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What's wrong with Facebook? (part 2)

Tue 18 May 2010 by mskala Tags used: , ,

In my previous posting I discussed human issues, which might be specific to me: they are reasons that neither Facebook nor anything else with a similar purpose to Facebook would necessarily be a good thing for me to use. I also discussed technical issues, which are serious but should be easily correctable; Facebook could fix the technical problems without changing what Facebook is. In this posting I'm going to talk about what I call "corporate" problems, issues I have with the people and corporate entity who run Facebook. These would be reasons not to deal with Facebook in particular, even if I wanted to deal with something exactly like Facebook that might be run by a different corporation.

Corporate problems

Sometimes when I describe my objections to things the Facebook company has done, people respond by saying "Oh, well, it's obvious that they would do that, because (advertisers are their real customers/Facebook wants to make money/that's how businesses in general operate/and so on)." People who say that sort of thing seem to think that I didn't know why Facebook does the things they do, and that knowing why, should make a difference to me.

My response is: are you retarded? Of course it's obvious why Facebook does many of the things it does; that was never in question. I don't really care why they do these things. The point is that because Facebook does these things, that has consequences for whether it's in my interest to continue dealing with Facebook - and in fact, knowing why they do it makes it all the stronger as a decision-making basis. If I didn't know why the Facebook company acts as it does, then I could hope that they don't have a strong reason, and will eventually come to their senses and behave in a way I'd like better. Since they do in fact have strong reasons for being evil, it's only reasonable to think they will continue being evil (since it's working so well for them according to their own goals) and it's foolish to hope they will ever change. So: your pointing out that Facebook has reasons to be evil only strengthens my point that they are evil. Note, also, that although I've given and discussed some definitions of "evil" of my own, another popular source in my culture uses "incompatible goals with mine" as the very definition of "evil." Now, for some specific evils of Facebook.

Facebook is a moving target, and therefore unreliable. There is no guarantee that whatever you like about Facebook today will still be around tomorrow; and there is strong evidence that you should expect the contrary. Every "new" feature is implemented as a mandatory replacement for, not an optional addition to, existing features. There've been at least two major redesigns of the visual appearance in recent memory. "Networks" were originally the main paradigm of deciding who would be in contact with whom; now they're phased out. "Friend" links used to contain information saying how you met; now that no longer exists. Profiles used to be text fields; now they are social-network links ("Connections"), creating a separate layer of graph theory distinct from the "friend" links. The application interface changed in a drastic way that effectively destroyed all applications from before the change. The list goes on.

Lots of sites introduce features, and change their focus by doing so; Facebook is close to unique in constantly removing core features to force migration to the new ones. Facebook today shouldn't even be called the same site it was in 2004; it's a completely different social networking site that happens to share a name with that old site. There are those who claim that all these changes are part of a general agenda against "privacy," but it doesn't even matter what causes them: the simple pattern is that Facebook keeps changing, in big ways, will continue to do so, and so you can't depend on whatever you think about Facebook today continuing to be true in the future. It is clear that Facebook's constant reinvention of its core conceptual design is policy and not accident.

It is impossible to get in touch with a human representative of the Facebook corporate entity. Just try it! They have a complaints section full of automated forms, but only for a short list of authorized kinds of complaints against other users, not including any objections to things done by the system itself. The closest thing you can do is file a "suggestion," after clicking through an agreement in which you promise not to blame them for never responding to such "suggestions." This sends the general message that they consider themselves better than you: they demand human attention from you, but you can only demand computer attention (and even that very limited) from them.

Facebook's entire presentation to users is extremely condescending. The "no human contact" item above is part of this, but it is also more general: if there is a problem in your interaction with the Facebook corporate entity, the problem has to be entirely yours and in no way theirs. The parts of their site that purportedly exist to deal with user problems consist mostly of links to non-interactive text "educating" you on why the problem is with your own understanding rather than anything in any way Facebook's responsibility. If, for instance, you don't want your "Connections" data available through the API, you will be told why you should want it available; not why Facebook wants it to be available, and absolutely not anything that would admit a possibility of it not being available. A similar attitude is abundently clear in their interactions with the media, with agencies like the Canadian Government's Privacy Commission, and with application developers. All the compromise has to be on someone else's side; again Facebook is saying "We are better than you and you should accept that." and I don't want to deal with people who take that line.

