Wednesday, 19 December 2012


I'm no fan of Facebook, but I'm also astounded by the naivety of some of its critics. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg doesn't care about you personally and he wants to monetise your data. But how did it escape your notice that we live in a largely capitalist society where most enterprises exist to make money? When Zuck offered you this shiny new free toy, did the well-known expression ' there's no such thing as a free lunch' not cross your mind for even a second? Were you outraged when this completely free thing didn't stay exactly the way you wanted it?

A free social network that's not looking for a way to make money out of you does not have to exist just because it would super nice if it did.

As you've probably worked out, if you've read this far, I wasn't burdened with particularly high or unrealistic expectations when I opened a Facebook account some four or five years ago. I dipped in cautiously, being careful not to give any personal data that wasn't strictly necessary (and to make sure that there were deliberate inaccuracies in every piece of data I did cough up, apart from my name, and to hell with the terms and conditions).

As it happened, it wasn't really my sort of thing. I like to concentrate on one thing at a time, so I found trying to follow a constantly-updated mass of different, unrelated, bite-sized status updates, conversations and posts to be unsatisfying and slightly draining. Also it didn't do great things for my social life - if I wanted to do stuff with the people I already knew, it was practically as easy to just pick up the phone or send an e-mail.

As for meeting up with long lost friends - well, if I was (quite rightly) reluctant to share my date of birth, address and other personal information with every passing stranger on the Internet, then how were they going to find me, as opposed to some random stranger with the same, fairly common, name?

So my Facebook account ticked along with a handful of friends (i.e. people I actually know in real life as opposed to Facebook-only "Friends"). It wasn't that much use to me, but I kept it going in out of a vague feeling of not wanting to be left out of something. It hadn't cost me anything and I felt I'd protected myself from data farts by withholding data, lying about the data I did supply and taking the time to lock down those deliberately un-user-friendly privacy options.

Not a great triumph, but I felt smug in comparison to those poor addicts who'd been seduced into spending most of their free time obsessively checking status updates from virtual friends they'd never met and doing mindlessly repetitive slave labour on FarmVille.

Well, it turns out I'd set my expectations low, but not quite low enough. I hadn't anticipated Timeline, a system that takes control of what's shared (and when) away from users and blurts out past posts, status updates, etc, at random in order to help you to 'share your story.' I wanted to retain control of what I posted and when, so I thought, 'I'll just spend a few minutes deleting all my past posts, so they don't pop up when I don't want them to.'

This wasn't that crucial for me. I don't think there's anything I've ever posted that would land me in jail, or in the divorce courts, or get me sacked (as I'm currently self - although rather under - employed, good luck with that last one). But I still like to be the one who chooses what I communicate and when, so the thought of some bot spewing out some random thing I'd said three years ago annoyed and unsettled me.

Unfortunately, Facebook didn't offer users who were being Timelined the option of hiding or deleting all past posts in one easy hit. No, I had to go through every damn post for four or five years and delete it individually. No more looking down on FarmVille's dumb hicks, now I'd found myself spending hours on "TimeVille", the even-more monotonous game where you delete one Facebook post after another and another and another and another until you dream of being let out to watch some paint dry.

But I did it. Then wondered why I'd bothered. I'd not found Facebook enthralling to start with, but the post-Timeline version was positively annoying. But not quite as annoying as the reflection that I'd thought myself too sceptical and level-headed to get suckered into wasting much time on it, but I'd been wrong.

So I've posted my last status update, telling my friends on Facebook that I'm still friends with them in the non-Facebook sense, but that I've run out of patience with Facebook and then I 'deleted' my account. I'd prefer them to actually delete my data, but I know they won't. Good job it's nearly all lies (especially the bits about having been born in Madagascar some time around 1905, a CV that includes previous employment as a clown at Blackpool Tower Circus, an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and a current job as the Commandant of the Papal Swiss Guard, despite my place of residence being given as Svalbard and my made-up work telephone number having the international dialling code for Tuvalu).

In the end, you can't beat Facebook. However much you try to keep it in its place it will grind you down, by steady attrition, in the end. As Popehat eloquently puts it:
Am I smart enough to figure out how to navigate Facebook's privacy settings, even in their current much more complicated state, and maximize the privacy Facebook is willing to give my profile and updates? Sure. But increasingly doing so feels like a job, or like an unpleasant but mandatory household task like balancing the checkbook. More than that, it feels like a job that's also [a] contest with Facebook and its designers, in which they — motivated by a desire to make money off of my data, and by a futurist anti-privacy philosophical agenda — seek to slip changes past me, outwit me, and wear me down. Could I keep track of the steady steam of privacy setting changes and carefully analyze each one? Yes. But I'm sick of doing so.
If you're thinking of kicking the Facebook habit yourself, spend a few minutes reading the rest of Popehat's post - it's just one of several billion uses for your time that would be way more productive than a session on FarmVille.