On the failure of Quit Facebook Day, Social Utility and Privacy

"How to split up the US" by Pete Warden

At 10:19 PM EST tonight, the organizers of Quit Facebook Day reported that all of 33,313 people had dropped out of the Facebook universe. That figure represents a tiny fraction of Facebook’s 400 million users.

That miniscule percentage does not represent all of the people that have quit or deactivated their accounts in the past month, but it certainly implies that there hasn’t been a widespread movement to leave the social networking giant.

I’ve been a Facebook user since 2006. I never had the “college experience” of having an electronic Facebook  but found it instantly useful as a means to stay in touch with family, friends, classmates and former colleagues.

It was, clearly, just what its creators said: a social utility. I didn’t care for Facemail much – and still don’t – but many features, like IM, the newsfeed, photos, people search and video are powerful methods for augmenting Facebook’s users to communicate with one another.

Facebook has become the Information Age’s White Pages, for good or ill, extending the service it provided Harvard students with contact details for one another back in 2004 to hundreds of millions around the world.

The changes to privacy and publicy from the past six months, however, fundamentally shifted the reality of using the platform for many users, particularly those who had trusted the site with sensitive information about their lives, friends or other affiliations. For those who never shared information that could be damaging, the shift to a public default meant little. For people with more to lose by virtue of the nature of the cultures they live within, gender or health status, such changes have much greater significance if revealed to a school, parent, employer or government.

By and large, research cited by digital ethnographers like danah boyd shows that many people remain ignorant of how public their updates are. And people care about their online reputation in 2010, given that every organizational gatekeeper or first date is rather likely to Google you.

Recent amendments to the privacy policy and user interface notwithstanding, concerns that those who have the most to lose are not being considered persist amongst privacy advocates. Reports of account deletions, page takedowns or harassment in other countries, with limited recourse for users, also reflect uncertainty over the future of the Internet’s #1 site. Recent shifts to Community pages have also resulted in consternation on the part of both brands and government, though Facebook’s spokesman promises that such features are in development and will be improved.

I have not quit Facebook. I continue to find it useful as a social utility, as before, applying Facebook as a “people browser” for those with whom I want or need to stay connected. I use LinkedIn as a business utility and Twitter as an information utility. I doubt those use cases will change for me personally this year, although I’m watching carefully to see how the most recent privacy controls are implemented.

Recent decisions of Facebook’s management around privacy and personalization may bring its operations under regulation by the FTC, as is already the case with privacy commissioners in Europe or Canada. If consumer harm due to management actions were proven by any of those entities, it would significant implications for the innovation in this sector, although it might also cause developers to build privacy into such platforms from the outset.

As government entities continue to create pages, they will likely be obligated or even required to archive conversations there using Facebook API or other tools. After all, there’s substantial utility to measuring and analyzing the interactions there for those that wish to understand public reaction to policy, candidates or initiatives. If the terms of service are not clearly described to those interaction with government employees, additional layers of complexity around privacy and the rights of consumers will also be in play. And problems in Facebookistan, as Rebecca Mackinnon writes, extend abroad to exposing at-risk members of society to abuse, deleting activist accounts and taking down Pages.

There’s much more to electronic privacy than social networking, not matter how large Facebook becomes. Putting online privacy in perspective is essential. And I tend to agree with danah boyd’s position that quitting Facebook is not enough, especially for those of us in the tech media that have some degree of influence in informing the public and holding the social networking giant’s management to the standards they and law set for ethics and business practices.

But, fundamentally, human relationships are about trust. If we cannot trust that the manner in which we connect, filter and share information with one another will not change with the business needs of a platform, our relationships will be damaged. We have only to look at the statistics on jobs lost, applications denied and romances sunk through virtual actions to understand how those consequences may play out in our offline lives.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “On the failure of Quit Facebook Day, Social Utility and Privacy

  1. legalinformatics

    Thanks for this fine post. I think Professor Helen Nissenbaum’s new book, Privacy in Context (2010), http://j.mp/aNRSqq , provides a useful framework for explaining users’ responses to Facebook’s constant changes to its privacy policies, for evaluating those changes.

  2. Great post Alex. This certainly points to the larger issues around online privacy (it’s much more than just potentially embarrassing college photos being seen by the boss). I have had concerns about insurance companies using information gleaned from the Internet to deny healthcare coverage. I have also often wondered how often authoritarian governments are monitoring and using social media platforms for their own purposes.
    Thanks for pointing me to Rebecca MacKinnon’s excellent post on the subject.

  3. Appreciate the thoughtful post, but I disagree that “quit Facebook day” was a bust. Influence is terribly difficult – the simple fact that that meme was all over the place online today is a major victory.
    The problem with Facebook is not simply “don’t post it if you don’t want it out there,” it is the mapping of people’s online activity and relationships – the same kind of information that people buy spyware protection to block third parties from doing. I just don’t think most people are thinking about how Facebook is collecting and storing their behavioral activity.
    Finally, I am ashamed of people – Danah Boyd – who think that Facebook is wrong but should be “changed from within.” Sure worked well with Big Tech and China – just ask Google.

