Bye-Bye, Facebook

By James Kwak

I recently deleted most of my personal information in my Facebook account. (I am keeping the Baseline Scenario page up for the convenience of people who want to read the blog within Facebook, and I need to have my personal account in order to manage that page.) This is only a tiny bit related to the fact that, for several days recently, Facebook was blocking access to this blog. It’s mainly because I’ve decided that the costs of Facebook outweigh the benefits.

First, take a look at this fantastic graphic by Matt McKeon (hat tip Tyler Cowen). You have to click on it to advance through time; it shows what information is, by default, available to whom, and how that has changed over time. (Click on the link to the “image-based version” if you’re having trouble.) Then come back here.

In short, there has been a massive, one-directional shift in how much of your information is visible by default either to everyone on Facebook, or to everyone on the Internet. Now, the usual defense of Facebook is that this is only by default; you can control information access via your privacy settings, which have gotten more fine-grained over time.

But this argument doesn’t fly for me. First of all, there is the problem that many people don’t realize they have this control and don’t use it. Second, finding and using those privacy settings is not trivial. But for years, I figured that I was savvy and careful enough to protect myself adequately. I’m not that paranoid about personal information on the Internet to begin with–there are various versions of my biography already floating around–and besides, I worked in the software industry for eight years (some of that time helping to design and configure software, not just market and sell it), so I should be able to figure this stuff out.

But I can’t, at least not in the amount of time I’m willing to dedicate to the problem. Recently, Facebook made yet another structural change. Before, information about where you used to go to school or work was simple text fields in your profile. (I’m not talking about networks here; I’m talking about the “education and work” section of your profile.) Then Facebook switched it so that each prior school or job became an active link to a new “community page.” (There’s no option to have a simple text field anymore.) These community pages appeared to aggregate posts (formerly status messages) made by community page members that were “related” to the topic of the community — meaning that the name of the community (e.g., “Yale Law School”) appeared in the text of the post. I could see lots of posts by people I have no apparent relationship to. I checked the privacy settings, and there was no new switch for community pages, so I couldn’t tell how the filtering was working. Maybe I was only seeing posts from people who let me see them by virtue of being in the same network (or people who let all of Facebook see their information), but I’m not sure. And nowhere does Facebook clearly explain how their privacy filtering works.

(It turns out this “feature,” which goes by the name of Facebook Connections, is even more frightening than I thought, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Here’s #4 of six warnings:

Facebook will continue to store and use your Connections even after you delete them. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. Even after you ‘delete’ profile information, Facebook will remember it. We’ve also received reports that Facebook continues to use deleted profile information to help people find you through Facebook’s search engine.”

But I only found that out when doing research for this blog post. People shouldn’t have to do third-party research on the web to understand how to use Facebook.)

Of course, this isn’t the first time Facebook has unleashed a privacy-affecting change to the way it organizes information. There was Beacon, a “service” that took information about what you did elsewhere on the Web and published it to Facebook. Not only that, but Beacon was even harvesting information that Facebook executives did not realize it was harvesting (Wikipedia; original source).

Beacon is very old news. But it points out two things about Facebook that I don’t think have changed. First, Facebook doesn’t care about its customers. It has a huge and largely loyal customer base, so it must be doing something right. But it is primarily concerned with the need to generate revenues from that customer base, and as a result it is constantly experimenting with new programs that may enable it to earn money. Facebook should know that a large minority (if not majority) of its users are concerned about privacy and do not like these unannounced, poorly explained changes to how their information is used.

Second, Facebook is just bad software. This manifests itself in various ways. The performance (speed of response) for many user actions is terrible. The user interface manages the improbable dual achievement of being both non-intuitive (it’s not obvious why the page is organized the way it is, nor how Facebook classifies different kinds of information, nor how to do rather simple things) and under-functional (you have to click and click and click to do certain things, like un-liking a fan page, leaving a group, or deleting an application).

And it’s worse than that. Last week, TechCrunch reported a “security hole” that allowed to see their friends’ live chats and pending friend requests. Now, you may think, “Windows has thousands of security holes — what’s one more?” But this isn’t a securities hole in the Windows sense, meaning a vulnerability that a malicious hacker might exploit. This is a flaw that Facebook inflicted on itself, all by itself, that was sitting there waiting for any ordinary user to find.

Then there’s the problem that Facebook marketing, and Facebook executives, are unable to explain clearly what exactly their software does. That could be studied vagueness in order to obfuscate. Or it could be that their data model, user model, and security model are so screwed up after several years of experimenting that they don’t actually know what is going on: they make changes to the software, cross their fingers, and use their customers as testers. I would bet on the latter.

