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!