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Why I don’t like social network sites like Facebook…or “free” email services like GMail

I have l a problem with social networking sites. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and so on all encourage me to trust them with all of the data regarding myself and my friends/associates. In return, they provide a service to me for “free”.

I don’t like letting *my* data out of my hands. Some of the most important pieces of information in my life are my emails, my email address books, my blog, and my online photos. If I upload that data to Facebook, GMail, or Flikr I enter into some sort of contract with that provider. The “free” service they offer me is actually paid for by the data I upload: read the fine print in your usage agreement, and you’ll see that they claim more rights to your data than you think they do. I’ve often been told I’m not “with it” or “cool” for choosing to distance myself from these services, and I can’t really argue that- I’ve never been one of the “cool kids”. But to me, the data Facebook, GMail and others want me to give them access to in order to use their services is just too precious to me to mess around with. That’s why I pay for email services, run my own blog, and store my network based photo album on my own servers. Free sounds really good until you realize you are trading your data for that low cost.

Earlier this week, Robert Scoble encountered the “dark” side of the social networking phenomena. Robert was running a script to extract his list of “friends” from Facebook so he could use that information for his own purposes. One might think that this would be quite acceptable: the data belongs to Robert, right? Wrong. It belongs to Facebook. They choose how and if he can access his own data because, quite frankly, it isn’t his any more. It now belongs to them. His friends and acquaintances are a commodity they sell, and as such the data is a valuable resource that they don’t want to make easily accessible to competitors. To be honest, the data you hand over to Facebook and GMail is the only thing they have to sell/leverage to make money, and believe me that these companies are not running their service out of the goodness of their heart. Monetizing your personal data is Job #1 for these social networking services, and we are only beginning to see how this will be accomplished.

Facebook has reinstated Scoble’s account, but that doesn’t change the reality: the data is *theirs*. If you think the emails you send via Google Mail, or the friends you invite via Facebook or MySpace are “yours”… you are fooling only yourself. I don’t think this kind of occurrence will actually change the way people use these services, but I do feel increasingly concerned regarding where this is leading. Will everything I do, say, or store online via a social networking site eventually be used to sell things to me and everyone I know? That certainly seems to be the dream of many of these services. I’m not completely comfortable with data I think of as “personal” and valuable becoming fodder for a massive marketing effort to all my friends and acquaintances.

But then I’m not one of the “cool” kids 🙂

8 comments to Why I don’t like social network sites like Facebook…or “free” email services like GMail

  • To me it’s always been a case of … privacy for lack of a better word. Social network sites by their very nature aren’t private. It’s hard to control who gets to see what, and what gets said to whom.

    Oh certainly there are lot of permissions levels and the like… but really, the people administering the site don’t care if some horribly humiliating tidbit slips out somehow and ruins your life. After all it’s your life, and your humiliation, not theirs.

    And at the same time they all have big flashing ads and op ed pieces extholling you to post more and more… to “share”.

    No, to me the social networking sites always reeked of the cult of celebrity, where anyone can be a little Paris Hilton… just trade enough of your personal life away and you can be “famous” or at least be made to feel like it. And just like a Hollywood parety full of air kisses and photo ops, there is little of real substance to be found in the “networking” that goes on … at least to my eyes.

    No … as an anti social misfit the very idea of the phony online party world of social networking makes my skin crawl.

  • I share some of your doubts about the whole “social networking” premise. But I have to admit to ignorance of the potential for real benefits from having 5,000 “friends” twittering and cross-pollinating ideas. I can see the *potential* benefits if the ideas being shared were smart and innovative, but mostly I see “Dude, I was totally wasted!” as the buzz phrase of choice when I look at the reality of Facebook or Twitter.

    But regardless what my opinion is of the value of social networking services in and of themselves, my underlying concern regarding granting full ownership of my friend list, my thoughts/comments, and my browsing habits to a third party still stands. That third party has no reason that I can see to protect my data (other than potential user backlash) and every reason to try to exploit it for their own profit.

  • Oblivions

    For the sake of sounding like the whining kid here there are simple things people could consider. Don’t upload the information. Just don’t fill in the little boxes. My one email is a junk e-mail with no valuable date associated with it so it’s used as the Facebook login, the same one used here as well. The rest of the information is just not loaded .

    Secondly consider that some of the information is already available in other forms. Such as phone numbers and addresses, ya know, published in a great big monster book every year.

    As for networking, for those of us with hobbies and friends who span the continent or more, it is a nice means, but it’s still a public forum, same as my blog (as the image up loader from Blogger demonstrated that the images of even a locked blog are easily visible). It will just take a little awarness and understanding to be created for people to operate within what bounds they feel are comfortable.

    And then again, some people are just very public and just don’t care.

  • Oblivions

    Alright, having done more reading through the links you’ve posted I have to admit I am suddenly feeling the bubble of my world is a little thinner. I wandered past the facebook stuff and found myself on the VanguardPAC site and its counterpart MoveOn.org. Yikes…

  • Hmmm: I fail to see the connection between the Facebook “who owns your data?” issue and MoveOn/VanguardPAC. Enlighten me, please 🙂

  • Well, I imagine both those organizations will be very interested in tracking “enemies” online, as well as making sure their loyal following visit only ideologically correct sites. They are the type who would target and try to shut down a site simply because too many “conservatives” or too many “liberals” frequented it.

    They are exactly the sort of people you don’t want to have access to your online activities. And all it takes is one person listed as a “friend” and then the organization can track what you do and who you talk to

  • Oblivions

    On the blog of Robert in the comments, someone posted links to another blog with links stating that Facebook is a CIA front company if you trace a) where the money infusions come from and the affiliations these donors have, such as being one of the president of the VangaurdPAC group. It was all very conspiracy theory but great reading at midnight.

  • Might not be all that far off… the US intelligence community is heavily invested in social networking as a tool for finding the interconnections between terrorist cells … following the traffic to see who is really in charge and the like.

    It has some value as it can reveal connections between people even they didn’t know they had.

    But they have to remember that just like the “six degrees of separation” game a connection doesn’t mean involvement, and of course they are dependent on the quality of the data originally entered into the program. The results they get when they input specific, carefully verified data on long observed suspects is going to be a lot better than when they go data mining the whole internet. GiGo

    And the companies that are providing all the easily hacked electronic voting machines have GOP connections as well, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all that some of the money and impetus behind the social networking programs had links to the CIA, NSA and the rest of the US alphabet soup

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