Walking away from Facebook no easy matter

Fri, Jun 11, 2010, 01:00

WIRED:The harder Facebook tries to hold on to people the more attractive other services will become

WITH ALL the current brouhaha about Facebook’s privacy settings, there are two questions that seem to dominate the debate.

The first is from regulators and privacy advocates, who ask Facebook when they are going to fix their mistakes and work to protect their users.

The second is from the users themselves (or at least, the minority that seem to care), and that is: should I leave Facebook? With maybe the small addendum: Can I leave Facebook?

Walking away from Facebook is no easy matter. Facebook really, really doesn’t want you to leave. When I last dabbled with quitting, the company waved the happy faces of my friends, and asked me in so many words whether I was really prepared to leave them too. It was the first time I was actively creeped out by the otherwise prosaic fact that Facebook knows my friends’ names and what they look like.

It was as if the website had casually mentioned my address and phone number while flashing up its “Mafia” game one more time. Suddenly Facebook felt less like a friendly forum for birthday greetings and more like “the village” from The PrisonerTV show.

But while I personally understand the importance of the question “can I go now?”, I wonder if the more pertinent question is the one that every Facebook employee, from wunderkind chief executive Mark Zuckerberg down, must be asking: what exactly are we expected to do?

Facebook has ratcheted toward greater openness with its users’ data over several years. Originally, the data you shared with Facebook was only shared with your classmates (and your classmates at Harvard at that). Then you had the option to share it with other networks, then the wider world. Finally, Facebook slipped into the less-than-voluntary world of messing with the default settings.

Information that was previously confided to your Facebook friends began shifting, with a simple click, to become entirely public.

External companies that Facebook had relations with began slowly being integrated with the same data.

That Facebook has any desire to pass the personal information of its users any further than within its own corporation might come as a surprise to companies whose management is more than 26 years old.

After all, it’s not so much that this data is being sold to companies as being handed out willy-nilly to the wider internet.

Anyone can interrogate and add to Facebook’s databases now with its “Graph API” feature. The escalation in the amount of data Facebook is making public largely comes from its attempts to feed this open interface more useful information.

Were Facebook a media company or a government, Web 2.0 aficionados might be praising it for its demonstration of commitment to openness and interoperability.

But, in truth, Facebook may well need to be more open to survive.

Right now, its hundreds of millions of users spend a sizeable percentage of their entire online time living within Facebook, whether its tending to their Farmville games, browsing photographs or just chatting with friends. For many Facebook is the internet, or at least the social part of it.

But Zuckerberg and his colleagues must know that such popularity can wane as fast as it waxes. And to make sure that Facebook is still a vital part of the overall internet ecosystem, the company needs to wire itself ever tighter into the rest of the net.

Google has guaranteed its longevity (or perhaps postponed its decline) by creating a unique service and then persuading millions to tie their business to its. If you use Google Ads or Google Analytics or depend on Google Maps or Google Docs, you have a vested interest in keeping Google where it is: profitable and available.

Facebook needs to do the same. It has one weapon but it’s a somewhat negative one: it’s keeping all your friends hostage. The harder it tries to hold on to them, however, the more attractive other services will become (hence my sudden irritation at Facebook for its misuse of my friends’ pictures).

Google’s is the better trick: persuade the rest of the world to interweave its services with yours. Google is so confident that this strategy will continue to work that it almost taunts you to leave.

Every Google service is peppered with ways that you can quit and take your data with you. That ever-present option gives companies and individuals the confidence they need to stay with Google. They know that they get out in the theoretical future when Google turns sour.

And in the mean time, they’ll continue to feed its hunger for more of their data, and more of their commitment.

Right now, Facebook is trying to mimic Google in its openness, but isn’t quite confident enough to be more generous with its grip on its userbase. Clutching on to its users while waving away their personal data isn’t a great pose for a company to adopt.

Facebook needs to make its call. Either it accepts itself as a walled garden, where the walls against the rest of the net are there to protect its customers’ privacy, or it moves toward the open prairie of the rest of the net, with the understanding that it has to let its users go free-range.