Quit Facebook Now or After You See the Movie


facebook_small.jpgADOTAS – “So when are you deleting your Facebook account?” an industry insider asked me earlier today.

“May 31,” I immediately replied. After all, that’s “Quit Facebook Day.”

A vociferous bunch upset with the social network say that the last day of this merry month should be your last day on Facebook. They’ve even set up a website listing their grievances and urging visitors to commit to quitting Facebook. There are nearly 3,300 people on their roll, which may seem minuscule compared to FB’s 400 million-plus users, but I noticed the number jumped by 500 during Monday alone.

The site authors don’t mince words when describing Facebook’s failure to be a beneficial service for its users, stating that the privacy issues are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Facebook gives you choices about how to manage your data, but they aren’t fair choices, and while the onus is on the individual to manage these choices, Facebook makes it damn difficult for the average user to understand or manage this,” the homepage reads. “We also don’t think Facebook has much respect for you or your data, especially in the context of the future.”

The site actually compares leaving Facebook to quitting smoking. If you don’t want to quit cold turkey, perhaps you should go visit your old MySpace account or see if Friendster still exists… Or you could tweet a whole buncha TMI to get that ol’ Facebook buzz.

Writing about Facebook’s privacy issues and user discontent
doesn’t yet seem like kicking a dead horse — maybe just pricking a wild stallion. This weekend CEO Mark Zuckerberg was supposed to spend his 26th birthday lighting it up in the Caribbean, but instead he’s been caught up in meetings around quelling growing user outrage.

With excerpts from a new book painting him as the “frat boy CEO” and leaked IMs from college revealing utter disdain for users, The Times Online reported that Zuckerberg told his FB crew he needs an image makeover — he wants to re-invent himself as a “good guy.” (Perhaps he can try a series of television ads with Jerry Seinfeld…)

He’s going to have an even tougher time with that when movie audiences everywhere discover that “Thefacebook” was originally a tool for him and his Harvard buddies to liken female classmates to barnyard animals.

The draft script of “The Social Network,” adapted from Ben Mezich’s expose “The Accidental Billionaires,” leaked onto the Internet and portrays Zuck as quite the lech. The film opens in October and has some cinematic heft its shoulders: screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”), directed by David Fincher (“Fight Club”) and produced by Kevin Spacey (if you’ve never seen “The Usual Suspects,” wow…). Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland,” “Zombieland”) stars as Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake is collaborator Sean Parker.

Setting the tone from the start, the script shows how Zuck brought Facebook to life after getting dumped — his girlfriend tells him that girls won’t hate him because he’s a tech geek. “I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true,” she says. “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

Ouch; perhaps the character will have redemptive qualities… Though it doesn’t look that way — apparently Zuck screws over partners and screws Facebook groupies left and right. Sympathetic he appears not to be.

One has to wonder if this isn’t another case of a crossing the line between public and private, but Facebook is personal. The Bill Gates comparison with Zuckerberg is easy to draw, but Facebook is not Windows — you may not like Bill Gates, but you’re just using his company’s software. Facebook wants your data and wants to share it. Frankly Zuckerberg is a lightning rod for user anger, and while Gates has a reputation as a ruthless businessman and not a nice guy, sleaze seems to be oozing from Zuckerberg’s pores.

Googley Distraction

Still, AllFacebook.com argues that Zuck and crew got a major break over the weekend with Google’s admission that, despite company denials, the cars used for photographing locales for the Google Maps Street View feature had apparently been collecting communications content from non-password-protected wifi networks.

Google has tried to play this off as a innocent mistake — In addition to snapping shots, Google’s Street View cars also collect Service Set Identifier (SSID) information and Media Access Control (MAC) addresses to better pinpoint locations through its web services and products. Apparently an errant string of code, written by an engineer tooling around with an experimental wifi project, was included, which “sampled all categories of publicly broadcast Wi-Fi data,” the company said in a statement.

