Tuesday, 9 May 2017

To Facebook or not to Facebook

I came across an article this morning on The Register arguing that it's time we 'divorced' Facebook as it's 'abusive'. So should we?

The core of the argument is that the cost of connecting easily with friends (and not-so-friends) is the amount Facebook knows about us, and this is too great. Facebook's experiments in emotional manipulation have been fairly well publicised. And we've heard plenty about the echo chamber effect, and the nefarious manipulation of social media for political ends. But, so far as we know, Facebook has to date been mostly interested in selling ads and has yet to do anything bad. The free-market, libertarian ideals of Silicon Valley, whether you agree with them or not, probably mean this is likely to continue in the medium term at least.

But how much do we trust an organisation that knows so much about us? What's interesting is that most people don't seem too bothered about how much information the likes of Facebook, Google and others hold on them, and this is even more true of the digital native generations. But it seems to me that the more people know about this stuff, the more they do seem to worry. I consider myself a techie, but not an extreme techie. I use StartPage as my search engine because it gives good results but doesn't track me, and even though I use Google for a lot of stuff (including this blog), I use Firefox as my main browser rather than Chrome because I figure Google already knows enough. I turn off Google location history on my phone. But a friend of mine who is a data analyst and really knows what companies can do with the data they gather doesn't put his real birthday on Facebook, doesn't have an email address with his real name in it and as far as I know is even more careful about his online privacy.

So, Facebook. Should we keep feeding the beast and hoping it doesn't bite us? It's hard not to, and there's no doubt about the social benefits. I am far more in touch with my cousin in New Zealand than I would be if it weren't for Facebook, and there are so many people from past bits of my life that I would certainly have completely lost touch with without it. I don't have their Messenger on my phone and don't really feel the need for it, although of course WhatsApp (which I do use) is now owned by Facebook.

I've always thought we (humanity) needs a social network run along the same lines as Wikipedia, not for profit and not ad driven. Others have tried to do this (e.g. Ello), but it will take a lot to gain the traction of a massive commercial operation. The author of the Register article says we should divorce Facebook. But we don't yet believe that we're in an abusive relationship.