Facebook Status: Evil

Helen A.S. Popkin at MSNBC:

Pop quiz! What do you call “the act of creating deliberately confusing jargon and user-interfaces which trick your users into sharing more info about themselves than they really want to?”

Give up? Don’t feel dumb. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights advocacy organization, had a tough time wrapping its collective brain around the concept as it built its tutorial to help users through Facebook’s most recent privacy changes. So EFF turned to Facebook and Twitter users for help.

Suggestions for a term to easily describe mishegas such as “Facebook’s bizarre new ‘opt-out’ procedures” rolled in. These included “bait-and-click,” “bait-and-phish,” “dot-confidence games,” “confuser-interface-design,” and though EFF didn’t mention the social network specifically, more than a few that made creative use of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s name, such as this one called out on EFF’s site from @heisenthought on Twitter:

“How about ‘zuck’? As in: ‘That user-interface totally zuckered me into sharing 50 wedding photos. That kinda zucks’”

Apparently people feel pretty strongly about Facebook’s latest privacy rollback, a new move to “personalize your (Web) experience using your public Facebook information,” even if you don’t fully understand what it means, let alone how to “opt out” of generously offering your personal info with the social network’s partner sites.

Tim Jones at Electric Frontier Foundation:

The new Facebook is full of similarly deceptive interfaces. A classic is the “Show Friend List to everyone” checkbox. You may remember that when Facebook announced it would begin treating friend-lists as “publicly available information” last December, the change was met with user protests and government investigation. The objections were so strong that Facebook felt the need to take action in response. Just one problem: Facebook didn’t actually want to give up any of the rights it had granted itself. The result was the obscure and impotent checkbox pictured here. It’s designed to be hard to find — it’s located in an unlikely area of the User Profile page, instead of in the Privacy Settings page. And it’s worded to be as weak as possible — notice that the language lets a user set their friend-list’s “visibility”, but not whether Facebook has the right to use that information elsewhere.

A more recent example is the process introduced last week for opting out of Instant Personalization. This new feature allows select Facebook partner websites to collect and log all of your “publicly available” Facebook information any time you visit their websites. We’ve already documented the labyrinthine process Facebook requires users to take to protect their data, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say that sharing your data requires radically less work than protecting it.

Of course, Facebook is far from the only social networking company to use this kind of trick. Memorably, users of GMail were surprised last February by the introduction of Google Buzz, which threatened to move private GMail recipients into a public “frequent contacts” list. As we noted at the time, Buzz’s needlessly complex “opt-out” user-interface was a big part of the problem.

OK, perhaps the word “evil” is a little strong. There’s no doubt that bad user-interfaces can come from good intentions. Design is difficult, and accidents do happen. But when an accident coincidentally bolsters a company’s business model at the expense of its users’ rights, it begins to look suspicious. And when similar accidents happen over and over again in the same company, around the same issues, it’s more than just coincidence. It’s a sign something’s seriously wrong.

Rhiannon Bowman at Creative Loafing:

Is Facebook evil?

Sometimes I think so. A friend twisted my arm until I joined. Once I did, I was inundated with ridiculous games and moronic requests to accept non-tangible “gifts.” Today, I’ve successfully blocked most of those apps but I still wonder what the hell I’m doing on Facebook.

I have one relative who freaks out if I don’t post regularly, but mostly I forget who I’m “friends” with and wonder if any of them could give a crap about the random stuff I post. At least once a week I think about quitting, but posting links to things I’ve written or events and organizations I support has proven helpful in the past.

So, for Cousin [redacted] and for the love of networking, I guess I’ll stay.

Ben Popkin at The Consumerist

William Brafford at The League:

Facebook’s master plan is worth thinking about. Right now, when you log on to a website without doing any fancy tricks, the website can figure out your location, browser, and operating system. If the site’s got a cookie in your system, they might have a lot more: records of past visits, things you bought in their online store, etc. But the website can really only recognize your computer and whatever user account you might have there. What Facebook aims to do is let the website recognize you. This is what the pros call “demographically verified visitor stats tied to people’s real identities.” Not only Facebook verify your identity; they’ll provide information about your place in the “social graph.”

That is to say, when I log into Amazon right now, Amazon knows that I’m William Brafford and that I’ve bought a bunch of stuff from them in the past. But let’s imagine a scenario where Facebook succeeds in transforming the web the way it wants to. Then, if I’m logged into Facebook and I go to Amazon, Amazon will probably have access to at least the following information:

  • All the “pages” I’m associated with on Facebook
  • My friends on Facebook; particularly, the friends that share relevant interests
  • What my Facebook-enabled friends have recently purchased from their site
  • The kinds of things I have recently “liked,” both on Facebook and around the Internet; for example, the songs from Pandora.com to which I’ve given a thumbs-up
  • The kinds of things my friends have recently “liked”

(Remember, this isn’t how things are now; it’s just where we’re headed.)

One sneaky thing Facebook’s done is move from privacy controls to “visibility” controls. You actually have a pretty high degree of control over what other Facebook users can see when they look at your profile, but your ability to restrict applications and other websites from getting your info is pretty low. It’s actually kind of tricky (and sometimes impossible) to opt out of a lot of this stuff. Apparently it takes a lot of effort just to delete your account.

Naturally, Facebook and its partners are going to use this stuff to offer you sweet deals on items their algorithms think you want. And maybe this is a good trade. We trade information about our buying habits for discounts all the time — I mean, I’m signed up for a bunch of “rewards programs.” But there’s the problem — I signed up for that stuff. I didn’t ever want this with Facebook.

