26 April 2010

For Facebook, it's just business

Facebook logo I’ll start with a small real-life story about social networks. I watched a movie some time ago that showed some beautiful footage of the New York Library. I was impressed by the paintings inside, especially because it didn’t fit into the popular image of the city, skyscrapers. A few days later, a childhood friend, now living in New York, uploaded pictures of the library on Facebook. As I saw them, I immediately thought: “Wow, that building really looks like that!” as if seeing it in a movie made it somehow less real, less tangible. So there you have it: the power of social connections and the trust it adds to most situations.

That’s the power seeks to tap into with their new personalization features for external websites based on your friends inside the network. But as promising as this sounds, I can’t shake a bad feeling about it, a sense of threat that I haven’t had before about social media and the Internet.

Developers and advertisers are probably genuinely excited about the new possibilities, but I’m not sure how well personalization will work for the average user in real life. Being friends with someone doesn’t always mean you share their tastes and interests. Until now, suggestions from Facebook to me have been off most of the time, so why would they magically improve now? Take for example people having hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends, whom they probably never met or talked to in real life. It’s hard to imagine these people becoming meaningful recommendations based on such a mixed and loose connection circle. And why would I want that noise following me everywhere I go? I don’t want stuff from my friends popping out on the web when I’m working or researching something for the blog.

I fear ‘personalization’ can get dangerously close to censorship. It’s not inconceivable for Facebook to start blocking content it regards as unsuited for children based on their age from the profile; or pornography; or maybe products of the competition. There is already a precedent with Apple blocking satire from the App store. I’m not saying this is necessarily good or bad, but do we really want to leave this kind of moral judgments to one company or the other?

Or consider this scenario: you use a search engine to locate a piece of information, but it’s located on a Facebook partner site. When you open the site to read the whole story, it’s not there because the personalization feature removed it! That could generate a lot of confusion and disappointment and an overall bad user experience.

As for the Microsoft-Facebook collaboration for the new Docs site, both companies are making the same mistake everybody is accusing Google of: putting your personal and professional life in one place, assuming you want to collaborate on mostly work-related stuff with Facebook friends, which is most of the time wrong. Personally, I am not ready to entrust Facebook with my personal documents, because the one thing that can be learned from all their initiative and ambition is that they don't care about the interest on the end user. Maybe Facebook will decide one day that in it's ‘vision’ your documents should be public, visible to all network members or even search engines. In any case, I'm not going to take that chance. And I think Microsoft is not foolish enough to try to sell a Facebook flavored online Office to businesses that constantly block social network sites.

What it comes down to in the end is choice. Not only the choice to opt-in to the personalization rather than having it turned on by default among a sea of confusing privacy options. But also the choice about who makes the recommendations. If you allow this system, your web experience on certain sites (and there will be more, no doubt about that!) will be controlled by a closed algorithm, and Facebook alone knows what it actually does. This is very similar to how Apple tries to impose it’s rules on the mobile web experience, only on a much bigger scale. I don’t find it a coincidence at all that the word magic was used both in relation to the iPad and Facebook recommendation. Just like magic, you see the results, but have no control or knowledge of the technology behind it. Only Apple/Facebook wield that power.

People who are crying that privacy or anonymity is dead should stop and think about the implications for a moment. What they are really saying is that Choice is dead and they are trying to force all the world into their vision or fantasy. Sorry, but it doesn’t work like that and I find it disturbing to hear such statements coming from a democratic country. The Internet should be about freedom of choice and expression, but Facebook is taking choice away with every move they make. I’m sure a dictatorship would rejoice to have such a perfect system as Facebook to keep track of what the citizens are talking about, who are they meeting and talking to and what do they ‘like’. And then turn that information against them.

There will no doubt be ways to remove the Facebook experience from web sites. Besides logging-out and clearing cookies I think we will start seeing tools like ad- and script-blockers starting to block the ‘Like’ iframe and Facebook scripts. The question is how many people will know they exist and will use them. Remember how several months ago a new interface quietly removed the log-out link from the top bar? Just enough to make people slowly forget there is such a thing and stay logged in all the time.

On the other hand, the user information that developers are now allowed to keep indefinitely is out of people’s reach for good. I don’t know if removing an application will delete that data, but I don’t think it does, since Facebook itself continues to store data on it’s servers after somebody deletes their profile. From this moment on, security concerns are no longer confined to Facebook, they are spreading  to all their partners and applications and I think breaches will become more often and more large-scale. Look at a ‘small’ detail like implementing secure access: while Google made that compulsory for Gmail, Facebook doesn’t even use https on the login page!

Ultimately, Facebook is a company like all others and people should start treating it as such; it’s not a foundation with the purpose to freely connect people all over the world; it needs to make money in order to survive and grow. It’s not inherently good or evil, but it’s actions have consequences that will change the online world for better or worse. Users need to become more conscious about what they are sharing, to stop trusting online giants by default and do more informed choices about the information that belongs to them.

I’ve been reading these days how the web is becoming more people-centric, but I actually think it’s becoming more company-centric: a hand-full of major services in the hands on few companies and a lot of start-ups whose secret dream is to sell out to one of the big players. The bad thing about centralization is that giants like these eventually loose sight of the user’s best interests and start making decisions in their behalf, all in the name of progress, of course. People should be able to decide for themselves if the good outweighs the bad, if the new personalized features are worth the public exposure and the uncertainty. Ideally companies should inform users about the changes and let them make their own mind about them, but this takes too much time and companies push their changes forward, even when there is no real competition around the corner to steal their lead.

The real problem is that Facebook has gained too much momentum and power and has no close competition for our own good. If antitrust authorities want to regulate monopolies on the Internet, they should start with Facebook, not with Google, Microsoft or Apple. Because it’s much easier to switch to a new search engine or browser, or change your smartphone than it is to replace all of your friends. Right now, Facebook has a monopoly on the social interactions online and I don’t expect that will change in the near-future. No matter how good their intentions are, both economic theory and experience have shown that a monopolistic position leads to market abuse and stagnation.

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