the real problem with FB, maybe?

So I spent Monday moving (hello again Albany!), and was in an internet-free bubble till Tuesday night. But the Facebook study discussion rages on. Dan Hirschman blogged about it today at Scatterplot (I forget, they’re not the evil twin, right? What do we call them?); Zeynep Tufekci provides another insightful sociological take. The protean nature of the FB study appears to push everyone’s buttons, whatever those buttons are. And if the study doesn’t, the reactions to it will.

I’m overtired and a little punchy, and my calf muscles are on fire, but I did want to highlight one other theme I think has been underplayed here. Dan usefully divided the relevant issues into 1) FB and 2) ethics. This falls under #1.

So what makes FB different from a market research firm? Why does it bug us in a unique way?

I think there are two reasons. One is that FB did not start out as a market research firm, and it still pretends not to be one. Moreover, FB in particular has a history of pushing settings beyond users’ comfort levels — over and over and over. (See here and here for some examples.) It makes it difficult to control privacy settings, impossible to log out of (at least in a way that keeps you from being tracked around the web), and its business strategy seems to involve making it hard for users to control their interactions with the site. So some of this reaction is particular to the way FB has handled its user base over the past decade.

But the other reason FB bugs us is probably more important, and broader in scope.

Facebook, like social networks generally, benefits from increasing returns to scale. The network becomes more valuable the more people who are on it. The problem is that consumer choice effectively disappears when a particular network becomes dominant. I mean, you can sort of opt out of FB and say, I’m going to use Twitter, or Tumblr (do any academics use Tumblr?), or I’m just going to avoid social media. But there’s no real Facebook-equivalent you can switch to; there can’t be. And when use of a network becomes semi-obligatory, whether that’s because Grandma demands baby photos or employers wonder why you don’t have an account (I linked before to some of these posts; best headline: “Is Not Joining Facebook a Sign You’re a Psychopath?“), people get mad when they don’t like what that network is doing — because they feel they don’t have a real choice. There’s a cost to walking away.

Now, Philip Cohen suggested in comments that the solution is to have FB run as a public utility, not as a for-profit company. I sympathize with this impulse, particularly because I think the underlying issue is this monopoly power of sorts. But there has been something very generative about the tech world over the past several decades that is hard to imagine government recreating. (Of course government created the internet, but I’m talking about the particular generative impulse that has come out of Silicon Valley and startup culture.) Ultimately I don’t think turning FB into a public utility is the answer.

The FB issue, though, is really one example of a larger class of problem that we might be able to do something about. Certain internet companies become platforms that are hard to opt out of, and individual consumers may have little choice if the companies start to behave in ways they don’t like. But the world of technology keeps changing pretty rapidly, and today’s Facebook is tomorrow’s Friendster.* So attacking this on a company-by-company basis seems unlikely to be the best solution.

Instead, maybe we should be thinking about broader principles that we expect companies that have become, or have the potential to become, platforms to follow. Transparency around their actions toward you. EULAs that have to be written in clear, concise language, like credit card agreements finally are. Fair opt-out options to avoid participation in some kinds of research, or some kinds of tracking. We need to have the conversation about what kinds of choices we all should have, particularly in situations where we can’t easily exercise consumer choice and switch to another product.

And then, presumably, we need legislation to make that happen. Because right now, it’s not clear where the limits are — only that they keep receding.

* Awesome discovery: Friendster is still around! It’s a gaming company now, and is apparently big in SE Asia. But the really cool part is that if you remember your login from 2002, it totally still works!


Written by epopp

July 3, 2014 at 4:20 am

Posted in uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. […] Berman has another smart post up on Orgtheory about the Facebook debate.  She says people are nervous about Facebook because of […]


  2. The main argument against making social media about utility is that it would squelch competition and innovation. And it is true that Facebook was a great idea that originated in the private sector. But the great innovations that Facebook has unleashed since it was invented are mostly ways for it to make money, not ways that it makes the service better for its users. The point at which the service, or something like it, becomes more or less necessary for getting by in modern society is the point at which we should consider a public utility model.

    The public utility could provide the basic feed data and private companies could still innovatively repackage it and sell it to advertisers who want to capture people in different ways (according to rules established by legislation and regulation).

    Public utility doesn’t mean it has to be publicly owned, right? It just means it’s regulated in a way that recognizes its monopoly status and necessaryness.

    Obviously just thinking out loud.


    Philip N. Cohen

    July 3, 2014 at 12:47 pm

  3. Positing that being Facebook is more or less necessary for getting by in modern society is a pretty strong (and questionable) claim.