Google says they never meant to collect the “payload data” and had no intention of using them — the company came clean when it discovered the error during an audit requested by the Hamburg, Germany, data protection authority. This is not the first time Google has run awry of ze Germans, infamous for their hard line on data privacy, and unsurprisingly German officials were the most brutal in their criticism, with German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner (who, interestingly enough, is minister for food and agriculture) calling the incident “alarming and further evidence that privacy law is a foreign concept to Google.”

In an effort to make amends, Google announced that the Street View cars would no longer collect any wifi data.

Nick O’Neil says Google is scarier because it goes on the hunt for user information, crawling beyond the web. On Facebook, you choose what information to share… And then Facebook  shares that info. O’Neil generously calls FB’s latest privacy policy changes and instant personalization initiative an effort “to accelerate people’s willingness to share more information publicly….”

Google seems to be owning up to a mistake, actually subjecting itself to public chastising. Call me naive, but I can’t see the incident as more than a mistake — the data couldn’t have been worth the trouble Google found itself in.

But that’s a flawed prism to view these developments; it’s not Facebook vs. Google but two tech beasts that are freaking out Internet users with the power they yield. Turns out the Internet is no longer just fun and games.

Facebook Exodus Is Still Talk

Coincidentally, the same Aigner sent an acidic letter to Facebook threatening to cancel her account over the affected privacy policy changes — however, I was able to find her profile no problem.

This is one reason I doubt we’ll see a great Facebook exodus. Sure, Wired said the network’s gone rogue, with Ryan Singel commenting that “Clearly Facebook has taught us some lessons. We want easier ways to share photos, links and short updates with friends, family, co-workers and even, sometimes, the world. But that doesn’t mean the company has earned the right to own and define our identities.”

He goes on to suggest that an alternative site needs to open up. The New York Times recently reported on Diaspora*, software created by four college students that will enable users to create personal servers and hubs that offer complete control over what information is shared. With little more than a whisper campaign, the students have raised nearly $25,000 from investors on Kickstarter in less than a month; since the NYTimes article came out, that’s jumped to nearly $175,000 through 4,800 backers. While that number is impressive but not mind-blowing, it shows that many people are looking past Facebook and around the corner.

A commenter on Friday’s story about Zuckerberg’s revealing college IMs noted that: “It’s a free country and last I checked, we had a capitalist economy — i.e. Facebook is not a not for profit, they are in business to make money.”

I can’t answer his question about how much profit FB took in because it’s a private company and doesn’t release that information. However, industry analysts told Reuters that Facebook took in between $500 million and $650 million in revenue in 2009, which is hardly a fraction of Google’s $24 billion. Zuckerberg himself is reportedly worth $4 billion.

Gordon Gecko may be returning to theaters soon in the sequel to “Wall Street,” but “Greed is good” is a motto that’s supposed to send shivers up your spine. With the expansion of data sharing to “trusted partners,” Wired’s Singel noted that site hasn’t really improved user experience, noting that you still can’t make your friend list private and or block your posts from being seen by certain friends. Despite all the statements to the contrary, it would seem that Facebook is putting users second to advertisers/partners — a lesson I thought they had learned from the fall of MySpace.

Add to that the unsavory details of your sorta seamy CEO popping up on celluloid and you have a recipe for disaster. But until Diaspora* or something really challenging to Facebook is up and running, I don’t see Facebookers biting the hand that feeds.

The Advertiser’s Angle

Ironically, Facebook seems to be purging the ranks of affiliate marketers and instituting arbitrary standards regarding targeting supposedly in an effort to please users when in all likelihood users would prefer such display ads to “Instant Personalization.”

However, online advertisers should actually be relieved at the way this privacy brouhaha is playing out in the open. The biggest drag with explaining behavioral targeting and other initiatives taking advantage of user data is that it’s all damn confusing; the jargon is headache-inducing and thick. It’s hard to shake the notion that some of the terminology has been developed to purposefully obfuscate what advertising tech companies are up to.

The latest Facebook privacy crisis may force the Internet-browsing public to better understand how their data is being used and thus make more informed decisions regarding opting out of data aggregation.

It took a decent amount of time for people to develop enough trust to put personal information on the Internet; will that trust dissolve in a minute like a couple of Alka-Seltzers? My money says no — but heightened user awareness will be a boon to the industry.


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