Why I’m Not on Facebook

· Posted by Joshua in Internet

It seems like everyone is on Facebook. Almost everyone. I’m one of the dwindling holdouts, a child of the web who builds computers and designs websites but who doesn’t see the attraction of jumping on the social networking bandwagon. I’m not the only holdout. The media has been quick to pounce on Facebook and similar sites over issues like lost privacy and cyber-stalking, and while I think these issues are little more than network ratings fodder, others have taken them to heart. My grievance with Facebook is more fundamental, not at heart a problem with what Facebook does, but a problem with what Facebook is—a monolithic private company that millions of people have chosen to facilitate the most important thing in their lives: their relationships.

“We are building Facebook to make the world more open and transparent,” proclaims the Facebook Principles page. “Facebook,” it continues, “promotes openness and transparency by giving individuals greater power to share and connect.” The page continues to set forth ten principles, which are in truth nothing but marketing buzzwords struck into idealistic sentences that reveal almost nothing about what commitments or services Facebook actually provides. What does Facebook provide? Contradictions, certainly. Click over to the Privacy Policy, also titled Facebook Principles, and you’ll see that instead of ten principles, “Facebook follows two core principles” introduced with the sentence, “We built Facebook to make it easy to share information with your friends and people around you.” This is a little less idealistic than the last page, but more immediately helpful. Facebook is a service that allows people to share information with the people around them.

People, or so I recall, have mouths for just this purpose.

The irritating thing about Facebook is that it does nothing new and promises nothing that isn’t inherently true anyway. Social networking has existed since the dawn of humanity. Ever since people learned to speak, they’ve been networking with their friends, families, and neighbors. Communicating and sharing is part of what makes us human. Over time, new technologies have made communicating easier and more efficient. The development of writing allowed people to send precise messages to distant places. The development of the telegraph allowed people to send those messages instantaneously, and the telephone allowed people to carry their voices across the world in the same way. Radio and television enabled a few people to broadcast their voices to millions of people simultaneously, and the Internet now allows everyone to broadcast anywhere, instantly. Facebook does nothing to build on these past advancements; it is simply one application of the Internet’s inherent capacity. The Internet is a social network. The Internet makes it easy to share information with your friends and people around you, as well as people quite a long way off in the foggy distance.

The only thing new about Facebook is that Facebook is a monolithic private company with complete control of how its members use the service. Facebook’s so-called Statement of Rights and Responsibilities spells this out explicitly. All Facebook users must agree to the Statement, which acts as a service contract between Facebook and its users. Sections 12.1 and 12.4 of the contract allow Facebook to impose whatever it likes on its users by stating first that Facebook can adjust the terms of its contract at any time, and second, that it can make these changes without allowing for users’ input whenever the site has “legal or administrative reasons” to do so—”administrative” being a blanket word that Facebook’s administration can invoke whenever it chooses. If you don’t like the service Facebook offers or the terms it requires, you have only one real option: you can terminate your account, and thus cut off all the relationships you’ve built using the Facebook service.

This is a radical departure from older ways of communicating. It would be ludicrous if people had to sign contracts with a private company to facilitate face to face conversations–humans are social creatures, and they network this way by nature. More complicated means of communication, however, have required more complicated arrangements. People must agree to contracts with their telephone carriers and email providers, but these arrangements are crucially different from the situation with Facebook. Neither the telephone network nor the Internet is controlled by a single monolithic entity. When a customer tires of her current telephone carrier, she doesn’t have to abandon the telephone system and break her ties with everyone she talks with on the phone—she can simply switch to another phone company, because all phone companies connect to the same open and universal network. The Internet functions in the same way. If someone is sickened by hotmail, he can switch to gmail, but he doesn’t have to abandon email altogether. Likewise, when I got tired of hosting this blog at Bluehost, I was able to switch to another host with a better contract, but my site is still part of the same open and universal network, the Internet.

Facebook does not “make the world more open and transparent.” Facebook takes something already open, the Internet, a network where everyone can send messages or put up a personal web site like my own, and Facebook closes that into a propriety network with one service provider, one point of access, and one point of control: Facebook itself. Those who don’t like it must leave it, and although they can sign up with another social network like MySpace, they have no other way to reconnect with the same set of friends and contacts as before. This is an extraordinary bargaining chip, and it gives Facebook extraordinary power to do what it likes with your information, your friends, and your conversations.

