The chorus of pro-privacy, anti-Facebook bloggers is getting louder. Facebook wants to keep track of everything you "like" -- all over the Web and even in the real world. McDonald's has signed on as Facebook's first geolocation partner. Whatever that means. The Observer has a deeper relationship with my Facebook page than my best friend. Today I'm deactivating my account. Here's why.
My problems with Facebook started in mid-April when the holding tank of pending friend requests from family members was overflowing. It was either everyone or no one; I approved all, afraid of the barrage of guilt-inducing phone calls. Then came the decision to pare down my friend list to people I actually talk with. I was shocked when one de-friended person sent me an aggressive message.
I'd never concerned myself with the "privacy settings" The New York Times had been urging me to check out for months, but in light of the angered ex-friend and, more important, my new online friendships with the family, I decided to give some thought to my Facebook image. A profile I'd set up to interact with likeminded Internet users was suddenly fair game for those who'd known me in knee socks and those who wanted to sell me a time share. Step one was limiting who could see my interests, activities, and likes from "everyone," as in, everyone with an Internet connection, to friends. I left my location, education, and hometown public. I figured that was already out there.
I hit a wall with photos. I had a flashback to findings in a Harvard Business School study showing that two-thirds of Facebook's pageviews are men looking at pictures of women. I could assign photo-viewing access to groups of friends, but that wouldn't change anyone's ability to tag me. Grouping was getting arduous, and I'm not that kind of person (my closet isn't color-coded), so I went for the most efficient route and set photos so only I could see them. I began to wonder what the point of a Facebook account was anyway. The decision seemed spot on just a week later when the Huffington Post ran a picture taken from Facebook of a young man who shares the nameof the alleged would-be Times Square bomber.
Then I stumbled upon a list of the various third-party groups that have access to my account. In all, there were 32, including the makers of "Which Jane Austen heroine are you?" (I'm Fanny Price), The Awl, a snarky, high-brow commentary site, and Business Insider. The latter two I didn't recall approving. The media sites, I discovered, were installed automatically when I browsed their websites while logged in to Facebook. Jane Austen, I'm afraid, I must take responsibility for. Reports are unclear as to what information applications can pull from your account. Some warn that developers have broad access and do not distinguish between what you mark as public and private, and some quizzes even get access to friends' information.
Considering Facebook's track record of shifting privacy settings, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation wraps up here, and you can get a visual sense of here, it seems pretty much guaranteed that user control over personal information will only get weaker. At the same time, Facebook is collecting new data based on user browsing habits across the Web. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently unveiled Facebook's "Connect," a tool integrated with sites across the Web so users can "like" everything from articles on major news sites such as The Washington Post, to items for sale on retailer sites. Those connections are public, and if you don't like it, Facebook has this advice to offer: "If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection."
At the same conference, Zuckerberg also announced that the company will let third parties store information longer (previously, outside developers could store user information for no longer than 24 hours). So not only do we have to worry about Facebook's policy; we also have to worry about the huge ecosystem of parties that hold Facebook data.
I never imagined this set of problems when I joined Facebook back in 2006, while a journalism graduate student. A friend had posted some photos from a class barbeque. It sounded like the next Friendster or MySpace -- the latest social-networking fad, not something that was destined to reshape the Internet. I simply saw it as a way to deepen new friendships.
In the ensuing years it also became about rekindling old friendships (or feeling smug about avoiding the same), promoting my work as a journalist, and showing loyalty to media outlets, causes, and yes, even brands. But somewhere in that transition from a social site meant to deepen interpersonal relationships to a self promotional, commercial tool, Facebook lost its appeal. The various facets of my life merged into a web of connectivity where I could no longer clearly create distinct relationships with friends, foes, and fast food -- either because I can't figure out how or because Facebook is preventing me outright. For me, the overwhelming connectivity to everyone and everything, without much control over those ties, feels like I'm no longer connected to anything, and meanwhile, outside groups benefit.
I don't want to disconnect. I'm an Internet fan. I cover the future of news for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, a website trying to figure out how journalism can thrive in the Internet era. I'm not the first Internet optimist to jump ship, either. I'm following in the footsteps of others increasingly critical of Facebook's weakening privacy policies. Last week Peter Rojas, the founding editor of the popular tech blog Engadget, deactivated his account. Joshua Levy of TechPresident set up an online petition to abandon Facebook if 10,000 readers signed on. So far Levy has 25 names on his petition.
Facebook launched as a tool for the masses, which it has certainly become with 400 million users. Unlike Twitter, where a tiny percentage of users fuel most of the content, an elite slice of über-Internet users won't tank Facebook. And that's fine with me. I'm not out to stop Facebook, but without "dislike" or "no thanks" buttons, I'm doing the next best thing.