I have been feeling quite smug in the last few days. That is, more smug than usual, a certain kind of cultivated perennial smugness is required if you are an academic, but I digress. My disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction comes from the fact that I quit Facebook one year ago. Going by the scandal unleashed by Facebook’s new privacy settings, I would say I made the right decision.
Unlike previous Facebook-related privacy scares, the current affair seems to have legs. The blogosphere and the mainstream media have exploded with analysis of the new privacy setting; my favourite are two staggering visual representations of what has been happening. In the first one, Matt McKeon has gone through default privacy settings throughout Facebook’s history, and has drawn a map of the amount of profile information that is shared to the world. In the second one, the New York Times displays the labyrinthine new privacy settings. The changes have prompted some widespread anti-Facebook sentiment in the technophile classes the likes of which have previously been reserved for people who are cruel to kittens. For example, a group of students in New York have started a project to produce their own privacy-aware social network (adequately named Diaspora). Even that bandwagon-jumping paragon of institutional rectitude, the European Commission, has criticised the changes. The situation has not been helped by an avalanche of bad news, including a leaked IM exchange where Mark Zuckerberg calls people on the network who trust him “dumb f*cks”.
So, having read that, will you be quitting Facebook as well? Facebook will only change their privacy practices if enough users threaten to leave (as of today, they have hinted that they will do just that). The problem is that as much as I have heard many complaints about Facebook and privacy, I have seen only a few people who have actually quit. There is a lot of talk about migration, and quitting Facebook has become the new “I will start going to the gym”, that nebulous promise you make to yourself but never really intend to fulfil. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this in the last few weeks, and the consensus seems to be that most people are attached to Facebook because they use it to stay in touch with family and friends. Interesting choice of words, because apparently you cannot stay in touch using other communication tools, like Skype, phones or email. Some blogs even offer advice on how to quit Facebook without actually quitting, or even more depressing, Gawker has a list of 10 reasons why people will not quit Facebook even if they want to.
It seems like Facebook is relying precisely on this reluctance to quit. But why such reluctance? This comes back to the question at the heart of the current debate, why do we need Facebook in the first place? What do we use it for? It seems like for most people, it is indeed a matter of “staying in touch” with close friends and family. It is an easy application where to post pictures to people close to you, even if those pictures will be used by the Daily Mail in yet another exposé of ladette culture. On the other hand, for a lot of people, the reason to stay on Facebook may be more mundane, such as being able to play Farmville, or being able to see what their ex is up to. So as usual, we exchange privacy for convenience even if deep down we know that perhaps it is not such a good trade-off. Even if our online persona has little relation to who we are in real life, our online face is often the only presentation card people will ever get from us. Do we want it to be our Facebook persona? Not for me, thankyouverymuch.
So, dear reader, can you quit Facebook too? Do you even want to? Are you even tempted?