Facebook thinks I'm into graffiti. A few weeks ago, when the social media network overhauled itself for the umpty-hundredth time, it transformed the information page in my profile into a list of links to "community pages"; now, rather than merely mentioning that I like Louis Armstrong and Repo Man, it directs readers to pages devoted to those subjects. When Facebook was unfamiliar with something listed on my page, its electronic engines made their best guess as to what I might mean. And so it was that the first item on my short list of interests—"writing"—was transformed into "graffiti."
I noticed this change and removed the item from the list, along with many other odd transmogrifications. Not every writer on Facebook did the same. One friend of mine, a Hopkins professor who contributes commentaries to NPR, was still listed as a graffiti artist when I submitted this article, a fact that might surprise any colleague who happens to read his profile.
Facebook's cavalier attitude toward its users' privacy has landed it in the hot seat: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called out the company as he demanded new "safeguards" against privacy violations, and several pressure groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing the enterprise of unfair and deceptive business practices. But the program's problems run much deeper than the privacy issue, manifesting itself in countless trivial but telling ways. Facebook depends on its users for its content, but it resists respecting the independence of those users and the diversity of their goals and preferences. The result is a strange halfbreed: a network that is mutable and egalitarian in some ways, rigid and high-handed in others.
The good news is that Facebook's deficiencies are not the sort of problems you need new legislation to fix. Other online businesses have made the same mistakes, and the marketplace punished them more severely than any regulator would have dared.
The trouble with Facebook's ever-evolving privacy policies is not that it shares users' data with others online. It's that it pushes users to share data that many would prefer not to share, and that it does this by constantly rejiggering its privacy settings in deliberately opaque ways. This, unfortunately, is typical behavior for Facebook, a company whose previous "upgrades" have involved:
• regularly refashioning every user's live feed—the constant stream of status updates and other information from your Facebook friends—in ways that disrupted users' habits, rather than simply offering users tools to revamp their feeds in whatever ways are most convenient for them;
• creating a pointless "news feed" that selects the status updates that Facebook, based on some arcane algorithm, thinks you will be most interested in seeing—and ensuring that the live feed will periodically revert to the news feed, whether or not you want it to do so;
• imposing odd limits on even the live feed, which users must go out of their way to alter, so that the Facebook algorithm again decides which updates are supposedly most interesting to the users; and
• the aforementioned transformation of the user profiles into a set of marketing-friendly links. One byproduct of this change was to eliminate any item unusual enough that Facebook fails to forecast it: If there's no preexisting page, it can't appear on your profile. Not unless you want to go through the trouble of creating the page yourself.
Meanwhile, here are some changes that Facebook has not seen fit to include in its upgrades:
• making it easy to navigate away from an older entry in your live feed without losing your place;
• making it easy to find old status updates of your own;
• preserving old status updates in the first place. Longtime Facebook users might find it instructive to scroll back through the last few months on their personal pages. As you go deeper into the past, you're apt to find entire conversations missing, words amputated from the ends of sentences, and other odd glitches.
In other words, Facebook is constantly trying to direct and standardize its users' experiences, as though everyone uses the site in the same way and for the same purposes; and at the same time, it has neglected smaller changes that would make it easier for users to shape and navigate Facebook for their own goals. The business press may be filled with rhetoric about "participatory media" and "user-generated content," but the country's most prominent Web 2.0 company treats its participants like a bunch of CompuServe subscribers circa 1994.
In the process, it has undermined what were supposed to be its selling points. A Facebook page was supposed to be preferable to other sorts of personal websites because it gave you greater control over who could or couldn't view the material you posted; now the company is infamous for running roughshod over users' privacy preferences. And one of the few limits on user freedom that sometimes seemed to work in users' favor—the uniform look of the personal profiles, a CC&R-style restriction that attracted people who disliked the garishness of so many MySpace pages—started to feel like a straightjacket the moment it meant you couldn't even list an unusual interest or an obscure book or movie.