This is what happens when software grows and grows over several years. It’s especially what happens when the software evolves far from what it was initially designed for, without a plan for how it should evolve, as is clearly the case with Facebook. And it’s what happens when you have a company that is growing much too fast, under too much pressure from investors, competitors, and the outside world.

The people who run Facebook may or may not be evil. And I imagine that they will continue to be very successful; I have never been a good predictor of what technologies or companies will do well. But in any case I don’t think they’re very good at writing software. And I don’t want to devote my time to figuring out what Facebook may or may not be doing (knowingly or accidentally) with my information.

As I said above, I’m keeping the Baseline Scenario fan page for the convenience of Facebook users who happen to like this blog, and I need to have a personal account for that purpose. But from now on I’m erring on the side of non-disclosure.

61 thoughts on “Bye-Bye, Facebook

  1. it is my practice to block every app (except politically incorrect tarot readings) showing up, ignore every page invite, ignore any friend invites from people i don’t immediately recognize, altered my privacy settings, *never* buy any product/service advertised on fb,& i flat-out refuse to ‘connect’ to pages fb has mined for connections from my (deleted) interests/likes. however, fb still continues to be my main connection w/friends, so i will keep it…for now.

  2. Many have come and gone. Here is my observation as an (admittedly ignorant on technology) observer. MySpace, come and gone. Why??? Could it be that when you start seeing your customers as poor saps to suck cash flows from, instead of asking how to serve them better, your days from that time onward are numbered??? A lot of people pissed that they have to go in and change their settings manually to protect personal information. THEY WILL NOT FORGET FACEBOOK’S RECENT ACTIONS. Teenagers of this generation will put up with that until the next technology comes along. I think people of Kwak’s age and my age get what they need with Twitter. Most people 30+ (who have advanced past social maturity of a 15 year old) don’t need you Facebook. TAKE NOTE

  3. I’ve been using the Web since the days of Lynx and Mosaic. I never joined MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter. I just don’t see the appeal. The only social networking site I use is LinkedIn, and that’s just to keep my resume out there and to keep up with ex-colleagues when they switch jobs. I find Blogs and old school Message Boards/Forums to be much more productive and engaging than all of the recent crap.

  4. Facebook does care about it’s customers, it’s just that Facebook users are not Facebook’s customers.

  5. I just “deactivated” my Facebook account. Closing it was not an option. Erasing it wold be better yet.

    Thanks, James. Every time I read this blog, I learn something.

  6. “for the convenience of people who want to read the blog within Facebook.”

    My opinion is that it is absurd to place serious material into Facebook and the like.

    Something akin to publishing in a comic book,

    a thing no serious person should do.

  7. This is why I never facebooked in the first place. Sometime tried, repeatedly, annoying, to get me on the service. I politely refused time and again, but finally had to give some sort of explanation. So I asked,

    “Ok, tell me what you think Facebook’s business model is. This thing is worth a billion, right? Well, what’s the cash flow plan? Where does it get it’s money to pay for the servers and software and staff and so on? Advertising? Maybe a little, but this is the age of Ad-Block Plus, and I’ve always been skeptical about the potency of ads anyway, especially to younger and hipper audiences.”

    “So what’s the business plan? What does it have to sell? Your information, that’s what. That’s valuable. First it’ll start slow, and they’ll extract every dime they can out of a tiny bit of data-mining consistent with their privacy promises.”

    “But then they’ll reach a plateau of users and maturity of income using that limited set of information, and they’ll be under pressure to demonstrate growth in the next quarterly report. The easiest way to do that is to let the privacy rules slip just a little.”

    “And then slip again, and again, etc.. And then they’ll make it hard or confusing to change the options or “sign out” (like Amazon). It’s only a matter of time. Then you’ll want to leave too, but then they’ll say they have to a right to retain everything you ever did and it’ll be too late.”

    He looked at me like I was telling fairy tales, but at least didn’t bother me about it again.

  8. …would be better off with backlinks, article feeder, RSS, trading links with other web sites that have reputable Google page ranking (ask any top-notch SEO specialist for details.)

  9. It’s very hard to get involved with a Social Networking site and not reveal a lot of information about yourself that far exceeds that in the profile.

    The whole issue of “privacy” in the digital age is out-of-control at the moment. About a decade ago, the State of California DMV decided that it was going to sell all of the private information about holders of driver’s licenses to EquiFax (if memory serves). The S–t hit the fan, and the Legislature passed laws to prohibit this kind of sale of information from the government to private interests.

    However, there has never been any long term review of the issues, with recommendations for systemic changes. Most of the time that these sorts of suggestions make it into the attention of the Legislature, they disappear under a barrage of lobbyists.