  4. Lance ==)--------------

    I didn’t quit FaceBook because I believed that they cared about the loss of my account, nor about the loss of the paltry few folks that would band together to quit on the same day. I quit because my membership gave FB far more value than FB gave me. My participation there gave other people, who were not yet participants, a reason to participate, too.

    I’m no longer there; no one need join looking for me. No one need join looking for any of the other 33795 quitters.

    FB never understood about privacy. The changes they are making demonstrate no understanding of privacy: There are games on FB that demand access to one’s profile and one’s friends’ profiles in order to play. First, what right have I to give access to my friends’ profiles in exchange for any perq? Second, what need have these games of any of our profiles except access to write on *my* wall when and if I wish to publicize my accomplishments? Third, what information from my/our profiles are they taking? FB is not even considering changing this kind of blanket permission; why should they? As far as they’re concerned, privacy’s something of value only to those who know how to package it.

    I have undone my opt-in; in that, I did not fail.

  5. bob

    its actually not a failure. I have several friends on FB who have not deactivated their accounts but deleted their entire profiles. And these arent tech savvy people either.

    They are just people who have had enough. If FB doesnt have profile info they have nothing to sell to advertisers.

    If you dont think a hell of a lot of people did that then you must think FB is just being nice.

    Lots of people deleted their profile details enough to make FB think about it.

  6. Asking Facebook to fix privacy is no different than media companies asking others to fix piracy. It can not be done.

    Any information that can be digitized can be copied and shared infinitely, whether that information is a song, a movie, an embarrassing photo, or your phone number. The only technological means Facebook can use to keep it secret is… DRM. An we know that DRM doesn’t work.

    Facebook’s complex privacy settings confuse people. To make it easy for everyone they should just make absolutely everything 100% public, since it’s basically public anyway. People need to learn that anything and everything you share on the Internet is public, even if you think it’s not.

    The only problem is that many things in our society depend on secrets for security. Credit cards, bank accounts, and so on, are not actually secure. They depend entirely on obscurity to prevent exploitation. We need to switch these things to use strong private/public key mechanisms with multi-factor authentication so that they can remain secure in the face of a world where privacy does not exist.

  7. Brett Glass

    I have never used Facebook (or Web mail services) because I long ago anticipated the abuse of personal information. If I want a Web page, I’ll publish one of my own. And if I want an electronic mailbox, I’ll set up a server. Why people would put those crucial resources in the hands of corporations which are likely to abuse them is beyond me….

  8. fjpoblam

    Quit FB Day failed because probably not counted were

    (1) folks who quit long before the “Day”;

    (2) folks who had the common sense (as those described above) never to use FB;

    (3) those who had the common sense (as those described above) to delete, or never list in the first place, too much PII in FB.

    Perhaps FB is a worthwhile tool, for those who know how to use it properly. Maybe even fun for those who don’t. Tag: yer itt.

  9. “Facebook has become the Information Age’s White Pages.”

    Incorrect. That would be Google, the starting point of any people, place, or thing search.

    • digiphile

      Thank you for the comment. I thought about Google when I wrote that, although I didn’t put it into the post. Google provides search, not listings, despite the addition of Google Profiles. Given my interviews and anecdotal observation, I believe many more people are starting on Facebook when they look for people. Additionally, while Google may be the starting point for a search, Facebook profiles show up within it, often near the top of search. In other words, even if Google remains the place where people start, they end up on Facebook. That’s not so different from a White Pages at all, in terms of being a directory.

  10. Lance ==)--------------

    @Apreche

    > Any information that can be digitized can be
    > copied and shared infinitely, whether that
    > information is a song, a movie, an embarrassing
    > photo, or your phone number.

    This is true to an extent, that extent being that FB requests it, packages it, categorizes it, and correlates it for resale. If FB did not provide this service, then those who would use our information would have to stumble upon our data, use screen-scraping technology to collect it, and sort and categorize it themselves. This greatly increases the cost of the information and reduces its reliability, thereby reducing (but not eliminating) its propagation.

    FWIW, my FB account never had any demographic information of use, any way. To the extent that the existence of my links with other FB members had value, I could not avoid making that available and still get any value out of FB for myself. Now, neither of us provides any value to the other.

    • Lance ==)--------------

      Er, that should have read “This is true to an extent, however, FB exceeds that extent by requesting it, …”

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  12. Thanks for the excellent post Alex. I think we are really seeing a movement of openness in this era, where people are willing to share a lot more data with the public than before, for better or for worse.

    The issue with the previous privacy settings is that they created openness as the default setting, so inexperienced users unfamiliar with the site worried that they were sharing personal information that they intended to keep private, without a way of knowing how to ensure their protection. If all our information was made private until we declared it public, I think users would have a better sense of what they are committing to when they join the site.

    Sharing and openness, especially as it relates to government and government agencies, is definitely a good thing. The deleted accounts and added privacy concerns should not take away from the vast number of positive interactions that help spread information and improve relationships between the general public and their government representatives. Still, in online communities like Facebook, I think it’s important that the community members retain control over the decision to make their profiles public.

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  15. great posts, i didn’t think that many people will quit facebook like that, still facebook has 400+million people online and growing strong daily.

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