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This is the first of my posts from 2013. I know it is the 28th of December, 2012. Get over it.

On the contrary…

My friend Paul Bernal, an academic at UEA, wrote in his blog post “10 reasons to leave Facebook” well, 10 reasons to leave Facebook, obviously. I have immense respect for Paul. We all need privacy activists to look out for our interests and to pour endless hours over privacy policies and to raise flags about Instagram’s changing their terms of service. However, just like corporations need to have a check and balance on them by privacy activists like Paul, sometimes privacy activists need to have a checks and balances done on them. Facebook and its subsidiaries have taken a beating recently, so I thought I would refrain from jumping on the band wagon and defend them from the onslaught!

In between making The Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola made an often forgotten masterpiece in its own right called, “The Conversation” – “an ingenious, meticulous examination into the nature of voyeurism, as well as a harsh criticism of the deceitful morality of privacy.” The protagonist sits and watches other people, in his own world completely cut-off from other people. He is an observer that gives away no personal information, displays no easily distinguishable characteristics, and remains blissful in his peaceful state of ignorance. This is not the place to rehash the story line, but the film raises important questions about the role of privacy in the modern world. At what point does seeking to protect privacy overstep the mark and actually infringe on others autonomy?

The points Paul makes in his blogs are presented as a ‘bible’ of social networking and Facebook, in particular. There are massive generalizations made by privacy activists, and overlook the incredible public benefits to social networking. The steps, therefore, should be looked as a descriptive taxonomy intended to supplement professional assessment and treatment planning rather than exclusively inform it. I always enjoy Paul’s work but I feel that he falls into the very same trap as the protagonist in The Conversation. He took a misinformed and superficial glance at social media, and looked at them in isolation. Since Facebook isn’t going to fold anytime soon, I hope to engage privacy activists in a dialogue that encourages discussion and embraces opinions that speak to the contrary.

  1. 1.      Privacy.

Privacy activists ironically claim their movement is about generally one of three things 1) protectionism – protecting you from the interests of corporate malfeasance and trading you for cash to companies like Facebook and Google. 2) Ownership – you own your own personal data and should be able to do what you want with it, including selling or licensing it. 3) Autonomy – you control your own personal data and can choose what others do with it.

Just this week Randi Zuckerburg (Mark’s sister) takes to Tweeter to condemn the poor sister of a friend tagged by Randi in the picture. The photo comes up on the sisters NewsFeed; she copies the image and tweets away. Unsurprisingly, the privacy activists howl about Facebook’s lack of privacy settings. I don’t think this was a breach of privacy, I believe it was a breach of social networking norms. The Zuckerbergs are globally recognizable, and anything to do with them will be reported on every Tech blog, website, and news feed imaginable looking into the life of one of Tech’s superstars. Randi Zuckerberg sent a picture out on Facebook to her “Friends Only” and another person – not connected to the picture broadcast it on a different and competing networking site, Twitter.  This is more to do with social networking manners than Privacy. There is a rapidly developing set of social networking norms, which I will develop more over this series, but think about the dreaded “frape”… As a source of embarrassment, the “frape” – the act of a typing in to one’s Facebook account a fictitious status update in order to bring about shame is in rapid decline…

  1. 2.      Real Names Policy

I would estimate that about a fifth of my friends on Facebook don’t use their real name. So what? This is one of the points I agree with Paul about. A German Court recently ruled that the Facebook real name policy was in contravention of German law. I think the “Real Name” policy is just stupid. It looks like, so might the courts. Furthermore, in the reality of Facebook use, people use their married names, their single names, their first and middle names or a combination of names to fool Facebook and to ensure some level of anonymity from snoopers. I think the “real name” policy is not workable for a different reason. Ethan Zuckerman has spoken extensively about this problem. Where I disagree with Paul is why the Real Name Policy fails. It is not a privacy issue as much.  As Zuckerman has stated before me, Facebook and YouTube are not public places. They are private spaces that are being used sometimes for a public function – protest. The real question is not the forced use of a real name policy, but whether Facebook is the right platform to facilitate public awareness about a cause out-with Facebook’s purpose – providing a social platform for connecting users in order to sell advertising. Think about it. Would you go to Disney World to protest gun control? Or would you go to City Hall? Parliament?

  1. Monetization

Facebook makes money. In the words of George Takei: “Oh my!” So what? Why can’t privacy activists accept that? I chuckle sometimes at the mantra some of the PAs have adopted: “Nothing is Free”; “You are the product” and my personal favourite, “They know more about you than you do”.  Well, guess what? They don’t. Not even close. In fact you can use Google’s profiling tool to see just what Google thinks you are.

Google thinks I am a 65+ male (I am not) that speaks Dutch. (I don’t). Furthermore, I wholeheartedly disagree with Paul’s statement that “Facebook has to satisfy its shareholders first of all, its advertisers next, and its ‘users’ last of all.” As Paul has argued in the past, we live in the time of a Symbiotic Web. I have argued before that social networking sites also have a symbiotic relationship with its users and Facebook is nothing without them. It walks a very fine line between maintaining its users trust and violating it. See Instagram. They learned first-hand what happens when you violate the “social media” contract a platform has with its users. Exodus.

