I thought it would be sufficient to just announce I was leaving Facebook, and all my friends who would care about such things would already have a pretty good idea of what the issues involved were, and would be making their own peace with those issues. I'm not the first and surely won't be the last among my circle to do something similar. Last night, though, I had a chat about it with some of my friends who aren't so well-connected to the Internet culture, and it became clear to me that there's room for me to write something laying out some of the issues surrounding Facebook and why those issues are important.
Let me start by saying it's not about "privacy."
These may be personal to me and not relevant to anyone else; they are, nonetheless, important. One reason they're important is that they go beyond any of the technical issues of how Facebook works and the corporate issues of how Facebook is run. These are issues with what Facebook is. Even if it worked perfectly, it's not clear that these human issues would be resolved. I think a good argument can be made that I don't want to use anything like Facebook even if it worked and were well-run, just because what Facebook is is not a good thing.
Facebook has never gotten me laid, and there is no reason to think it ever will.* My saying that opens up several cans of worms and it'll no doubt draw a disproportionate amount of attention, some of which will be the wrong kind of attention, but I'm nonetheless saying it and saying it first. The asterisk indicates that I may write a footnote going into some of the issues surrounding my decision to say that I care strongly about the fact that Facebook has never gotten me laid; those points would distract from discussion of Facebook itself, though, so I'll confine them to a separate posting if I choose to discuss them at all. You will too, or your comments will be deleted. This here's a posting about Facebook, not about me. Nonetheless I'll say that yes, that and no other choice of words or phrasing is what I intended to say, and yes, it is an important point; but also no, it's not the only important point, nor necessarily the most important point.
The most significant stories I can tell about my use of Facebook, are not happy stories. People who talk about good things that happen on Facebook generally tell stories along the lines of meeting long-lost friends they hadn't heard from in forever. I've done a certain amount of that too, but very little of it has changed my life in any significant way. It's not clear that Facebook really helped, because for anyone I really wanted to still communicate with, first of all we'd probably still be in touch, and second, we could find each other with Google. Facebook only makes such things easier by a very small amount.
On the other hand, I can easily list off a whole lot of unhappy things that have happened to me in connection with Facebook. People I considered friends who I no longer consider friends for reasons connected with communication we had over Facebook. People I fell out of touch with, and got back in touch with over Facebook only to find that they are (still) really boring people whom I have no time for and end up filtering, but I'm socially obligated to keep them on my list just because I have nothing against them worse than "you bore me." Friends of mine flaming each other because they disagree on important subjects (fortunately rare, but it happens). Friends of friends of mine flaming me because my friends, maybe or maybe not to their credit, have more tolerance for certain kinds of fools than I do. If I sit down and make a list of my experiences with Facebook it's really surprising just how many of all these kinds of things have happened. It's worse than Livejournal, and Livejournal was not good. It's not quite as bad as Wikipedia. It can be argued that people are people wherever you go, but I'm not sure that's really true. The environment shapes the interaction, the interaction on Facebook tends not to be good, and I think it's reasonable to assign part blame for that to Facebook.
Ninety percent of Facebook is shit. Of course that is commonly said about everything in general, but I'm not sure that it's really as true about everything in general as it is about Facebook. The point is: when I log onto Facebook there's an awful lot of chaff to sift through just to find a relatively small amount of worthwhile content. This is inherent to Facebook's design and it's not clear that any amount of customization or filtering can ever change it. Facebook's "Top News" feature is supposed to solve this, but it's ludicrously bad at its job, and there are strong theoretical reasons to believe that a version of that that would actually work, will be literally impossible until many years into the future. So extracting value from Facebook will necessarily demand a large investment of time from me. It's not clear that it can ever provide an amount of value in return that could make the prospect worthwhile.
Some of my objections have to do with the Facebook Web site itself. These aren't to do with what Facebook is, or who's running it, but the fine details of how they choose to run it. Technical objections are or should be easy to address; but they haven't been addressed, and the mistakes were made in the first place, and there's every reason to think they'll continue to be problems and other similar problems will show up in the future.
Facebook overrides the normal operation of GUI controls, especially the righthand scroll bar. This is incredibly annoying. It's number one on the AlertBox Top Ten Application Design Mistakes - though I have to disclaim that the author of those also says a lot of things in other articles that I don't approve of. On Facebook, if you try to scroll to the bottom of the page, more entries magically appear. It's not quite as bad as AssetBar, where more entries will appear without limit so you can never really scroll to the bottom at all; that is the main reason I haven't bought a paid subscription with Achewood. (Hear that, Onstad? That stupid infinite scroll bar is costing you money!) Facebook's broken scroll bar at least settles down once it has loaded one new batch. It's still very annoying, though, not least because the magical redesign and associated server round-trip occur just as I'm in the middle of reading new updates and don't want to be interrupted.
Facebook attempted to prevent me from closing my browser window. As I said at the time I discovered that, anything that does that is pretty much by definition malware. Being able to close a window in a fast and final way is important (see, for instance, Farm Sluts); the fact that Facebook is able to do this represents a security bug in the browser and the fact that Facebook tried to do it indicates that Facebook is run by the kind of people who maliciously exploit security bugs. It's been pointed out to me that Google Apps does something similar with a warning that you haven't saved your changes yet, but A. it's bad when Google Apps does it, too - the purported noble goal of preventing you from making an inadvertent mistake is NOT a good enough justification; and B. it appears that Google Apps only warns you about the consequences of what you're about to do, instead of actively stopping you from doing it. Facebook stops you from being able to close the window, and it is clear that that is deliberate.
Although Facebook allows you to disable many of its features, doing this is hard, and you cannot disable the ones you'd really like to disable. You can hide personal information like which "Pages" you're a "fan" of from your friends - but not from API users, such as spammers. Your friends are probably the people you wanted to publish that stuff to in the first place, so being able to hide it from them isn't useful. You can disable "Applications" from being allowed to post items in your "feed"; but only one at a time, and some of the most annoying items in your feed come from Facebook's own application-like things (such as "Video") and you can't block those.
I'm going to experiment with Steve C's suggestion of splitting long postings into multiple parts... so stay tuned for Part 2, in which I'll cover what I call "Corporate" problems with Facebook. Those are the problems associated with the attitudes and policies of the people who run it.