Friday, June 24, 2011

Un-Friending Facebook

Photo by Joanna.
I terminated my Facebook account yesterday. I had that account for almost exactly five years.

I liked some things about Facebook. Some of them I liked quite a lot. Others only a little.
Finding people.
Being found.
Sharing links.
Sharing pictures.
Looking at other people's links and pictures.
Knowing classmates still exist, and a bit what they're up to.
Ultimately, the things I didn't like started to pile up. Some of them were niggling little annoyances. Others were big philosophical differences.
Asking to be "friended" by people I didn't really know.
Refusing to be "friended" by people I didn't really know.
Spammy applications.
Spammy "friends."
The social cost of un-friending someone.
The social cost of refusing "friend" requests.
Apps that try to trick you into giving them rights, then vacuuming your profile and doing something nasty with it, like putting it up on a dating site.
Invitations that felt just wrong and awkward.
The social cost of refusing invitations.
Being asked questions and nagged about not answering them.
How they make it so easy to sign off your privacy, and hide the ways to get it back.
How they sign off your privacy without telling you, so you have to know what buttons to click to get it back.
Frequent, pointless changes in user interface behavior.
Lack of trust in Facebook's intentions.
Facebook's view of identity.
Most of my dislikes of Facebook spring from two root causes. I fundamentally disagree with Mark Zuckerberg's view of identity, and I deeply distrust his intentions.

Zuckerberg thinks that identity is an indivisible, unitary, and essential whole. Every individual can and should have only one, and present that same identity in every context and every situation. He believes that someone who does not subscribe to this view is not merely wrong, but morally deficient: that an individual who wishes to have multiple identities is dishonest, duplicitious; fundamentally a liar.

Without even getting into the Buddhist-y stuff about the self and identity, I just don't see how it could work this way. I do not present the same aspects of my identity to my wife as to my colleagues; to my parents as to my sisters; to my role-playing game friends as to my Zen friends; to my old friends as to my Net acquaintances. Some of these aspects have very little to do with each other, beyond the fact that I'm involved in all of them. Mixing these aspects causes confusion. Keeping them distinct is clear and honest.

Facebook's default mode is that of the broadcast. It is possible to target messages, but these possibilities aren't built into it. I tried, for a bit, but managing these tools was laborious and error-prone, and it was always easier to share something with everybody than with only some people. What's more, there's a relentless push to simultaneously expand your network of friends, and to share ever more with all of them -- photos, locations, thoughts, ever more personally identifying information.

I don't want to share everything with everyone. That means that I have to be constantly on alert about what I say and how I say it, because everyone is watching. That precludes any real trust, real intimacy, real communication beyond the inoffensive, bland, and superficial. And even so, a tremendous amount of information gets transmitted. In aggregate, the little bits add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

And all of it goes into Facebook's bowels. Facebook knows not only who my friends are, but which ones I most interact with, which profiles I visit, who visits my profile, who searches for me, who I search for. Which brings up the second big issue. Trust.

Giving up Facebook is no big hardship. I never was all that deeply involved in it, emotionally or concretely. Quitting wasn't even any big political statement (although these political and philosophical aspects certainly are a factor); it's more that the inconvenience of keeping it under control started outweigh the stuff I got out of it.

But if Google turns evil, I'm in real trouble.
Google reads my mail.
Google keeps my appointments.
Google knows the phone numbers of all of my contacts.
Google knows my search history.
Google reads my blog.
Google knows what blogs I read.
Google knows which news I follow.
Google stores my documents.
The difference is that I trust Google more than I trust Facebook. Google's not perfect, that's for sure. Those anti-trust probes aren't just a matter of evil government trying to bring the good guys down.

But it does seem to me that Google is more trustworthy than Facebook. The vibe I get from Google is something like "What else can we think of that people would like to use?" with "And how can we make it pay?" coming second. Their bloopers have seemed more like honest mistakes than relentless, creeping evil. The vibe I get from Facebook is "How can we get people to sign off more of their information so we can squeeze more cash out of those who want to pay for it?"

