Come the end of the month, I’ll be ditching Facebook, and I can’t say I’m going to miss it. Facebook, not the Ur-social networking Site, but probably the first thing that comes to mind when you say “social networking” to someone who knows what the term means, has become for me, not simply a way to keep in touch with friends, but an information firehose, spraying me with far too much useless data about people I barely know, and irrelevant nonsense from games I will never play. Oh, then there’s that elephant in the room about privacy. That’s kind of a big thing too. The motivation to dump Facebook like the terribly bad habit it’s become may have been spurred by the company’s unethical practices and generally lackadaisical attitude towards privacy1, it’s given me cause to explore just why and how I use this social networking thing in the first place.
At last check, I have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Last.fm, Virb2, Multiply, LiveJournal and probably a few other small-potatoes social networking sites I forgot about. I use Twitter the most, and almost for its intended purpose: a hybrid of microblogging and interpersonal communication. As for Facebook, which I use less, but spend more time on, I’ve yet to figure out a specific purpose to use it for. What began as a way to keep in touch with old friends quickly spiraled into adding anyone I have even the slightest personal connection to: friends from old, pre-social networking Internet communities3, former and current co-workers, casual acquaintances, people I met at concerts and bars…
At the time of this writing, I have 136 Facebook friends, which doesn’t sound like a huge number, but it’s turned my Facebook feed into a continual stream of information detached of context, throwing the site’s already poor signal-to-noise ratio into exponential decay with each new “friend”. Facebook’s proclivity to throw in more than just status updates, but crap about Farmville, or Mafia Wars, or whatever stupid application I wasn’t going to use, exacerbated the problem—and blocking one from my feed only resulted in another popping up. The amount of overwhelming noise eventually caused me to miss a good friend’s pregnancy announcement—the sort of thing one would presumably join Facebook to know about. Something needed to change.4
Then there’s the privacy thing. I decided to quit Facebook on May 31st, a good couple of weeks before the announced ["Quit Facebook Day"](http://www.quitfacebookday.com/), though the stated reasons overlap nicely. Consider that when Facebook began, it was a closed network: one needed a .edu e-mail address, profiles were locked down, and nobody could see a thing about you beyond the most basic of information, without your consent. Opening the site to everyone wasn’t such a bad thing, but back in December of ’09, the powers-that-be at Facebook decided to throw their previous commitment to privacy out the window, and make sensitive data public without asking first. Next came the scummy defaulting of all personal data to public every time Facebook revised its privacy system. The final nail in the coffin was insisting that information on your profile such as interests, schools, employers, favorite forms of media, etc, be public—or not attached to your profile at all.
A recent article for Wired shows the situation as even more dire, as even your “status updates” become public knowledge. “Care to write a status update to your friends? Facebook sets the default for those messages to be published to the entire internet through direct funnels to the net’s top search engines. You can use a dropdown field to restrict your publishing, but it’s seemingly too hard for Facebook to actually remember that’s what you do.” ([Facebook’s Gone Rogue; It’s Time for an Open Alternative](http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/05/facebook-rogue/#ixzz0oUaiTAdb)) Just lovely, isn’t it? Use Facebook to complain about your job, for example, [and it becomes a matter of public record that can be used to fire you](http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5g1UPIJSGVsDLJdSC2C4gLyuzucXAD9FOMB6O0). While these things can all be locked down, there’s no guarantee that they will *stay* locked down the next time Facebook decides to revise its policy on privacy.
With the recent talk of forming some sort of alternative to Facebook, such as [ Diaspora](http://joindiaspora.com/), thought should be given to more than just privacy, but how these things are even used. While I’m not adversed to having a social networking site where I am friends (or whatever term they come up with) with near-strangers, I would love for the ability to filter the information I receive in more than a binary on/off way. Certainly, it’s possible to do this with Facebook, but it’s significantly more complicated than I would prefer. In any case, I still need to wonder just why I am compelled to maintain an online relationship with people who are often casual acquaintances. I’m not about to invite them to a party, especially considering geographical distribution of some of these people.
Moving beyond privacy and information reduction, ditching Facebook is, on the face of it, a start in re-evaluating just how I’m going to use social networking tools. Certainly, the need to use Facebook, or its ilk as a collection of people one knows should have gone out the door with the death of Friendster, or at least MySpace. What I want a proper social network to be is a means of continuing and/or improving relationships with people, not simply collecting them and filtering through context-free nonsense. The key change is that the Internet needs to be a tool to strengthen interpersonal relationships, not to decontextualize and reduce them into short “status updates”. I suppose musing on that is for a different essay.
- Meanwhile, I’m happily offloading to Google all my phone calls, contacts, e-mails, calendar appointments, and other things. I suppose the difference is that Google is a lot more transparent about how they handle that data.↩
- I won’t have a Virb account for much longer. I only logged in to my Virb account for the first time in over a year just to see if I hadn’t already deleted it.↩
- e.g. IRC, message boards and forums, etc.↩
- I should have come to this realization a few months ago when I experimented with using the Facebook iPhone app’s Push Notification feature. It didn’t take long to realize I really didn’t need to know that someone I didn’t know had commented on a status update that I had commented on an hour ago.↩