Facebook's treatment of application developers is inappropriate. I don't have much sympathy for Facebook application developers, but I do have some. I have more than one friend who is a Facebook application developer. And if you look at the way Facebook deals with application developers, it's strikingly similar to the way Facebook deals with regular users: Facebook's agenda always comes first, the rules change constantly, and all problems are always someone else's fault.

In particular, there's been some objection to the new "Facebook Credits" feature: Facebook plans to sell "credits" to users, taking a 30% cut of the proceeds, and application developers are required to accept "credits" and no other tender for purchases within applications, for instance of virtual property in games. We will set aside the question of whether any non-idiot users would ever buy virtual property in games at all; this here's a paragraph about Facebook and the application developers. Facebook is claiming the right to skim 30% right off the top of all business done under the pay-for-virtual-property business model. That necessarily distorts what kind of business applications can do at all. Facebook has also repeatedly and unilaterally changed the rules under which application developers have to operate, and used underhanded tactics (such as disabling applications' access to Facebook) to force concessions in negotiations with large developers like Zynga on things like the 30% cut and whether Zynga will be allowed to also do business with people other than Facebook. The irony that one of Zynga's main products is something called "Mafia Wars" has been pointed out.

When called on this kind of bullshit, the consistent pattern of Facebook's responses has been to blame others, and to pull out old chestnuts like "Apple does this too, so we should be allowed to!" First of all, Apple doesn't do it (they take a cut of App Store sales, but not on every transaction within every application) and second, even if Apple did it it wouldn't be acceptable. Apple does many other things that are bad, for instance promoting DRM, and they don't get a free pass on those things either. So: Facebook is lying, and Facebook thinks it should be allowed to do anything that anyone else gets away with, whether that is something acceptable or not. Just as in Facebook's social interaction with users, Facebook treats its social interaction with developers as a game with rules to be maneuvered around and even those only real when the referee is looking; the obligations of social interaction are not real things which limit the substance of what it's okay for Facebook to do. Human beings who exhibit this pattern of behaviour, treating social interaction solely as a game to be won, are called sociopaths.

Mark Zuckerberg may personally be a schmuck. This is a tricky one because a lot of people seem to think that the worst he did was to "steal" the "idea" of Facebook; and I don't swing with the popular view that "ideas" are valuable and subject to "theft." I'm not sure "ideas" should be regarded as real things at all. I also don't know for sure that all the allegations are true. Nonetheless, there are credible allegations that after being hired to build a system similar to Facebook for some other people, he strung them along letting them think he was working on it while not actually doing anything, and after that behaviour had seriously injured the possibility of the other system becoming successful, he turned around and built one of his own along the same lines, which became Facebook. That claim was credible enough that he ended up paying $65 million out of court to settle litigation associated with it. There are also credible allegations of him abusing trust to break into other online systems, including both some reporters' email accounts and the said competing social networking site.

Facebook itself is not only Mark Zuckerberg; and the fact that he has done bad things, if it is a fact, does not necessarily mean that the company he runs will always do bad things. However: I believe that this kind of schmuck is something to be, part of identity, not just something to do; that people usually don't change much over time with regard to this kind of thing; and that birds of a feather usually flock together. So: if it's true that he did these things, then it's entirely reasonable to expect, and this should be the default expectation absent significant evidence to the contrary, that he is still doing business in the same way today and that a company founded and run by him is also probably doing business in the same way today. Since use of Facebook necessarily involves trusting Facebook - many of the important things a user wants from Facebook are things the user cannot easily verify for themselves - it's a big problem if there is evidence that Facebook is run by untrustworthy people.

And so, in summary, that's what's wrong with Facebook.

This article is the second half of a two-part one; if you started here (for instance, by following the link someone posted on Reddit), you should go back and read the first part too.

12 comments

kiwano
On that link to the law/magic post, what about the magic words: "de minimis non curat lex"? Seriously, a university club showing some presumably obscure anime to a few dozen folks in a borrowed classroom. I seriously doubt that the law gives half a damn more about that than it does about whether said same event is non-public due to the sales of some bogus "membership" tickets. Illegal yes, but within epsilon of legal, so who the hell cares. kiwano - 2010-05-18 14:30
Matt
That's off-topic, but since comments on the other item are disabled pending its move to the new site code, it's reasonable to discuss it here. There were other issues in the air in that particular situation. Some of them I don't want to discuss publically, but one of the biggest was that the University itself cared even if rational actors outside the University (such as the copyright holders themselves) didn't. We were in a position to have problems - and this was actual experience, not a hypothetical worry - with certain representatives of the University administration questioning the legality of our actions and demanding proof thereof, even if we ourselves didn't think a lawsuit was likely and might be willing to take our own chances. It might also have been questionable whether the scale really was small enough to keep us safe. Some events involved hundreds, rather than dozens, of people; anime that wasn't obscure but in fact of great current commercial interest; and advertising over a non-trivial geographic area. Matt - 2010-05-18 14:53
Jake
I had an incident a while back where my Facebook account was deleted by accident for no reason, and I had to wait a week to get my account back. I was one of the lucky ones though because I've read of people who have lost all of their photos and priceless messages, so you're right that in some sense there's a disconnect between the corporate Facebook and the people.