    Facebook (or at least the unoppressive FB) is a nice idea .. and I have joined a couple of groups that have produced some interesting results when ideas have been thrown out. It would be a shame to have to resign from this groups because FB was planning to sell everything that I have said, or done, to some marketing firm that has hired a bunch of psychologists and clever programmers to create targeted marketing databases.

    I don’t trust anyone in the State Legislature to understand these issues .. and now that we know that Obama does not know how to use an iPod and is “down on social networks” .. not clear that the Federal Government is going to provide any relief in the near term.

  10. A number of my colleagues have pointed out that no centralized “social networking site” has any reason for existing. Everything they do — or at least everything they do that benefits users — could be done in a distributed fashion by individuals acting on their own, in a manner that protects users’ privacy. There are two problems here: services like Facebook and Twitter (and even Google’s Blogger) have huge network externalities — in the case of Facebook and Twitter, their owners will never again need to buy paid advertising, since they get it for free from every media company in the world — and people (Americans in particular) are conditioned in all sorts of ways to trade their privacy for all sorts of goods and services (of mostly nominal value). Add to that the fact that Microsoft has convinced the majority of the population that software is expensive, unreliable, and difficult to understand, and it’s hard for anyone who wanted Social Networking: Next Generation (or “Web 1.0”) to develop a business that would serve more than a tiny niche audience.

    I used to think that there could be a market for smaller-scale centralized social-networking systems in industry or associational verticals (dentists, NASCAR fans, Big State U. alumni, listeners to right-wing Christian radio), but I no longer think so — Facebook is so huge that everybody who cares about such systems will already have a Facebook account, and few will be willing, in the long run, to maintain a presence on multiple platforms. (Even fewer will completely switch platforms, particularly if — as many do — they mix their personal and professional contacts.)

  11. The blog posts aren’t showing up on google searches for some reason as of yesterday.

  12. …me too…someone could make a ton of money if they made a site that functions as a “virtual campfire” where we all could hang out with our friends, without all these liabilities that Facebook unfortunately has.

  13. Kagan is Hebrew so she is probably as sharp as they come. My guess is she’ll glide through much easier than Sotomayor.

  14. I might add, hopefully Tom Coburn won’t embarrass the entire state of Oklahoma AGAIN, by doing a similar stunt to his earlier Desi Arnaz imitation.

  15. I deleted all my content and deactivated my account at the time of Beacon. I felt it was a disgraceful move and I did not trust the company. But now they’ve really gone a lot further than even I, the suspicious type, could have suspected.

    I encourage friends and family, especially those who are not so web-savvy, to delete their Facebook accounts too.

  16. James, I’m surprised that you didn’t know about this. This info about Facebook has been around for years. The Guardian had an article a few years ago about the rather reprehensible tendencies of one of Facebook’s owners.

  17. Ah, Patricia Craven, how can someone make a ton of money, or even enough to pay for the firewood for that lovely virtual campfire? That’s the catch.

    Until that one is solved James Kwak has confirmed all my objections to Facebook, but we do not have a solution. Others have indicated where the problem lies — that we are not the customers. Remember too the incredible prize in success, the “ton” is measured in multiple billions not multiple milions.

  18. Now, the usual defense of Facebook is that this is only by default; you can control information access via your privacy settings, which have gotten more fine-grained over time.

    The whole “nudge” concept always implicity, and usually explicitly, declares “this should be used only for good purposes, not for evil ones.”

    Ergo Cass Sunstein’s always spewing variations on, “Of course I want totalitarianism, but only for good purposes.”

    Or Krugman defending Obama and Jonathan Gruber regarding the exact same astroturf-pseudo-“journalist” scam he’d previously condemned the Bush admin for pulling with Armstrong Williams and others, on the grounds that “but this time it’s for good purposes!”

    But that’s always a lie. We know totalitarian methods are intrinsically evil, and no one who uses them has any aim other than evil. (Though the proximate end, like in the case of the health racket bailout bill, is usually evil as well; otherwise one would never feel the need to use such tactics to achieve it.) In this case it’s just gutter greed and contempt for this customer base.

    First, Facebook doesn’t care about its customers. It has a huge and largely loyal customer base, so it must be doing something right.

    Yes, when your victims are slavish enough to keep crawling back saying “thank you sir, may I have another”, I guess you’re in the right line of crime.

  19. What has always deterred me from joining/using software such as Facebook is that “social net working” software provides a simulacrum of real social relationships. As such it is not just that it has commodified but also that these ‘relations’ are profoundly in-authentic (as well as often instrumental). The impulse to privatize (and turn into a money-making instrument) what has been inherently public (i.e. the public space of the polis not the agora) is enough to make them pernicious.

