The Consequences of Facebook

I can’t remember a time when Facebook wasn’t controversial. From the moment I started using it, I heard stories and rumors pop up across the internet about its abuse of power and dealing of user information. What both confuses and intrigues me, however, is that (despite all of the negative press Facebook receives each year about privacy, among other things) users across the world continue to use it—myself included. What motivates the average user to continue using Facebook’s services?

Recently, Facebook retooled their friend lists. The update allows users to sort through and manage their friends quicker and easier than ever before, and even offers Smart Lists to help with the transition. Every friend you have will only receive the information you want him or her to see. Obviously, this allows you to protect your information and status updates from any prying eyes. To the typical Facebook user, this option appears to be the site’s response to an increasing demand for more manageable privacy options. However, it does little to nothing for protecting your information from Facebook itself. Everything you upload, write, or post is still fair game for Facebook to collect or sell as they see fit. But how many of the 750 million users actually think about this?

Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is right; perhaps the willful, public sharing of information is a new social norm? Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right. It does seem, though, that service updates such as the recent friend list retool merely add to the illusion that your information is safe with Facebook.

Beneath the surface of the site lies the terms of service which Facebook updates without notifying their clients. There have been numerous changes over the span of Facebook’s life, many of which have expanded the website’s rights over your content. The latest update that Facebook made to its terms of services (at the time of this blog post’s creation) was made on April 26 of this year. I’m not sure about the average Facebook user, but I myself was unaware of the site’s changes at that time.

This example of publicizing new services (which appear to improve privacy and protection) while taking advantage of users behind the scenes is a very clever slight of hand. However, this tactic does have a price: it creates a dualistic public face, which clouds the users’ image of the company’s true nature. Is Facebook really an evil corporation bent on abusing its users however it pleases? Or is it simply the victim of media scrutiny? Certainly other companies and businesses across the web take advantage of users’ information. Why is it that Facebook alone tends to be demonized? Despite being a service which requires no monetary compensation, users of Facebook are not satisfied with it. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Facebook has the lowest satisfaction rating among surveyed sites. No retooling of friend lists will fix that score.

No matter how Facebook tries to dress up a new service, less-public users tend to find some sort of catch in the service which will force them to change their privacy settings. The ability to subscribe to a Facebook user, for instance, allows anyone to view your posts unless you have changed your settings. While this problem may be corrected by slightly tweaking your account’s privacy settings, it is seen as yet another nuisance one must deal with when using a Facebook profile. It is simply the latest change that Facebook has introduced in order to further complicate a user’s privacy online.

This brings us back to the question: why do Facebook users continue to use the company’s service if the constant changes to the website are rarely welcome? It seems illogical to continue using a service that needlessly confounds your online persona through unnecessary new services (such as the retooled friend lists or subscriptions) and changes to their terms of service. Why not just use another social network?

Robert D. Hof asserts that “you are the ad” in his Technology Review article on Facebook. In the article, Hof explains that users of Facebook now push products through word of mouth simply by liking and posting about them. While this is certainly true, the article never touches on what advertises Facebook itself: the users. Just as users push products through word of mouth, they push the product of Facebook by simply using the service. Users do not wish to migrate to another social network because their “friends” are still using Facebook. Sharing personal information publicly may not be a social norm, but striving to be part of the “in crowd” most certainly is. It isn’t merely a question of whether or not you wish to use Zuckerberg’s social network. Having friends on Facebook pushes you to have a Facebook profile yourself, simply because you don’t want to be left out. The people push the product rather than the product itself.

So what influence does friend list retooling, smart lists, terms of service changes, subscriptions, or any other update to Facebook have on the users’ decision to stay with the website? Admittedly? Not much. Though the company denies it, Facebook is known across the web as a service designed to exploit users and their information. Each change to the terms of service sparks debate and anger in hundreds of blogs, yet Facebook continues to grow. Unless Facebook makes a huge, unforgivable mistake that drives millions of users away from its product, that number will remain strong.

The social implications of this insight are horrifying. Zuckerberg announced that sharing information publicly is a social norm among younger generations. That is not the case. It is the case, however, that users are willing to sacrifice their online security and privacy for the sake of staying connected with friends and family.

Every new update that Facebook introduces may irritate users worldwide, but how many people discontinued their profile after the latest terms of service rewrite? The ability to subscribe to a random stranger and see their posts without “friending” them is an obvious privacy risk, yet it is doubtful that Freddie Jones forfeited access to the 300+ friends he has collected over the past four years because of such a small infringement.

Because Facebook makes so many changes and updates its website so frequently, it has become the social norm to simply put up with the company. Many blogs and news websites speak out against these changes, but the average Facebook user remains quiet. If this view becomes the social norm for the average user across all services and websites in the future, then any company will be able to take Facebook’s irresponsible stance on privacy and security without repercussion.

Convenience may prove to be more important than privacy, and that is a terrifying thought.