I think Facebook has bigger problems than privacy. Privacy is a thing of the past whether we want it to be or not, http://www.dirtyphonebook.com and other sites prove this everyday. I think this outcry about Facebook privacy will be completely forgotten by the average person within 3 months.

What's a bigger issue for Facebook is security. The news story a few weeks ago where somebody was able to figure out a way to read private messages between people really shook me. Yeah, I know that Facebook is a really complex application, but there's zero excuse for this. Jake - 2010-05-18 15:54
Matt
What would you say is the difference between "security" and "privacy"? It sounds to me like they're very similar concepts - both about some information being available only to an authorized list of readers. Matt - 2010-05-18 16:17
Daniel
I don't think any corporation above a few dozen people should be trusted at all, in the way that a person can be trusted. I read somewhere, evil is an emergent function of size. Some corporations are more clearly rotten, and that might have some relation to the personalities of the people in charge, but I can't think of a single huge one that I haven't noticed fucking up in a way that would make you disinclined to give them a second chance if they were a person. Unless a corporation gives away its power in an independently binding way - say by publishing their source code, or having an outside agency monitor them - any promises are worthless. They are blind beasts creeping along a gradient of more money and expansion. We have to always keep our wits about us, protect our own data and privacy and preferring decentralization when we have the choice, and try to negotiate among these behemoths without being crushed by them, knowing that any corporate behaviour that seems too good to last, is. But you should never feel personally betrayed by a corporation; a corporation should never be able to break your heart. Daniel - 2010-05-19 21:31
Steve C
That law-magic post is another post of yours that's worth migrating to the new website. It's very well argued. I completely disagree with it (even more now than when it was written) but that doesn't detract from it's quality.

BTW: Watch "You Don't Know Jack" about Jack Kevorkian. I'd argue his experience contradicts the premise of your law-magic post. Plus it's a good movie. Steve C - 2010-05-20 00:16
owen
Speaking of UI design, your "url" box in the form doesn't indicate if I should include http:// in my url or not.

Anyway, I don't know what you think facebook is, but I can tell you friggin' hate it. I just think of it as the portal where the ivy leauge meets the internet. You know those room-sized computers that co-ordinated optimal box production in box factories in the forties? That's not what facebook is. Facebook is like an ongoing meeting at the office. I know you don't get what that means, because you're an academic. It means that there's a copule of dickheads from harvard&yale and they are both constantly changing the rules in an attempt to "win" and imaginary struggle. Then there's us, the users, the people who are only there because we're too unimportant to be required elsewhere at that moment (since our required labor inputs are artificially low) and there are also the functionally retarded users who are actually supporting the whole enterprise through their blind attention and disproportionately large inputs of labour, eyeballs and credit card numbers.

I do business with facebook for the same reason I do business with my internet provider: they have a service that I can use to externalize my mediasocial body maintenance to. I know that for every movie I pirate there are 1000 morons who have to buy it on itunes. I know that for every cool person I connect with over facebook, 1000 middle managers from middle america have to reconnect with their 4th grade teacher.

Becoming a resident part of the nodal memory energy web that is our shared DNA heritage requires acceptance of the notion that interface and application are themselves living automata in a persistent state of vibratory evolutionary flux. Facebook is the tool that teaches morons how to identify the issues you have raised and attempt to socialize with you despite your fixation on abstruse technical arcana. We all wish we could code as hard as you. Stop whining and give your site the functionality you deride them for being able to evolve beyond., owen - 2010-05-23 12:59
Matt
Saying "URL" means that what you enter should be a URL. If you leave out the "http://" (and if none of the relevant exceptions apply) then it's not a URL.

However, as a convenience feature, the system will attempt to fix your error if you enter a non-URL. Matt - 2010-05-23 15:59
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