May 30th, 2010

planet

facebook, privacy, and why I'm kinda on their side

Facebook has been under fire for privacy issues lately. Part of it is bugs and unintentional loopholes, and it seems like they're going to put in some fixes. But another big part is just the website's general attitude towards privacy... as a whole, the company wants people to be more open. It's Mark Zuckerberg's vision.

I experienced this firsthand a bit at a conference last year where I heard a facebook employee talk about how we, as a society, have moved past this silly need to be totally private online. We don't need internet pseudonyms anymore, we don't need a special segment of "online" friends. We can use the internet as an extension of our real life. Obviously Spacefem disagrees... first because I love my pseudonym, second because I don't work at Facebook! I spend a lot of hours a week at a company that's big and old and generally petrified of anything with a "gen y" label on it. They do not want us sharing or being ourselves, they do not want us mentioning what we do at work. I was explicitly forbidden from using any social networking even for social groups, like the department bowling league. They just don't like it. And that's my career and I like my job so I lay low and don't mention my company online, and I'm not friends with many coworkers. Facebook employees would not relate well to this, but it's the world I live in. And it's the main reason why privacy is important and I can't just publish my whole life online. I worry a little about personal protection too, but seriously people, the odds of attracting CRAZEH STALKERS is pretty low if everyone in the world is online right along with you, competing for their attention.

On the other hand, as a web designer I understand what it's like to have a vision. And I really feel like a successful website sometimes has to be driven by that vision, moreso than the whims of its users. Wikipedia has done an incredible job at having a vision, somehow they have a user base that embraces their philosophy and I wish I knew how they'd swung it. The only little controveries I've noticed is some editors wondering why anonymous editing is still allowed on most pages. But the majority of them accept this. If Facebook had a similar relationship with its users, it'd be a much less controversial place. Then again, Wikipedia doesn't have 500 million editors... it's got about that many readers, but an incredibly small number of Wikipedia users become editors, so maybe that's the issue there... you don't become a Wikipedia editor in the first place unless you love Wikipedia. But on Facebook, you join up because your friends are doing it. And then you join them in complaining about EVERY TINY CHANGE that Facebook dares make to the interface you're used to.

I've had some visions on spacefem.com that didn't work, others that did, but generally it's managed to stay alive. Not everyone agrees with me on everything. I think forum moderators have to be the top posters, not just an in-crowd of former top posters, they need to be "of the people". I think we should avoid banning users, even borderline abusive ones. I think the way we structure the sections should be both a driver and a result of where discussion happens. I think it's good to redesign a website every 4-7 years... something that my users ALWAYS hate, but somehow deal with.

All of this is also why I appreciate our country's judicial system. Sometimes decisions need to be made by The People, but a lot of times they need to be made based on principle. Otherwise, "when the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."

So I feel kinda alone on this, but I'll give a good listen to anything Facebook has to say. They didn't get this far by letting their visionless users steer the wheel, and they won't bring us any further into a positive future if they start now. When we criticize them we need to ask ourselves if we're really just afraid of change... what does it really mean for the world to be a more open, informational place?