Put another way, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find that Facebook sold everything it knows to spammers, the Camorra, the Chinese government, and the FBI (through back channels, natch), but I would be if it turned out Google did the same.

Could be I'm tragically mistaken about this, of course. That's really too bad as for now I don't have a plan B.

A couple of years back, some people who were even less happy with Facebook than I am kicked off a project called Diaspora. I tried it out as soon as there was a public alpha. I liked their approach.
You can get the source code.
You can set up a node of your own.
You present aspects of yourself, not a unitary identity.
You can create clients to connect it up to other things.
When I first tried it, it was in disastrous shape. I could only sign up and send invitations. I couldn't even "share" with another user in the same node (or "pod") whose address I knew. Plus the user interface barely did anything to start with.

I looked at it again yesterday, and while it's early days yet, it has come a long way. I was able to set up a number of aspects, find a number of people on the network and connect them to these aspects. Someone else there found me. I fired off an "Is this thing on?" and got an answer. There are help texts. There's a profile where I can actually put stuff. I'll try to put a photo there later today.

Put another way, I can do stuff with it. More to the point, I can manage my degrees of intimacy there.

Therefore, I'm issuing an open invitation to anyone reading this blog: find me on Diaspora and share with me in some aspect, and I'll share back in some aspect. I'm (that's not an email address, it's my handle and the pod I'm on). I'll only refuse spammers and bots.

Social networking is a great idea. There's just got to be a better way to do it than Facebook. Maybe Diaspora is it. If it is, most of all it needs us -- people joining it. You can sign up on the pod here.

If you don't care to join Diaspora and still want to keep track of me, you can also find me on Twitter as PrimeJunta. Or here, natch.


  1. There are many pros and cons to Facebook. You put this in such a way that I'm leaning even more towards leaving. I check my privacy every week to make sure nothing has changed. All I really want is a page and not a profile.

  2. Yes, I see these problems, too. Diaspora sounds interesting.

  3. Maybe I'll see you there, then. :-)

  4. You have a "Share on Facebook" button on your blog. You must not hate it that much.

  5. I joined FB under a pseudonym, and have nothing but joke entries on my profile, but even at this level I'm always being plied with app requests,friend requests, etc which 99% of the time I turn down. I don't answer questions or interact much. I'm not sure why I'm there actually, except it does provide a visual identity for some of the acquaintances I interact with, and a window into their personalities. If I am ever asked to use my own name and personal info of any kind, I'll be out of there in a cloud of pixels. AFA Diaspora, I may check it out--I like the idea of nodes and aspects. Here's hoping the anti-trust probe doesn't seriously screw up Google, as I too get a much better vibe from them than many out there, and I can't even imagine packing up my blog and hauling it off to wordpress. Yeesh! That would suck.

  6. I hate facebook. Never joined because I am morally opposed to someone selling our private data for profit.

    Diaspora, as you present it, seems interesting. Having only quickly browsed through their webpage, I was left wondering about trust. So you join a given pod. And your info (photos, friends, etc.) gets stored on that pod. Isn't this the equivalent of trusting a random stranger with your data? Who know's the real operator of the pods? What guarantees it's not the Chinese government running many of those?

  7. You can always run your own pod.

    The other important thing is that because the system is decentralized, no single entity has all the data. That means that nobody has Facebook's or Google's data mining opportunities in it.

  8. I guess I find many more advantages to Facebook than you do, with about the same disadvantages.
    Two similar but very important advantages are these:

    - Staying in touch with friends in other countries.
    - Getting in touch with people once I go visit that country

    I also have no trouble unfriending people, and I have started doing so lately. When I see posts of people on my daily feed with whom I would not correspond anymore or I haven't for years, they just go away. I also have stopped accepting requests from everyone.

  9. Was going to look into Diaspora until I saw that it had a LIKE page on Facebook