  20. Very interesting experience, and this from a ‘web wizard’!
    But don’t we all know, at least if you are socially, economically and politically informed, that technocapitalism has ensnared us already. Recently a very interesting book by University of California at Irvine professor Luis Suarez-Villa, TECHNOCAPITALISM, has been published. It’s brilliant and prescient. A tad alarmist, you might think? No. Deep down, we all know, and experience daily, this stage already has been reached.

  21. It has me pretty much all wrong. Although, it kind of makes me look more mainstream normal than I really am, LOL.

  22. Spot on, DCJ, (especially the parenthetical remark about their being instrumental).

  23. Uh huh… thats really dismissive of an entire medium. Tell that to Scott McCloud, the writers of Black Hole, etc.

    Just because a medium has been used here primarily for children doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious medium. And yes, I consider “graphic novels” to be comic books. Calling them graphic novels is an attempt to escape the hypocritical views of western audiences so that the works will be purchased; namely its a pragmatic decision that shouldn’t have to be made.

    Comic books can be serious, superheroic, cheesy, or schlocky, just like TV shows. They run the gamut, but we don’t assume all TV shows are for children, do we?

  24. If you Google “delete Facebook account” or something along those lines, you’ll find want you need. The option’s there, but — as with everything else on Facebook (at least the bits that don’t make them money) — it’s buried behind layers and layers of crap. Deactivating your account still leaves your information exposed; while deletion takes two weeks to go through, it’s the better option by far.

  25. I quit Facebook last week after a year and a half for all the reasons cited in this post. They have no right to keep changing the back end and messing with my head. The fact that we are already “ensnared” in technocapitalism or data-mining programs at other sites is no goddamn excuse.

    The final straw was having my outgoing links blocked! THIS WILL NOT STAND. I have my own blog, thankyouverymuch, and no one can edit it but me. The links that were blocked, BTW, led to articles critical of FB and also one about the oil spill. WT???

    Facebook IS evil. Period. It feels soooooooooooooooo good to be free.

  26. The trouble with this, Jonquil, is that despite all the care you’re taking, Facebook is STILL doing things with your data that you have no awareness of and can’t control. And why should you have to keep altering your privacy settings? Is that “right”?

    We all had real friends before Facebook came along, and somehow we all did just fine. Nobody needs FB. Making you think you do is how they “getcha.”

  27. Frankly, I’m totally unconcerned by facebook’s privacy settings. Why? Because I don’t post anything on facebook that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting on the front page of the Washington Post. Whether my friends will post embarrassing information about me on facebook would be entirely out of my control regardless of whether or not I am on facebook.

  28. mark zuckerberg is a total stooge who hasn’t had an original or innovative thought in his life.

  29. Thanks for the info, James. I don’t read tech blogs, so this was the first I’d heard of the new update. Profile: blanked.

  30. The moral of the story is what your Econ 101 professor told you “there is no free lunch”.

    Sites like Google and Facebook provide valuable, expensive, and very useful services — and you pay them with a currency that you might not have regarded as valuable: information about you.

    That would be your error: information about you has value, even if it doesn’t jingle in your pocket. Facebook and Google are useful indicators of just how valuable this information is.

  31. Dreamwidth is a user-funded service with sensible policies & a good attitude. It doesn’t have the reach of Facebook because it is not a well-funded data-mining operation.

  32. OK, James Kwak, how do I change the “notify me of follow-up comments via email” now that I have lost interest in additional remarks on this thread?

  33. THIS THIS THIS. Thank you Tim. Their product is user eyeballs. Their customers are the advertisers.

    They don’t care about what their PRODUCT thinks of what their CUSTOMERS can do with the data.

  34. My friends and I have been debating trying to build a mostly decentralized open source social networking platform. You run your own profile from your own server, possibly get service from somebody else. You control the privacy levels of your data as much as you choose though.

    I can’t wait until our idea or someone else’s similar idea destroys the walled garden of Facebook. It’ll be as liberating as when e-mail broke down the walled gardens of Prodigy, AOL, and Compuserv via the SMTP protocol.

  35. Facebook is the electronic equivalent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – a universal surveillance prison. Very coercive.

    Frank Johnston

  36. Haha, this is actually pretty interesting because just before I found this posting, two things had happened:

    (a) I saw a story today about how the latest round of changes to FB’s ToS is causing an uproar among FB users. I was again intrigued by the fact no one is making an argument about social networking that is, to me, obvious: that the internet isn’t private, to be sure, but it “should be.” And;

    (b) I went on Facebook to try to get in touch with you to see if you were still in Portland. I guess I’ll have to try Gmail. But oh, the ironic timing!

