This weekend saw a major overhaul of my online life: new Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to start, but also a major decision involving Facebook. I resolved to delete my sprawling, uncontrollable account that seems determined to make itself public despite my wishes that it be private. I figured that Twitter, with an assist from Google+, could take care of my networking needs as I attempt to build my online brand, right?
It soon became clear to me that, for the time being, Facebook is irreplaceable. I simply cannot reach the same audience with Google+, and Twitter seems so impersonal. Yet I was unsatisfied with surrendering myself to the whim of Zuckerberg. If abandoning Facebook was not a practical option, the least I could do was delete the old account and start a new one.
My original Facebook account had gotten out of control. I had nearly four hundred friends, three-quarters of whom I had not contacted in years and some of whom I barely was able to recall how I knew (an anecdotal validation of Dunbar’s number). Doing anything like a purge of the friends list was not a realistic option; while there was once the option of selecting multiple people for de-friending at a time, Facebook has now made this impossible, forcing the user to right-click the profile of each individual and select from a menu of choices in order to unfriend them. This makes regular maintenance of a friends list an enormous inconvenience. Likewise, while last year I had painstakingly created user groups of my friends, giving myself a different level of privacy from each group, after Facebook instituted Timeline I noticed that people who were not supposed to be able to see my Wall now could, despite my not having upgraded to Timeline yet.
Timeline itself worries and offends me. Worries, because I have, in the past, been known to use my Wall to say some intemperate things. When these things were written, it was knowing who the audience of my Facebook feed was at the time I said them. Now, thanks to Timeline, people who were not part of that conversation may now be able to see it, having been added as friends after the fact. It is as if a speech I gave to a closed audience in a room had been secretly tape-recorded and will now be distributed to the public. It offends me because this will be done without my consent, and, given my other difficulties maintaining privacy on Facebook, I have no confidence in Facebook’s assurances that “only the people you originally shared a post with can see it on your Timeline.” If that were literally true, then I would not be able to see anyone’s Timeline from before the date I friended them.
Oh, but I can. I may not be able to see everything a friend was doing before the act of friending, but I can see some of it, which disproves Facebook’s claim of absolute privacy.
At best, this shows that Facebook is muddle-headed. At worst, it shows that they don’t really give a damn about words meaning anything and are simply instituting a change without informing their users. By not being honest with their users about the scope of the change, they are sending a clear signal: that the consumers of Facebook exist solely to provide profit for its owners. A contractual relationship between producers and consumers, based on honesty and consent, and protected by the law, ceases to exist.
This is what I find most bothersome about Facebook. Like Microsoft at the height of its follies, Facebook has decided that its users serve it rather than the other way around (it also suffers from a shockingly bad, increasingly clunky design reminiscent of the worst iterations of Windows). Will Facebook fall into the same trap and become outmatched by Google, as Microsoft was by Apple? Perhaps, but if so it will mean that Google will need to take advantage of emerging product lines, as Apple did with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Apple could not beat Microsoft at its own game by just competing operating system to operating system, desktop to desktop. Google+ will not beat Facebook by offering more of the same. It would seem that privacy could be Google’s wedge issue against Facebook, despite the (overblown) criticism of Google’s own privacy consolidation.
Despite all these negatives, I could not replace Facebook as a networking tool. What I have done is migrate over my most important contacts to a new account, with minimal profile information. If I cannot bend Timeline to my will, at least I can starve it of content. The disappointing thing is that this is even necessary to preserve my privacy. If Facebook were a half-decent company that cared about its user-experience, it would be possible to secure one’s account without such drastic measures – destroying my profile in order to save it.