    Like you David, I hope I can still keep my interest in how digital socialisation develops once I move on from Cardiff. I’ve always loved good communication so will always have an eye on channels. My comments on self-aggrandisement were purely related to the hoards of people who leave themselves open to major push back and hence make you shiver. My web reference to the Guardian is essentially my way of saying that I don’t have my own, personal, web destination. I have my own personal portal into the web, where I use provider platforms to join in. The Guardian has been one of my home pages for many years, as they lead in presentation for me. Content is another matter 🙂

    One of the eye-openers for me, has been how a village like Clovelly have extended the definition of a local community, using social networks. I now know more about day-to-day relevant information than when I was first resident. It has also become a fantastic historical log of the village. And most of it is wide open to the world 🙂

    1. Amen to that Tom, and of course I never thought you were referring to me. Through my interest in genealogy, trails and photography I’ve discovered new worlds and people that I would never have discovered through any other means. All I ask is that if there is a switch to say “make this public” that it is I who has the choice not some corporation. I’m not blind to what all social software is seeking to achieve, but all I seek is to feel, just a little bit, in control 🙂

  4. Hi David
    Thanks for the link to my post. I feel that we should separate our privacy issues from use of the term ‘walled garden’. But if people do use the term ‘walled garden’ in a pejorative sense, they’ll need to define it – and acknowledge that such comments could also be applied to institutional services.

    1. You’re right. I was particularly taken by your assertion that most (if not all) institutional websites/repositories/portals/VLEs (my extensions to your argument) are in fact walled gardens with little attempt to provide users with the means of exporting content. However, the difference is in the intent. Apart from the use of the student record to feed alumni systems, I’m not aware of the personal information being held within institutional systems being used indirectly for marketing purposes, indeed the DPA would explicitly prevent that. Of course, the web presence is a marketing activity, but I don’t believe any institutional system is clever enough to plant a cookie in a browser that then tracks what the prospective (or current) student is looking at and then changes the “message” accordingly.

      Walled garden and privacy can’t be totally separated even though I agree that one doesn’t determine the existence (or absence) of the other. If your argument had been that the providers of a walled garden service have a responsibility to provide tools for export in a form that could be imported into a content provider elsewhere, I’m with you and perhaps the providers of university web services should consider that question. However, it has been reported (rumoured) that Facebook who provide such a functionality currently are now re-considering it and thinking about withdrawing that service. So walled garden being used in a pejorative sense? Yes maybe and perhaps commentators have a duty to be responsible in the language they use in reporting their views, but understandable – most definitely yes!

      I don’t think either of us have much to disagree with in terms of privacy concerns and that is where the debate should be focused.

  5. Hi David
    Thanks for the response. I don’t think I have anything particularly new or interesting to say about the privacy aspects of Facebook but do feel that having a better shared understanding of what is meant by a ‘walled garden’ can be valuable in informing debate.
    I have just made a proposal for amendments to the Wikipedia entry for ‘walled garden“.
    On the <a href=""talk page I suggest that the definition should be:

    More generally, a “walled garden” refers to a closed or exclusive set of information services which the platform provider restricts in order to gain competitive advantage“.

    I think this encompasses the negative connotations which the term has for many users.

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