Why I’m rejoining Facebook

An amoral mega-corporation has consumed social networking, both online and in real life, and I can no longer resist its power. I’m rejoining Facebook.

Facebook is the opium of the people, CC-BY-SA tacoekkel.

Facebook is the opium of the people, CC-BY-SA tacoekkel.

When I quit Facebook in 2011, I detailed the trade-off that caused me to join in the first place, and how that equation changed over time – until membership no longer made sense to me.

I didn’t miss it. I gave a talk entitled A Month Without Facebook, on the merits and disadvantages of disabling my profile, and then kinda forgot about it. Life continued. Three months later I deleted my profile completely. Everything remained fine.

Some accused me of bias against Facebook – of hypocrisy or, at least, inconsistency. I still use Twitter and LinkedIn. I have a Google+ account. Why leave Facebook on principles I’m not upholding elsewhere? Why don’t I just limit what I upload to Facebook so that it doesn’t matter what gets shared?

For me privacy is about control. It’s the right to be known only by those you trust. Facebook, by contrast, is about gossip. It’s not just a way for you to share with others – it’s for other people to publish things about you. You could say the same about any social network, of course, but at Facebook the concept is central. It encourages members to post about others, possibly against their wishes, and definitely outside their control.

Facebook even tracks the things people don’t publish there. It has monitored status updates that were typed out but then deleted without being posted. It maintains shadow profiles on non-users who get talked about by members, and collects information such as phone numbers or emails that members have chosen to keep from Facebook, but which it’s obtained somehow anyway. It’s thirst for information is insatiable.

Should you have a Facebook account so that you can try to control, or at least contextualise, what it knows and what people publish about you there; or should you stay off Facebook and disassociate yourself entirely? I think this trade-off becomes more one-sided the more your social circle is represented on Facebook. If a colleague shares an, um, “unprofessional” photo of you from a party on Saturday night, and you’ve neither seen it nor had a chance to put your side of the story, the office situation on Monday morning could be all the more uncomfortable for you.

The flip-side of the privacy trade-off on Facebook is “algorithmic filtering”.

Facebook is not your friends. It can be trusted neither to represent them nor to mediate your communications with them. Facebook can – and does – control your friends’ news to manipulate your behaviour (Twitter is experimenting with algorithmic feed curation too). It’s usually trying to maximise its profit however sometimes it has other motives, such as conducting psychological experiments on members, or influencing the turnout of an election. Even without resorting to conspiracy theories, a marked difference is evident between neutral and algorithmically controlled media, as illustrated in this piece on last night’s violence in the US town of Ferguson.

Facebook is the Ministry of Truth in a corporate dictatorship – with a population of more than a billion users.

So why am I rejoining Facebook?

Facebook - Social Cigarettes, CC-BY-NC-SA mayu

Facebook – Social Cigarettes, CC-BY-NC-SA mayu

All my family, friends and acquaintances are trapped behind the wall, and either cannot or will not escape. This didn’t matter too much until I found myself living in a new country, far away from the people I used to keep in touch with in person, and where I wanted to establish new social and professional circles.

Facebook user penetration in Norway is the highest in the world, at 61.1% of the population, compared with just 16.5% worldwide. More than three-quarters of Norwegian internet users aged 18 or older have a profile. No other social network comes close here.

The people I’ve met in Norway expect me to be on Facebook. Friends often reference something posted to the network and are confused for a second when I don’t know what they’re talking about. Then they say, “oh yeah, you’re the one who doesn’t use Facebook.” Awkward pause. One person even shook their head and said they couldn’t imagine how they would live without Facebook. They are old enough to remember the days before the web – let alone social networking. They were being serious.

For me, the balance of the cost/benefit equation has tilted back in Facebook’s favour, and so I am rejoining. Reluctantly. For now.

What I really want is a social network that lets me share with my friends and acquaintances but not with some morally and ethically compromised mega-corporation. And I want my friends to want that too, and to come with me to this self-hosted digital utopia. However I can’t see it happening.

It seems the only person you can’t unfriend is Facebook.

Facebook Meh Button, CC-BY-NC toodlepip

Facebook Meh Button, CC-BY-NC toodlepip

If you want to be my Facebook friend, or contact me in some other way, you can find out how on my contact page.