Why I left Facebook, and then went back

i-f839aaaad8c0c0d3bdd194859e6dd070-2114874155_b660780928.jpgIt's rare that I blog off topic - there's so much cool science in the world that I don't have much time for anything else. But my departure from Facebook has co-incided with something of a global trend, so I thought I may as well explore what people thought.

In case you've been wrapped in roofing felt for the last few weeks, here's the scoop. After a series of embarrassing security flaws and anger over the company's attitude toward privacy, Facebook users are leaving in droves. Or at least, that's the claim - the reality is that there's no viable alternative yet, although some bright young things are working on a solution to that, playfully called Diaspora. The excommunication of oneself from Facebook is no new thing, and there are even applications developed exclusively to assist with your online suicide, like virtual Thanatrons.

But here's the rub: although my departure has coincided with an en masse evacuation of the social networking site, I just happened to be by the door when the alarms went off.

The furore over Facebook's privacy issues has always puzzled me, because it stems from a gross misconception that anything posted online could ever be private.

As someone pointed out during the piracy debate: computers are copying machines. That is their express purpose. They copy data from one place to another. Opening a document and printing it in Windows results in seven - seven! - individual copies made. When you plug that into the internet, you get one giant, global, powerhouse for recording and recreating data. Nothing put online has ever, in any sense, been private, because the internet is a sharing device. It's naive to assume that simply because you've checked certain settings on Facebook that only your friends will see what you post; it might make it more difficult for others, but it's little more than leaving a Post-It note on your doorstep reading "Do not enter" and leaving the front door wide open. When deciding what you don't want the world knowing, you have to draw a line in your communications. Mine is in front of my keyboard. A good back up is to friend your mum on Facebook. That way you'll never post stuff you wouldn't tell your mum, like about that time you snorted cocaine off the breast of a 17 yr old girl at a Young Republicans fundraiser.


Un-tag! Un-tag!

My issue with Facebook is a different one: Facebook is crap. Like, really horribly broken. I moved to Facebook when I started noticing MySpace adopting innovations that the new kid on the block had developed. Why stick with someone who could only imitate? But then, Facebook changed, altering itself in strange ways that didn't seem to benefit the user. These were the shadows cast by a change in direction - Facebook Inc was gearing up to steer the massive community it had gathered into more profitable pastures. Facebook was now developing to the benefit of itself, instead of its users. As this happened, user-directed innovation fell away, and it began imitating instead of innovating - scalping the "@ reply" function from Twitter, for example.

But it was broken in other ways. Some were minor - pressing the button to insert a video was not right one to post a YouTube video on someone's wall (sorry, always bugged me), and others were major - opening Facebook chat locked text boxes in other tabbed windows. The navigation was designed to infuriate, simply trying to see what someone posted on my own wall was confounding. In fact, everything about the interface was confusing - I relied on email updates to understand what was going on and their links to activity on my page.

Ultimately, I had to ask: what do I use Facebook for? My page was endlessly spammed by requests to join groups I had no interest in, the calendar plug-in wreaked havoc on my Google calendar. My news feed told me friends had found virtual donkeys and received digital donoughts. My page was spammed for events that were in different cities, sometimes different countries. A lot of this isn't Facebook's fault, but it did mark the failure to build a system that allowed (or maybe encouraged) people to use it properly. And poke, for chrissakes. What was that even FOR?

In the end, I decided that the cost of maintaining a Facebook page was higher than the benefit. I socialise online through Twitter - it's a cleaner system that inherently excludes boring "friends" and introduces me to interesting strangers. No virtual donkeys or Mafia wars, not in my stream at least. Even better, I can follow someone without a mutual agreement to have them also follow me. This might sound strange, and a lot of people on Twitter automatically follow the people who follow them. But that's really a matter of cordiality - Twitter understands better than Facebook that some relationships tend to flow one way - celebrity and fan, comedian and audience, writer and reader.

So I left. Despite claims to the contrary, it wasn't hard (although I didn't bother trying to navigate through Facebook's hedgerow of a site tree to find the right link, I just Google'd it). The page automatically goes into hiatus; two weeks later it is deleted. Is it really deleted, for ever and ever? I couldn't care less. I've no delusions over the ownership of that content - anything passed up my modem is beyond my control and that's the way it's always been.

But then, someone asked me if I'd saved my photos. I hadn't. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought I'd like to have those digital reminders that I was once young and pretty and surrounded by other young and pretty people. So I reinstated my Facebook, and looked for ways to download all my images. Except, Facebook being terminally useless as described already, there's no straightforward way to do this. Several applications exist that will rip your photos from Facebook (I tried Photo Grabber and ArchiveFB), but there seems to be a TOS issue with Facebook whereby I can't download other people's images. As in, I can only batch download the photos I myself uploaded to Facebook in the first place - photos that I already have. Downloading other people's images, even with me tagged in it, seems to upset some strange privacy requirement, despite the fact that I can view and save these photos through Facebook individually. Why did I expect anything less at this stage?

So for now, I'm hanging in the exit while the fire alarms go off, not sure whether to dash back in and grab my valuables, or let the lot to go up in smoke.