    Trey Causey

    July 3, 2014 at 2:08 pm

  4. Ya. “Something like it” would have to include email, twitter, and etc.


    Philip N. Cohen

    July 3, 2014 at 2:29 pm

  5. So clearly Facebook is not necessary for getting by in modern society, right? For most people, the costs to opting out are pretty small (and they might save themselves a lot of time). I’m trying to pin down in my own head where my discomfort with the whole FB thing comes from.

    I am not sure it’s about FB so specifically. It’s that the internet — and technologies tied to the proliferation of data more generally — seems to be evolving in ways that give us as individuals less and less control, and it is happening rapidly and with little reflection. We sign away all our rights when we agree to use iTunes or whatever, and then our behavior — what we buy, what we look at, what we do — is up for grabs for whomever wants to use it, for research or profit. It doesn’t matter so much if you can stop using a particular service if expectations about the level of privacy, control over one’s data, etc. are universally low.

    There are some real benefits to all that data floating around. I like it that Amazon recommends books for me that I actually want to read. I’m sure there are life-saving examples that aren’t coming immediately to mind. And even technologies that seem more double-edged — I’m thinking here of credit scores — clearly have benefits: women or African-Americans seem likely to do better with an impartial algorithm than sitting down with a banker who holds all of society’s implicit biases.

    But you don’t have to be anti-technology to say, hey, we should really give some thought to where the lines should be. Do we need more openness about what companies actually do? More individual options for control? How much privacy are we prepared to give up in exchange for getting to participate in all this? People in the tech world can be a bit gee-whiz about the benefits of new technologies. What social scientists can contribute is a more measured view of the tradeoffs, with attention to institutions and to the history of technology.



    July 3, 2014 at 4:01 pm

  6. The cost of opting-out is super high. In many parts of the Middle East, it’s effectively opting-out of politics, especially oppositional politics. If you are a College Student, it is losing access to sports and social networks and volunteer opportunities and band participation (all arranged on Facebook). It means making it harder to date. As an immigrant, I’d be opting out of connecting with a large swath of my friends and family. This comes up all the time in my interviews, and it comes up all the time in my life. This is network effects on steroids, Facebook already has most of the users, therefore that’s where you want to be. If it were easy to have alternatives, we’d already have them with all the money and Silicon Valley start-ups that are. That there is no real alternative in so many settings speaks volumes to power of network effects. And all that said, yes, I’d love to see more formal research on this. It comes up all the time in my research, would love to see a survey, etc.


    Zeynep Tufekci

    July 3, 2014 at 5:31 pm

  7. On the costing of opting-out, I found this piece (from 2013 but re-circulated this week) very useful: Quitters Never Win: The Costs of Leaving Social Media. A snippet:

    “while abandoning a single social technology might seem easy, this “love it or leave it” strategy — which demands extreme caution and foresight from users and punishes them for their naivete — isn’t sustainable without great cost in the aggregate. If we look past the consequences of opting out of a specific service (like Facebook), we find a disconcerting and more far-reaching possibility: behavior that justifies a never-ending strategy of abandoning every social technology that threatens privacy — a can being kicked down the road in perpetuity without us resolving the hard question of whether a satisfying balance between protection and publicity can be found online.”


    Dan Hirschman

    July 4, 2014 at 9:48 pm

  8. @epopp – “And even technologies that seem more double-edged — I’m thinking here of credit scores — clearly have benefits: women or African-Americans seem likely to do better with an impartial algorithm than sitting down with a banker who holds all of society’s implicit biases.”

    That this is the case with credit scores – to the extent that it is – is the product of a hard-won political struggle in the 1970s to prevent credit bureaus from using race, gender, marital status, and so on, which they would have gladly done (see Greta Krippner’s forthcoming work on the feminist credit movement, or Martha Poon’s work). Seemingly objective predictive technologies like credit scores are actually a great way to codify society’s biases and make them seem objectively related to risk. For a similar example, Bernard Harcourt has shown that objective scoring systems for parole decisions have come to emphasize past criminal history as the primary determinant of parole – but because of differential policing and all the other racism in the criminal justice system, “past criminal record” is about as far as from race-neutral as a variable could be, and so the whole system ends up punishing black potential parolees once more (see Against Prediction).


    Dan Hirschman

    July 4, 2014 at 9:54 pm

  9. Dan Hirschman’s comment seems to have wandered afield from FB, by way of epopp’s comment, but I want to second it anyway. I am especially aware of the criminal record part, but more broadly agree that the seemingly-neutral rules always embody values and assumptions that have been and should be legitimate objects of political struggle.



    July 5, 2014 at 12:12 am

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