Geeks miss point on Facebook

A silly XKCD today, suggesting that because sensible non-ubergeek people didn’t back open source file formats in the early 2000s, they now have no right to be upset by Facebook’s Doing Great Evil.

There are only two problems with this analysis:

1) Facebook isn’t doing great evil, at all, and if you think it is then you are a paranoid loony.

Facebook is making money by aggregating user data and selling targeted advertising. Well, yes – that’s what it’s for.

In other news, newspapers exist to sell adverts (with the content being a regrettable but necessary expense to persuade people to read the adverts), and retail banks exist to sell loans (with interest on savings being a regrettable but necessary expense to allow the loans to be made [*], and running current accounts a regrettable but necessary expense to acquire customer relationships). I’ve also got some studies on ursine defecation and Papal religion, if anyone’s unconvinced.

I signed up to Facebook in full knowledge that the company would sell aggregated user data to strategic marketers, and would do its best to target direct marketing to me, to the greatest extent that data protection laws would allow it to. In exchange for which, I’d be provided with a useful social networking infrastructure for bugger all money.

It doesn’t spam me, it doesn’t pass on anything to strangers that I’m not happy for strangers to see. This is win/win.

2) The only people who think Facebook is doing great evil are the same people who wanked smugly on about non-open file formats in 2003.

Well, that one’s not entirely true. Stupid peasants also think Facebook is doing great evil, because they think it’s a tool for murderous paedophiles to groom victims for their doom. But they can safely be ignored.

The people who’re stirring up the current fuss about Facebook privacy, &c &c ad nauseam are total geeks. Half of them weren’t even on bloody Facebook in the first place; and the ones who were are doing ridiculous grandstanding by actually deleting their accounts (rather than tightening their privacy settings if they’re worried that friends might forward stuff to other people, or something).

Meanwhile, normal people continue to use Facebook, hopefully with a little more awareness that posting “lolz I am so wasted, gunna pull a sickie tomorrow hehe” where people who disapprove of wastedness and/or pulling sickies might be able to read it is Unwise.

This is all to the good.

[*] some UK banks during the 2000s thought they could cut out this expense via much cheaper wholesale funding. This proved not to be wholly correct.

10 thoughts on “Geeks miss point on Facebook”

  1. I am a paranoid loony. But I also respectfully submit that the opinions about 'great evil' come not from targeted advertising (which is most definitely standard across the 'tubes), but more about the reneged promises about privacy levels and exposure of information to other real people – not to advertisers. When I signed up for teh facebook, I loved that it was the antithesis of myspace's system, and that by default, no one could see anything unless I specifically allowed them to via befriending. The fact that even if I wanted to I couldn't see some peoples' profiles gave me confidence that the reverse was true. It's the move towards making everything public that is the core of the issue, not the fact that advertising will be sold.

    Furthermore, when lots of person-to-person data is exposed by default, it makes the site a less useful experience. I might care that 14 of my friends like Flight of the Conchords – I don't care that 899,612 do in total, so don't tell me. I might care that such-and-such's favourite colour is yellow – might be useful for buying a birthday present, for example – definitely don't care about anyone I don't know's colour preferences. If I'm exposed to information like that about complete strangers it dilutes the experience by vastly lowering the signal-to-noise ratio. Making the default settings for privacy higher (and through laziness more likely to be left there) means that I don't get fed useless information about strangers.

  2. I think you're wrong on this one, John. And I don't recall wanking smugly about non-open file formats in 2003.

    The people behind Facebook (specifically a chap called Peter Thiel who owns a surprisingly large chunk of Facebook shares and, it has been suggested, is the philosophical driver of Facebook) have close ties to In-Q-Tel which is (and I quote) "the venture-capital wing of the Central Intelligence Agency". They are firm supporters of the neoconservative agenda and fond of quoting Hobbes to back up their stated goal of "destroy[ing] the real world, also call[ed] "nature", and install[ing] a virtual world in its place".

    Also, Thiel's book, "The Diversity Myth", is a sustained attack on multiculturalism and he cites René Girard as his philosophical mentor (not a good sign in my view).

    For me the issue of privacy is an important one, but comes a distant second to surrendering my data to an organisation run by people with such an agenda… an organisation that willingly supplies all data to the CIA for analysis. Given the recent furore about Swedish ISPs destroying all identifying customer data rather than allowing it to be seized by the government, the difference is illuminating.

    I do not deny that I have a tendency towards mild paranoia (and it is "mild"; you should have known me 20 years ago!) but I don't think one is crazy for feeling mild paranoia about a company with close ties to the bloody CIA. That there, is wholly justifiable paranoia.

    Check out this article which first put me on to all of this, but there's plenty more scary stuff just a google away (including my own blog post entitled, fittingly enough, Paranoid facebook crazy talk.