“Monetization” exposes a great fallacy in the autonomy argument. If you join Facebook and allow yourself to be subject to the barrage of advertisements that they throw at you, then, of course, you must lose all of your autonomy to respond to advertisements. I can honestly say I have never “clicked an ad” sent to me through my Gmail account or from Facebook. I am, therefore, a wasted customer.  I take a wee bit of offence in the suggestion that somehow because I am on Facebook I lose all my ability to control my responses to the advertisements that are shoved my way. The argument seems to be that if I like a band and I click “like”, they know stuff about me. If I like a product and I “like” it, they will barrage me with advertisements. So what if I get an advertisement for their latest album thrown at me? What makes you think I don’t want that type of information? Or concert tickets to see the band I “like”?

  1. 4.      Profiling – and self-profiling

The profiling argument is an interesting one. It too makes a lot of assumptions. I have a friend who hardly ever drinks, but in every picture he has every put on Facebook he appears to be drunk. He loves all the branded beer pages, and he likes all the “Party and Casino sites”. He has never gambled in his life. The argument for profiling assumes people do the one thing they actually never do – tell the truth. I don’t think I am breaking any news to anyone, but people put on Facebook their persona that they want people to see and not their personal data. If one plays the fool gladly, then that is their persona that they play up to on Facebook. The autonomy argument also assumes that the person who snoops through someone’s Facebook account would be duped into thinking this was the real person we were seeing. Think “Fun Bobby” from that episode of Friends.

  1. 5.      Monopoly –

Yes, Facebook has over a billion users. Again…so? Monopolies are not illegal; they are only illegal when the company with the monopoly abuse their power in the market place. Wasn’t this, in part, what the Internet was meant to be all about? Remember “the Global Village”?  A company has come along and given us a place to hang out and share our experiences, our dreams, our pet peeves, our jokes, our photos. Is this a bad thing? I remember what life was like before Facebook. It was a hodge podge of email accounts and services that weren’t integrated to anything else. Facebook has made my life easier.

Final Thoughts

Regarding Paul’s other points I won’t be able to respond tonight. I am sure there will be other debates about social media in the future. I leave you with these thoughts: Without any trouble, I can figure out from Twitter what Paul looks like, where he works, and from a brief skim of his tweets, I can figure out where he grew up, where he went to University, where he travels, and how many kids he has. I also can make sweeping generalizations about his politics and who he affiliates himself with. I can also determine his network of associates and colleagues and interests.  I am sure Paul also gets “sponsored” tweets sent to his timeline like the rest of us.

What angered people more about the Instagram fiasco, and what got Randi Zuckerberg so upset was the violation of the social media contract – that tension that exists between different people and any social media site. Whether one agrees or not, Instagram was perceived to have plans to sell people’s photos for a profit without permission. Facebook walks a similar line. While the same “right of use” conditions exist in Facebook’s terms, Instagram is a specialty social networking site, with legitimate businesses using the service for photograph hosting. What right do you have to make money without my express permission of the images I provided to you? Amateur photographers flocked to Instagram because it provided a valuable service. That service was simple. It made sucky photographs look like the ones we see and adore in magazines. All of a sudden all of those crappy Nokia images and blurred family photos had the potential to look cool.

This is not to suggest any hypocrisy on Paul’s parts. What I am suggesting is that the social agreement Paul is comfortable with is one where he is willing to sacrifice some autonomy in his own privacy for the platform that Twitter provides – for free. Why then do privacy activists have issues with Facebook? Their platform and the relationship it has with its users is no different than the one Twitter has with its. I imagine it has more to do with the type of service it provides. Twitter lets you broadcast your ideas to your intellectual equivalents or superiors – to effectively show off. Facebook has the power to embarrass.

Maybe one of the major noticeable differences between Paul and I is how we grew up. (I am guessing here). Paul tweeted recently that he grew up, went to school and lives in Cambridge.  I moved all over the place when I was growing up. I have friends in 30 different countries on Facebook and family in 12-15 American states at any given time. Over the years, one loses addresses, falls out of love, out of touch, and then all of a sudden there is a friend request and the relationship can start back up again. That is the potential of Facebook. Simply put Facebook provides me a service that I find valuable. My relationship with the company and the platform is give-and-take. In order to keep me as a user, the company will have to be mindful of my privacy considerations AND its ease of use in getting the information I want to get out to people in order for me to remain in contact, to touch base. In turn Facebook gets to sell my persona’s data to advertisers.

A Quick Story:

I made friends with someone on Facebook that is blessed with the same last name. We are not related. Thanks to Facebook we share ideas, argue about politics and genuinely try to embarrass each other publicly. We both find it fun and by all accounts both of our families do too. We have no common friends, no similar interests or connections other than an unusually weird surname. The joke is on our friends that think we are brothers or cousins making a joke at each other’s expense. Facebook allowed that to happen – not email, not Flickr, not YouTube. To be fair, I think Twitter would get tired of our shenanigans. That isn’t what Twitter is for. If Facebook is selling my profile (inaccurate as it might be) to companies to sell me advertising, then so be it. The experiences that I have encountered, the friendships I have rekindled all make it worth my while. I won’t bore you with all the stories about the Facebook experiences, but if it means that this is what I am going to have to endure each day in order for me to connect to all of my friends and family around the world, so be it…