True, Facebook provides an easy way for millions of people to make use of existing technologies to communicate and share information, but at what cost? Facebook is a business, and its foremost purpose is simply to make money. If you don’t have a problem handing control of your personal relationships to a monopolistic private business, go ahead and use Facebook. If you trust a business that will slip product endorsements into its service but “may not always identify paid services and communications as such,” (Facebook Terms, Section 10.3) then Facebook is right for you. If you like granting a private company the right to sell advertising space in the middle of your personal conversations with loved ones, by all means, make Facebook your home.

I hold my friendships in higher esteem. In the meantime, I became who I am without Facebook’s help. I learned to write by sending emails instead of pokes, and I learned to design websites by creating a web page of my own instead of making an account at Facebook or MySpace. Now I have real, practical skills that I can use for the rest of my life, while Facebook users have gained—what? Tell me, what have I missed, what have you gained? Why do you use Facebook?


8 Responses to "Why I’m Not on Facebook":

  1. It seems like one of your major points is that people “hand everything over” to Facebook, and if Facebook were to cancel their account, they would be lost forever. I don’t think this is really the case, I don’t think that most people see Facebook as their “only way” to communicate with friends or to organize their lives or something. It’s just an easy way to share pictures or plan events or remember someone’s birthday. But if they didn’t have it, they would just find other ways to do it, and life would go on.

    So yes, it isn’t necessary, and it is just an extension of what already exists, but couldn’t you say that for a lot of things? That doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it just organizes things in one place and makes it easier and ‘cleaner’.

    If someone leaves Facebook, they aren’t cut off from all of their friends, they would just use other forms.

  2. I do not think the comparison to telephone providers and email services is a very good argument. If you were to switch to another telephone provider or email service, you lose all the numbers and contacts, respectively. The argument to switch from Facebook to Myspace is not any different. You have to provide the same email for your email service to have contact again; you have to provide the number for your friend to your phone; and you just have to find the friend on Myspace rather than Facebook. Hence, you switching from one website service to another is not any different. You just had to keep the files on your computer. Once you enter into any stage beyond talking to another in person, you enter into some kind of contract: the amount of minutes I use on a phone, how many megabytes of data I can send in an email, Facebook’s privacy statements. Hence if you want to be able to freely talk to a person without contract, you can only talk to them in person, and even then, there are social unwritten contracts. So you might not be any different than the rest of us. Like John Quincy says, you are just using a different form.

  3. Second, to Eric, I’m afraid there is a crucial difference between Facebook and other communication technologies.

    When you switch your telephone provider, you have the legal right to keep the same phone number if you stay in the same location. When you start with the new provider, you can call your friends at the same numbers they had before, and you’re friends don’t have to change anything to let you do that. You connect to the same network, you’ve simply chosen a new company to give you access. The same is true of email. Yahoo can email hotmail can email gmail, you can choose what company and what contract will to give you access to the universal open network. Changing emails does require changing addresses, but it takes about a minute to copy your contact list to your new account and email everyone about the change, and no one else has to change anything to allow you to contact them again.

    Facebook is fundamentally different. If you leave Facebook, you can’t neccesarily get in touch with all your friends again on MySpace, unless all your friends also get accounts with MySpace. That would be like if someone that had phone service with Verizon, switched to CenturyTel, and then couldn’t talk to any of his friends with Verizon anymore until they also signed up with CenturyTel. It would be like if someone with gmail could only email other people with gmail, not yahoo or hotmail or anything else. Facebook is not an open network, it is a closed network, owned and controlled by one company, with only one contract to choose from. That’s the difference.

  4. Thanks for your comments! I knew when I wrote this article that I was taking an unpopular view, but I am glad you are sharing your views, and I invite more comments even if we still don’t see eye to eye. I want to respond specifically to what each of you said here.