    When you have extreme philosophical objections to the activities of a company, and view its activities as much as an experiment in group psychodynamics run by the CIA as a commercial venture designed to make people like Thiel extremely rich (note: people with the stated aim of replacing nature with a virtual reality shouldn't be given billions of dollars, in my opinion), then it doesn't make one a "paranoid loony" to consider that company dodgy in the extreme… and yes, perhaps even a fair bit "evil".

  3. Geeks missing the point?

    The point is the way facebook are constantly changing the privacy structure to, and this HAS to be deliberate, open up what was once a closed space.

    I don't want people I don't like, and I'm not friends with, going through my wedding pictures. The default should be that only friends can view, it's not. I locked these images down, and then deleted, such is my want.

    I know how to go in and makes things private, but should I have to?

    Re. advertising. You're right. It's a business, what do you expect? I have no problem with targeted ads. It's rather be shown things I'd actually want.

  4. So:

    1) Russ's point is fair. I've lost track of specific FB privacy tweaks, but as someone who signed up in 2007 and got various emails saying "we've done fun things with our privacy policy, d'you want to read it and cancel stuff you don't like" since, I think I've been fairly good at keeping private stuff private. If the average schoolkid applying for their first FB account is, by default, asked to share more stuff than we were, then that's rubbish, agreed wholeheartedly.

    2) Jim''s point is also fair, but if I'm ever organising anything dodgy (not that I would), then I'd no more set it up on FB than I would on my contract mobile. If Thiel is involved with FB, then the primary aim is to make copious amounts of money (and maybe to get a large, stolen email DB to send far-right propaganda to when the shit does down), rather than to do whatever other dodgy stuff he hopes to achieve.

  5. Unfortunately, John, you'd be amazed at the number of people who aren't quite as sensible as you. A friend of mine who is heavily involved with driect action politics in the UK has recently succumbed to using FB because he needed to be kept in the loop on a number of campaigns he's involved in.

    And as I said in my blogpost on the subject, people tend to get upset at the notion of mandatory databases of personal information when proposed by the government. But a voluntary database creates exactly the same problematic power relationship if everyone volunteers.

    But I've long resigned myself to failing in my attempt to convert others to my viewpoint with regards to FB. It's just too damn insidious. So I'll sit outside on my own and look like a paranoid weirdo (I've had plenty of practice over the years) while the rest of the internet gets assimilated by Thiel and his CIA chums.

  6. Aye, but if he ever does anything illegal, then that'll be organised by phone calls with people who he knows on FB, at which point the only thing the law has on him is "he knew these people (as provable by the fact he called them), and he called them on this date (as provable by the fact he called them)". Which is the same as if he'd, erm, called them.

    The only thing FB, even if it were run directly by MI5, can provide that the authorities don't already have is the content of direct messages – and if you're up to something illegal and do those in plain text by email, you're almost as insane as someone who does them on FB…

  7. You're missing the point. And based on your first statements, you have no idea about how important open file formats/standards/software are.

    They're not just an "ubernerd" thing. They mean that you, not someone else is in control of your data. To edit a PDF (which is an open file format), I don't have to buy Adobe's software. Anyone can produce some software to read it or edit it, whether on Win, Mac, Linux, iPhone, Android or whatever comes along in 10 years time. There's been examples of people buying music containing DRM which if you move it requires you to re-authenticate your music on their servers. But the company shut down the authentication servers which either means losing your music or staying stuck on the same PC.

    As for Facebook, the closed nature of it means that you don't own what's on it. You might have created groups on it and now you want to leave, you can't without losing contact with the people in that group. You're locked into FB for that. If you had something that was more open, you wouldn't have to face that dilemma.

  8. I understand the point that open file standards are better than closed ones.

    It'd be ideal if MS Word's native file format were open. But it isn't, and you can kinda see why, and Office (if you have greater requirements than could be satisfied by LocoScript + a calcuator – which, I accept, a large proportion of people in offices who use Office don't) is more use than any of the open word processing and spreadsheet programs. And there aren't any real open PPT equivalents, because geeks believe PPT is an evil tool for PHBs.

    Similarly, if there was an open source version of Facebook, that'd be great. But there isn't, because creating such a platform is quite complex, and marketing it to the point where it's useful is near-impossible without serious money behind you. Hence the point: "if something like Facebook or Office is going to exist, it'll be for profit, because that's the only way something like Facebook or Office can exist".

    I'm not a hardcore intellectual property defender – I believe in replacing copyright with a patent-style model, where sources need to be published and everything only lasts for a 10-20 year time period. But the open source community doesn't get that – especially for tools that are used by people who aren't programmers and so aren't capable of writing their own – there's no way of creating them that doesn't involve Large Buckets Of Cash, and there's no way of creating Large Buckets Of Cash that doesn't involve advertisers, subscriptions and restrictions.

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