    Anyway, I think this is great post, Dan. It really echoes many of my sentiments about FB and some of the emerging challenges of social media as well. I’m convinced this is the great civil rights debate of a generation that’s waiting to happen. But we’ll see. Anywho, I’ll be in touch.

  37. I am not happy looking like the thought police, but didn’t anyone else find this midly offensive and/or slightly creepy?

    “Kagan is Hebrew so she is probably as sharp as they come” (Ted K 1.13am)

    I am not for removing it, but possibly the author or others might let me know if they don’t understand why it made me think I had wandered into an unpleasant and ignorant group and wanted to wander out again. If you are puzzled I can try to tell you how grown-ups and economists who know facts see the world.

    As there seems to be no way of unsubscribing from this thread now that it has wandered from the privacy problems and alternatives to Facebook James Kwak started to the lowest common denominator, I thought I might as well see if I can keep the pot boiling, so I decided not to keep my lip buttoned further,

    That’s my real name here, since I follow Jeff’s idea not to say anything I don’t want to see on the front of the Washington Post. I wonder if Ted K thinks the same?

  38. Our server has been hacked! All scripts have been deleted and our root filesystem has been severly damaged.

    Apparently, there were several sabotage attacks last week since users reported that there were no free slots available. We do have a backup from yesterday and are currently going through our log files. We have to clearify what caused this nuisance and we hope to go online soon again!

    We apologize for the inconvenience! Please consider suicide at a later moment!

  39. While my instinct is to shudder at the idea of what FB is doing, and I see many of you agree with James, ultimately the risk is proportional to the potential harm.

    Maybe I’m naive but do all these scare stories translate into real harm being done to individuals? And, if so, what examples of this harm are available?

    Social media networks have huge potential for good, in my opinion. If FB are screwing up their users then market forces will prevail in time.

    Oh, this is my real name!

  40. Thoreau on social networking: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”-Walden

  41. 1) If you EVER plan to look for a job, do NOT put yourself on social networking sites in anything even vaguely resembling an unsavory situation.

    2) I know it seems odd, but do not post photos of yourself breaking the law on social networking sites including Facebook.

    3) Don’t post racy photos of yourself on social networking sites. I’ve seen a child custody battle lost over that very thing.

    4) Google was recently hacked using social networking sites.

  42. I assume there’s is no privacy on the internet. The government, and who knows who else, can monitor all of your keystrokes, data transmissions and website visits in real time and store them for future reference. Facebook just makes it easier for less resourced actors, e.g identity theives and stalkers, to snoop on you. Anyway, I deleted my Facebook account – I hope.

  43. I just think the thing is time wasting crap of faux friendship simulacra for busy lost souls.

    And the IT is a cobbled thing that makes it a malware sponge.

    SEO is so much more fun and is a valuable skill I can share for free or bill to a client.

    It’s main unintended impact seems to be pandering to the low information world leaving them increasingly at sea over how web 2.0 really works, a distraction.

  44. Chris Kelly, who was Facebook’s chief privacy officer until a few months ago, is now running for California Attorney General — with the support of big-name VC firms that funded Facebook.

    I learned about this in an amusing way: Kelly’s campaign staff spammed the personal contact lists of one or more members of the Facebook board of directors, asking for support.

    This is at best richly ironic, and at worst possibly an illegal invasion of privacy under CAN-SPAM. They did apologize, so no hard feelings, but you have to wonder what is going on here.

  45. Thanks for this writeup, James. I deleted my Facebook account yesterday and feel relieved (although I understand, as you pointed out, that deleting my profile doesn’t mean that Facebook deletes my data) — it was a huge time sink and my friends will find a way to keep in touch with me if they really want to. I also wrote a blog post letting my 401 “friends” know my rationale for quitting Facebook. Interestingly, it’s titled the same as yours:

  46. I had recently deleted my facebook account, possibly 2 weeks ago. I made a pretty harsh discovery just now while playing with the like button on my wordpress blog(no one reads it, but it’s good to have that just in case). I clicked the like button and it logged me back into face book and reactivated my account! It even had my login info stored. Being a web developer, i clear my cache and cookies several times and hour, so I don;t even get how this happened. I have noticed that on some sites, the like button lists my facebook friends as having liked something. this goes away right after I clear the cache and cookies. I’m trying to hard to figure out where the info could be stored on my machine. It; snot in my Mac’s keychain app at all.

    All i can say about it is – this ain’t cool.

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