    First, to J.Q. Adams, you put the words “hand everything over” in quotations, but I never used those words, so I don’t know who you’re quoting. No wonder you were a one-term president. 😉 Anyway, I completely agree that people can communicate using means other than Facebook. I do. The point is that after you build a network of friends using Facebook and establish it as your way of communicating, it becomes difficult to suddenly pull out of the network and establish an entirely new network in another medium. Disagree? Then I challenge you to leave Facebook now while keeping your network of Facebook friends in tact, tomorrow, next week, next month. You can certainly rebuild your network elsewhere, but it will take effort on everyone‘s part, not just yours, unlike if you were just switching phone providers, for example.

    In the meantime, since we agree Facebook is not neccesary, just a convenience, then explain why that convenience is worth the cost: giving one company dictatorial control over the network you and your friends have chosen to connect through, and selling your personal conversations as a space for ads that masquarade as honest endorsements. Think about what that means—advertisements are injected into your relationships, they are carried via your friendships, and they are earning someone else a profit by using your words. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will be as long as Facebook can exploit people into going along with it.

  5. I’ve never really felt the “cost” of using Facebook. The advertisements that we see are very minimal, and when you do see ads they do tend to be tailored to your interests (“Do you like Bon Iver? Then check out *****!”), which is kind of fun. It’s the same thing as giving Gmail “dictatorial control” over my email communications, they put up ads tailored to my messages.

    I’m sure you’ve been on Facebook at some point, but you may just be misled as to how much Facebook uses advertisements. Compared to Myspace, Facebook is very minimalistic, the advertisements are very unobtrusive, if existent at all, unless you invite them in.

    I know the other point of Facebook giving our data away to companies to use in market research, advertisements, etc., but honestly even if that’s the case I don’t really care that much. If Coca Cola knows that I started a group devoted to saving Vanilla Coke, then my cause is all the better served.

    So my main argument here seems to be that the “cost” that you perceive, the consequences of the convenience, are very minimal, and compared to any other aspects of the Internet, it’s nothing new.

    And for the second paragraph, I have left Facebook a couple of times, and haven’t really had trouble, I kept in touch with the people I wanted to keep in touch with regardless of whether it’s through Facebook or over the phone.

    1. Good points.

      I don’t think you give Gmail “dictatorial control,” because if Gmail makes a change that upsets you, you can switch to a different provider while staying in the network–you’re in control. You have no real control in Facebook, and although Facebook might not bother you now, if/when it does, you either have to suck it up or leave the whole network. You can’t just change your point of access, as with Gmail. Like I said before, that’s the difference. There is no real engineering reason why a social network with the functions of Facebook couldn’t have multiple access points from different competing companies/orgs, there is only a financial reason why it doesn’t work that way: Facebook stands to earn more if it has a monopoly over the network of customers who don’t care enough to stand up to lack of choice/freedom.

      Aside from that, if you are not bothered by Facebook’s advertisements now, that’s alright. I realize that Facebook tries to be very targeted in its advertising (targeted ads aren’t simply less annoying, they’re more effective and more profitable). I guess to you it is a matter of degree, whereas for me, some things, like my conversations with friends, are just too sacred for any ads of any kind, ever. That’s the line I draw; I don’t want advertising to pervade every nook of my life. I don’t see any value in the recommendations people or businesses make because simply because they’re paid to make them—paid endorsements have nothing to do with people’s real experience with a product’s quality. I am less bothered by obtrusiveness than by exploitation, not by market research/privacy issues, but by the idea that my social life should be a mechanism for someone else to profit by offering a service that I can learn to provide for myself. As I learn to do it myself, I gain experience, and while you get ads for products you want to have, I gain the skills to do the things I want to do. I guess it is a matter of what makes each of us more happy.

  6. Yeah, I guess I would just stress that there are barely any ads on Facebook, it is pretty rare to see one, or at least to notice one. There are a lot more ads on Gmail, or many other places on the Web than Facebook. It’s not that “it’s ok because they are targeted”, its that there are literally no ads 95% of the time. So that’s why I like it, opposed to Myspace which is all ads all the time.

    1. I agree, Facebook is better than MySpace, I picked on Facebook for this post because it has many more users. When you’re counting ads, don’t forget that clause in Facebook’s terms of service: “we may not always identify paid services and communications as such.” If you aren’t already using Firefox with the AdBlock Plus extension, consider it, and you’ll find the whole web a much cleaner experience. I want to elaborate on this discussion specifically about advertising in a future post, so watch for it in your RSS feed.

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