Watch Out, Facebook

Politicians are ready to regulate the online giant, but the company has much more to fear from the creative destruction of the marketplace.


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.

Online social networks have risen and fallen before. Friendster is nearly forgotten (in the United States, at least), and MySpace has lost traction outside the music world. Facebook has been more successful than those predecessors, particularly at penetrating the post-collegiate market. But that doesn't mean it can't be displaced or forced to remake itself by a better network, something that might sell itself as Facebook without the bullshit.

There's a school of thought that says the inertia involved in leaving Facebook is too great for serious competition to emerge. The communications scholar Nancy Baym recently wrote that, for all her anger at Facebook's privacy policies, she isn't ready to leave yet, because the place provides "a platform through which I gain real value. I actually like the people I went to school with. I know that even if I write down all their email addresses, we are not going to stay in touch and recapture the recreated community we've built on Facebook. I like my colleagues who work elsewhere, and I know that we have mailing lists and Twitter, but I also know that without Facebook I won't be in touch with their daily lives as I've been these last few years." The anthropologist danah boyd has cited Baym's comments as evidence that Facebook has become more than just another online diversion: It's on the verge, she writes, of becoming a monopolistic utility, and thus of requiring regulation.

Boyd has a history of writing intelligently about online social networks, but this time she's off base. What's striking about Baym's list of reasons for sticking with Facebook is how little they depend on Facebook itself. I can't speak for Baym, but I'm in a similar situation. There's nothing I do at Facebook that I can't do just as well, maybe better, with a blog, an email program, and a Flickr account—nothing, that is, except communicate quickly and easily with the other people on Facebook. That's the draw: not the system, not the apps, but the other users. And that's the variable that the company, try as it might, just can't control.

If anything, Facebook has made moving easier. When it transforms our quirky lists of interests into standardized lists of links or allows our old status updates to decay, it makes our profile pages into something less than well-tended gardens we wouldn't want to abandon. At any rate, once there's another place to congregate, it doesn't take too long for folks to move, tugging their photo albums and lists of interests and inane games of Mafia Wars behind them. So watch out, Facebook: You may be on top of the heap today, but you shouldn't assume that will last forever. The masses have abandoned immensely popular bars, bands, TV shows, and, yes, websites. Don't think for a moment that you're immune.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).