Friday, 21 May 2010

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Facebook

This post is one of countless thousands generated in the last few weeks about the changes to facebook's privacy settings. Generally, the tone of these has ranged from "concerned" to "haylp haylp somebody sayve me" with the occasional "we're all going to die" thrown in to make the soup of hysteria a little bit spicier. This post is going to be more "DUH!"

The hand-wringing has generally centred around the feeling that at first Facebook was a wonderful benign entity that allowed people particpate in the manifold joys of social networking and now that it's got us all hooked, it has suddenly morphed in to some evil cackling renegade that wants to sell our babies to ICI for recycling. This anger comes about because people thought that because all the content came from the users this wouldn't be possible - if people stopped trusting facebook, they would go somewhere else and the world would spin serenely on.

This is about as naive as the Incas thinking that the Spanish weren't just interested in all the yellow shiny stuff they had lying around.

Whatever its origins, Facebook is a company. A company that has had *MAHOOOOOOSIVE* injections of VC money. A company that has to run an insanely huge infrastructure, serving a gazillion page impressions a second or people start to panic that the world is ending. I'm too lazy to find out, but i bet the amount of energy used to keep everyone up to date on their current rank in Farmville is roughly equivalent to a medium-sized european town. The costs involved are staggering.

In order to recoup the investment and pay its bills, Facebook has to make money (see? i worked this out all on my own). It'll probably never be able to charge directly for its service, so it must make money out of the one thing it has in spades: our personal information. The equation is simple. Sell as much of the info as it can without alienating the majority of its users. Because of the shear number of users Facebook has a monopoly of sorts. It is the only place you can have the kind of interactions you want with *all* the people you want. Monopolies are always bad for the consumer.

So you may think that i am adding my tiny, irrelevant voice to the growing clamour saying that people should delete their facebook accounts, that they shouldn't stand for this treatment etc etc yawn. I am not. Facebook is useful. That is why it is successful. In a few small and boring ways it enhances my life signficantly. Mostly it tells me when parties are on. It also points out when a friend has discovered a new band i might like. It allows me to keep in occasional contact with people who live in other countries who i might not otherwise talk to from year to year. Useful. But if it wants my detailed personal info it can fuck off. All Facebook knows about me is what i am happy for it to know. It knows my name, that i live in london and that i like some obscure bands. It can probably infer a few more things, but nothing particularly interesting or marketable. I don't use apps and whenever i hear about a change to the privacy settings i set them as tight as possible. The key point here is that if you don't want the whole world to know something about you DON'T PUT IT ON THE FUCKING INTERNET. And, if you do DON'T WHINE WHEN THEY TRY TO SELL IT TO ADVERTISERS. Don't expect *anyone* online to have your best interests at heart. They might, they might not. You don't know.

Ultimately, it is for governments to legislate what companies are allowed to do with our data online. The idea that the market will somehow keep us all safe is ridiculous. The market doesn't care a flake of sick about you. The market wants as much of your paycheck as it can get for the least amount of effort/investment. This may sound worryingly communist to some of you, but it is self-evident.

The current controversy around privacy on Facebook is potentially a very good thing. It is perhaps where we become more enlightened consumers, more aware of the deal we are making between ourselves and the companies who's services we use.

Don't stop using a service that makes your life better. Just make sure the price you're paying is not too high.