But here’s the truth: a small group of internet users getting worried about this stuff and deleting their accounts won’t make any difference, and if Facebook does win the battle for the internet, we’re just going to have to make accounts all over again. The real action is in the battles for control of the internet: Facebook vs. Google vs. Twitter vs. whoever else comes along next. We’re just spectators at this point.

Thomas Baekdal:

All of this is just a small part of Facebook’s growing level complexity and inconsistencies. The problem is that it is getting worse. Every week, Facebook announces a new set of policy changes, or introduces a new level of complexity.

Just take the whole mess of the new Facebook “likes”. First, Facebook changed what “like” means. To me a like is an endorsement. I like you, because you are reading this article. But that doesn’t mean I want to subscribe to everything you do, and have you fill my news stream with your updates.

But, Facebook now defines liking as both an endorsement but also the act of subscribing or following a person or brand.

We now have five different types of likes:

  1. You can like a normal post on a page or profile. That is simply an endorsement, nothing else.
  2. You can like a page, which isn’t an endorsement at all, instead it is a commitment because you are actually subscribing to it.
  3. You can like an advertisement, which is also not an endorsement, but will cause you to subscribe to that brand (and any future post they might make)
  4. You can like e.g. a movie review on a website, which is just an endorsement
  5. You can like a website as a whole, which is both an endorsement and commitment, depending on how that website have implemented the like button. You will not be able to tell the difference, but website owners can decide to push updates to you, based on settings only the website owners control.

It is a mess, and it is deceptive marketing tactics. It’s like the difference of walking up to a girl, and saying “I like you” vs. “I want to marry you” – pretending that is the same thing.

Facebook excuses itself by saying that “User will understand the distinction through explicit social context,” which is a load of crap. Every usability expert in the world knows that introducing modes to distinguish identical actions are a really bad idea, and is impossible to understand.

But, they go on to say “To eliminate confusion and promote consistency, there will no longer be a way to give feedback to these types of news.”

Meaning that if you like a status update, your friends can see it, like or comment on it. But, if you like a page (and thus become a fan), your friends can see it but not comment or like it.

How is that eliminating confusion?

I’m sorry Facebook. I think your concept is brilliant, and the social world is amazing. But, if you don’t get your act together soon, you will end up like Myspace – or worse – AOL.

Your engineers are running the asylum.

Update: Read the follow-up to this article “I’m not quitting Facebook.”

Kevin Drum:

The more I read about Facebook, the more I really don’t like Facebook. I’m way behind the curve on this stuff, but the other day I read a post about privacy settings and realized just how little I know about it. I’ve always been pretty sparse with my Facebook account, so I’m not really worried about my darkest secrets becoming public or anything, but after reading this and then following the links I went in and changed a whole bunch of settings that had made my preferences available to third parties at Facebook’s whim. I had no idea these settings even existed. Then today I read this. “There is something seriously wrong with their business ethics,” says Thomas Baekdal, “when they even contemplate publishing content that was previously marked private.”

Ya think? As near as I can tell, Facebook’s business model is to periodically chip away at privacy settings, wait for the inevitable blowup, maybe give up a little bit of what they changed, and then wait for the fuss to blow over. Then six months later do it all over again. Rinse and repeat. Slowly but surely, they’ll be able to monetize every last bit of our lives and we’ll all be so tired we won’t even care. Or even notice.

I know I’m a dinosaur about this stuff, and maybe David Brin is right that privacy is a lost cause and we should all forget about thinking we have any, but I’m not ready to give in yet. I’ve been careful with Facebook in the past, but I think I’m going to be downright paranoid about it in the future.

Matthew Yglesias:

Is Facebook Evil?

Many are asking the question these days, and it’s worth pointing out that the company’s founder actually has a long record of shady ethics. Consider what he was up to before he launched Facebook:

Aping the style of hotornot.com, Facemash pitted Harvard students against one another, asking readers to view House facebook photos of two randomly selected undergraduates and choose which one was “hotter.”

The site was visited by 450 people within its first four hours online, after which Zuckerberg took the site down.

The site’s popularity with students, however, was not quite equaled by success among administrators.

“I put Facemash up on a Sunday night and within four hours my internet connection had been yanked,” he says.

Zuckerberg found himself brought before the Administrative Board for breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individuals’ privacy by using students’ online facebook photos without permission.

To be clear “online facebook photos” at this time did not refer to “Facebook photos.” Rather, he did something like break into the database of student ID card photos, and the appropriate the images in order to power his site.

John Hudson at The Atlantic:

Prompted by a rising tide of angry users, Facebook is calling a company-wide meeting to address privacy issues. In the past few months, the company has been hounded by senators and challenged by competitors offering platforms with greater privacy. On Tuesday, Facebook’s VP for public policy held a Q&A with the New York Times that, in some ways, did more damage than good. What can we expect from the company’s 4:00 p.m. meeting?

Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider:

CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his company are suddenly facing a big new round of scrutiny and criticism about their cavalier attitude toward user privacy.An early instant messenger exchange Mark had with a college friend won’t help put these concerns to rest.According to SAI sources, the following exchange is between a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and a friend shortly after Mark launched The Facebook in his dorm room:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuck: Just ask.

Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuck: People just submitted it.

Zuck: I don’t know why.

Zuck: They “trust me”

Zuck: Dumb fucks.


Could Mark have been completely joking? Sure. But the exchange does reveal that Facebook’s aggressive attitude toward privacy may have begun early on.


1 Comment

Filed under New Media, Technology

One response to “Facebook Status: Evil

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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