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I don't use Facebook for photos. Their albums are pretty horrible to navigate, and it locks them behind a Facebook login where my mum and my aunt can't see them if they want to and where I can't easily post them to my own blog.

My Facebook page does nothing more than aggregate chosen Twitter statuses, Picasa photos, Wordpress blog posts and Posterous links. Any of my friends can follow me there, without being bothered to look at the other sites I've lovingly crafted for them.

I rarely spend more than 15 seconds on my Facebook page because no-one bothers to interact properly though it anyway. That's what email is for.

By electroweb (not verified) on 24 May 2010 #permalink

I "like" this post :)

It reflects a lot of feelings I've had. I think your eighth paragraph - on twitter's "cleaner system" that introduces you to interesting strangers and understands flow of many online relationships - puts it brilliantly.

I didn't delete my fb account, but I thought about it. I also left it virtually dormant for several years. The privacy doesn't actually worry me that much, my issue is mainly that it is a bit crap and I have connections on there with people I kind of want to keep some connection with, but really don't need in my every day life.

Still, in the last six months I decided to give fb another go and try to spend time on it. This is partly for geeky professional reasons - I study online networks, so should spend some time in them. It is also because I realised that along with all the annoying people I was avoiding, I was missing out communicating with nice people too. Not all the cool kids are on twitter.

It is kinda useful for organising events. But then we all did that by email before fb, so it's not like we can't again. In fact, I still have enough mates who aren't on facebook that whenever I organise a party I end up having to send a mass email out too anyway.

Anyway, I too am hanging around there. For now.

I use Twitter and Facebook for *entirely* different things.

I have friends and family in more than five countries, from at least ten different social circles, and I really do want to see their photos and hear what they're up to. Facebook is perfect for making groups of friends and sharing photos with some people here, notes with some people there etc. If I got rid of it, I'd have to get back to e-mailing people once in a blue moon, forgetting who I'd e-mailed what, etc. Before Facebook I *wished* for an easy way to keep track of all the groups of friends I had accumulated in life, and now I have one! It works because *everyone* is on there. A new facebook would mean only my nerdy early-adopter friends would be on there, and those are not the ones I need to actively stay in touch with, because I already read their blogs and Twitter feed. Leaving facebook would be like leaving e-mail - cutting of a point of connection with people I want to be able to reach.

Twitter, on the other hand, is where I blog in tiny short sentences for anyone who cares to read, whether I know them or not. I'd rather quit that, and in fact I regularly delete my tweets, because I just don't care as much about my average Twitter follower than about my average Facebook friend.

Thanks Eva
I'm not trying to claim that my decision is the right choice for everyone. If I had mostly non-IT people on there I'd probably enjoy it more. As it stands, a lot of my circle are also heavily involved in event management, so invariably I get endless invites to events and groups that blocks out any useful contact. I could try and work out a way to filter my feeds but a) I don't want to try and figure out any of Facebook's twisted settings and b) such a method probably doesn't exist because c) Facebook *wants* people to spam me. The ethos of the site is now to serve as an advertising medium instead of connecting me to friends.

See, this isn't quite right either:
"...because it stems from a gross misconception that anything posted online could ever be private."

We all do things online ALL THE TIME that we expect to remain private.

What about online banking? Email, even? Email is a pretty close analogue to how people use Facebook. If I send someone a personal email, even if I send an email to 20 of my friends, I don't expect to see it show up in a Google search (if it does, then next time I'll be emailing 19 friends...).

There are also plenty of online forums that are "closed" -- that is, invitation-only and not open to Google or non-registered users. Their users expect some level of privacy as well, though (like with email) there is no guarantee.

I think this shows a little more why Facebook's sly sliding of the privacy dial back towards "0" is upsetting to a lot of people; it "felt" much more private than it has become.

There was a great discussion of this on HackerNews recently:

Personally, I haven't shut down my Facebook account, but I don't post photos there (because I've read their EULA... instead I post links to photos elsewhere), and I removed the vast majority of my profile's links to applications, groups, pages, personal info, etc.. -- so I pretty much *only* saved the Twitter-like aspect of it, and the network of friends.

Thanks Rob
Certainly there are degrees of privacy you might expect, but my attitude is to always assume these access restrictions can and will fail. There's nothing to stop someone forwarding an email or screen capping a forum post. You can't assume that a private facility or relationship will stay that way. An exception might be internet banking, but only because it is guaranteed by my bank. If it was on me to shoulder the risk, I'd never touch it.

Facebook is different because it's not a closed relationship like bank and customer. Ultimately, the whole purpose of it is geared toward sharing and reproducing your content for others to see, a huge degree of which is managed through third party applications that you don't control. In essence, a social network is the antithesis of privacy.

"In case you've been wrapped in roofing felt for the last few weeks"

It's not that we don't know, it's that we don't care about faddish crap like the anti-atheist "My Space" and the anti-Privacy "Facebook". Seriously!

I like this post and the most is conversions you guyzz doing.... i always want to use facebook from morning and till the days fall cause all my friends get together on facebook and we can meet old friends by just searching on facebook is really good thing today. Thanks for making such a nice way to talk together.