Wednesday, March 21, 2018

To Facebook Or Not

In light of the most recent revelations about Facebook, folks are once again re-evaluating their relationship with the social media 800-pound gorilla. Should I be on there? Should I promote my social group, my blog, my hobbies on there?

I'm an early adopter. I hopped on when my daughter was a student at Penn State, back in the days when Facebook was only used by certain colleges and universities, and membership was open only to students and family members. It was glorious-- a tool that allowed us to stay in touch, show each other Cool Stuff we had seen. It was far more immediate and authentic writing letters. 

Over time it became increasingly complicated and complex, with the gates periodically opened to new groups of users, new utilities added, new ways to waste time on Facebook developed. I watched Facebook aggressively suck all manner of media and activity into its orbit and, like all the other online giants, trying to create an inclusive ecosystem so that users would never have to leave. In many ways, Facebook was a leader in a race to become, as one wag put it, the new AOL. 

My interest in the online world was already well-formed by the time I walked into Facebookland. It may have been in part a coincidence of history that the online world was ramping up just as I was figuring out how to get through weekends when my children were with their mother and I was in the house alone. I spent time on the old prodigy bbs system, made friends on ICQ, read the adventures of early online adopters like one celebrity who wrote a terrible letter that would not die or go away. 

It seemed fairly obvious in those days that human beings and their ability to create content of any sort, even if it was just filling up a message board or a chat channel (yeah, remember when we called things on line "channels"?), were a desired commodity. It seemed obvious that the online "community" deal was that you traded pieces of yourself for new connective capabilities. It seemed obvious that all of us who used these services were products.

How so many people lost sight of that, or failed to figure it out, is another discussion. But lose sight of it they did. People of my generation impart magical powers and knowledge to digital natives, but the fact is, the vast majority of digital natives are dopes about online life, imagining that they are entitled to secrecy and privacy on line. It is a measure of the seductiveness of online life that the promise to secrecy and privacy has almost never been explicitly made, and yet so many people implicitly believe in it.

The internet is not private. It never has been. That's the first thing you have to understand about going there. The second thing to understand is that everything on line is essentially forever. I've told my students this over and over-- the secret to a happy internet life is to understand that everything you do is public and permanent. I guess the third thing to understand is that people are becoming increasingly creative about how to mine your online self for data. 

Now, I'm not saying that if your privacy has been violated by Facebook or any other app it is your own fault. It's reasonable to assume that all of these companies will take steps to protect user privacy and data. But it's practical to assume that one way or another, they will fail. There's nothing wrong with telling a friend, "I'm going to leave this stack of money next to you while I run to the store. Will you keep an eye on it?" But it's a little silly to be shocked and surprised if some of the money is gone when you get back.

Every online activity is really a transaction. This blog's platform is owned by Google, and by running it and drawing in umpteen thousand views, I am making Google money (which is why my son-in-law says I really should be running ads here). But in exchange, I have had an opportunity to spread some words, raise some awareness, and create a tiny piece of noise for a cause I deeply believe in, and make important connections with other people similarly concerned. I'm satisfied with the balance on that transaction.

Likewise, promoting this blog via Facebook has helped me find more audience for my cause. I also use Facebook to maintain connections with old friends, students, and family. My older children live far away, and I have cousins that I've been lucky to see in person once or twice a decade. I get to see my grandchildren grow up. Thanks to Facebook, those connections are all stronger. I know I'm making money for Zuckerberg, but on balance, I'm satisfied with the value I'm getting out of the transaction.

Mind you, I'm thoughtful about what I post, and I keep an eye on my security settings. I don't generally take silly quizzes (which exist mostly to get you to give up access to your data in exchange for finding out which vegetable you most resemble). I'm aware that my digital pocket is being picked every day.

In fact, that sort of visibility is one of the reasons that I will keep maintaining an active facebook page for this blog-- I want the data miners to know that there are people who care about public education and resisting the ed reform movement. I'm not delusional-- I know that this blog has a smaller footprint than, say, people who are concerned about what Justin Bieber is wearing today. But if I'm not here, my cause becomes slightly less visible, marginally easier to ignore. Am I using a tool that is morally compromised? Yes, certainly. I am not aware of a single piece of modern computer technology that isn't. I wish compromise and transaction weren't necessary to function in the modern world, but as near as I can see, they are. So I will continue to weigh the benefits against the cost, try to make my choices mindfully, and for the time being, use Facebook with full awareness that it is also using me.


  1. I have decided that I do not want to take part in the Facebook way of interacting online anymore. It is not just the less-than-ethical nature of the company. It's the whole nature of the Facebook-based interaction: if you are "there" someone might pay click-and-go attention to what you have to say. If you are not, they won't. It is so "easy" on Facebook to, with one quick click of a mouse, let everyone you have in your friend list know details about your life and work that you want them to know about. And things that are too easy lose importance quickly. I have used Facebook to promote my work as a composer, and I have seen that many people have gone to posts that have links to new pieces that I have posted about. But to depend on Facebook for making my work known is becoming more and more depressing to me. Why should a platform be the "gateway" to the way I interact with the world about the work I do? And since I do not buy the ads they constantly they are trying to get me to buy to promote my work, how do I know that my posts might suddenly go "missing" if I do not act like a "customer" and pay to promote my "pages." I have decided to see if I can get the news about my friends through other means of communication. And I'm planning to spend more time in the blogosphere reading blogs like your blog.

  2. Actual quotes from the early days of Facebook, when Zuckerberg was still at Harvard:

    Zuckerberg: "I have 4,00 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS"

    Friend: "What? How'd you manage that one?"

    Zuckerberg: "People just submitted it."

    Zuckerberg: "They trust me."

    Zuckerberg: "Dumb f^@#s."

    The moral of the story?

    Don't be one of Mark Zuckerberg's "Dumb F^@#s."