Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hiding From Facebook

I'm a pretty tech-savy guy.  I have a blog and my own homepage.  I have three email accounts. I own three computers, two Ipods and an Ipad. I manage our home wireless network.  I back everything up in the cloud. I'm a webmaster for an educational resource called PsyberSite. I've even taught courses about how the internet has influenced our society, for example "The Social Psychology of Cyberspace."

You might think I would be in the thick of the social network phenomenon --Tweeting and Google +'ing and Facebooking like crazy.  But you would be wrong.

There is no doubt that these recent developments in internet technology are having a tremendous impact on social relationships and the structure of our social world.  As a social psychologist I regard the social networking phenomenon as something that is very significant and fascinating to study.  And to my friends  who are Facebook fans (some of whom are reading this right now), let me assure you that I appreciate the many positive benefits this technology can have -- staying in contact with friends, sharing important life experiences with them, finding and reconnecting with old friends, and in general adding to the social richness of life. 

However, my personal reaction has been quite different.  You see, despite (or maybe because of ) my close involvement with internet technology over the years I have a skeptical, aversive, even paranoid stance regarding these latest social developments.  My wife and I do have a Facebook page, but we hardly ever post anything on it.  We have a whopping total of 36 Friends, a pretty puny number compared to some people who have hundreds.  And I admit it is fun to read the posts of others and to learn of the events in their lives and the lives of their family and friends.  But we both balk when it comes to sharing the same sort of information on our own Facebook page.  I should point out here that my reluctance is greater than my wife's, and she has sometimes expressed regret at feeling left out of this phenomenon.  (Perhaps we will soon go our separate ways and get individual accounts.)

I think there are a couple of reasons why I'm hiding from Facebook, both of them stemming from personality flaws that are long-standing and deeply rooted.

First, I'm generally a very private person and even in face-to-face situations I'm not comfortable disclosing personal information, even to very close friends.  Of course, professorial pontificating is an entirely different matter, and I have never been reluctant to do that, though my students often viewed me as "aloof" and "impersonal."  I think I'm friendly and approachable but I'm hesitant to be very open except with a few people I've know for a long time.

It is possible on Facebook to divide "friends" into differing categories like "Close Friends, " "Acquaintances,"  "Family," and even to create your own divisions.  You can also create groups of "friends" within each of these categories depending on interests or activities and then share different information with people in each one.  I don't know how many Facebook users take advantage of these features, but I find the categorization process very daunting and fraught with the danger of forgetting who is in which group and posting something that inadvertently offends someone or is at least regarded by them as inappropriate.

Another related issue for me is that as part of my private personality it is difficult to feel comfortable with the high frequency that seems to be the norm in posting Facebook information. Even with very close friends I much prefer fewer but more intense and personal interactions.

My second reason for hiding from Facebook may be that I have this "thing" about institutions or organizations that quickly become big and powerful, no matter how benign they may seem.  (See my slogan for Snow Crash.) My negative reaction is a complex bundle of paranoia, issues with authority, and wanting to assert independence by being non-conformist -- in short, not entirely rational.  Facebook is indeed big, reaching 750 million users in just eight years. And it has certainly become powerful as well.  As Steven Johnson noted in a recent Wired Magazine analysis, "Facebook is on the cusp of becoming a medium unto itself—more akin to television as a whole than a single network, and more like the entire web than just one online destination.....The difference, of course, is that no one owns the web—or in some strange way we all own it. But with Facebook we are ultimately just tenant farmers on the land; we make it more productive with our labor, but the ground belongs to someone else."

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, wants us to be able to share everything, " make the world more open and connected."  He has created an interface that makes sharing extraordinarily easy to do -- but also that makes it easy for our social connections to be tracked and exploited.  Here's a small excerpt from the list of data Facebook receives and stores about users, taken from its Data Use Policy:
  • We receive data about you whenever you interact with Facebook, such as when you look at another person's timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, or purchase Facebook Credits or make other purchases through Facebook. 
  • When you post things like photos or videos on Facebook, we may receive additional related data (or metadata), such as the time, date, and place you took the photo or video. 
  • We receive data from the computer, mobile phone or other device you use to access Facebook, including when multiple users log in from the same device. This may include your IP address and other information about things like your internet service, location, the type (including identifiers) of browser you use, or the pages you visit. For example, we may get your GPS or other location information so we can tell you if any of your friends are nearby. 
  • We receive data whenever you visit a game, application, or website that uses Facebook Platform or visit a site with a Facebook feature (such as a social plugin), sometimes through cookies. This may include the date and time you visit the site; the web address, or URL, you're on; technical information about the IP address, browser and the operating system you use; and, if you are logged in to Facebook, your User ID. 
  • Sometimes we get data from our advertising partners, customers and other third parties that helps us (or them) deliver ads, understand online activity, and generally make Facebook better. For example, an advertiser may tell us information about you (like how you responded to an ad on Facebook or on another site) in order to measure the effectiveness of - and improve the quality of - ads.
I get very nervous when I read that list, despite assurances that my information is shared only "after we have removed your name or any other personally identifying information from it."  It seems to me that the detail contained in the information makes it very personal indeed, whether my name is associated with it or not.  I note also that the use to which my information may be put is rather open-ended.  I really don't know the specific ways Facebook uses tracking information and so I just have to trust that it will be benign.

My issues with authority and control lead me to get nervous about another aspect of Facebook -- its tendency to try to keep me within its warm and fuzzy embrace.  For example, a recent unannounced move was for Facebook to change people's email addresses that they had listed in their public profiles to addresses that use a Facebook email account.  If a friend sends a message to me at, for instance, it gets delivered to my Facebook email account instead.  Another development is Facebook's "Open Graph" initiative to encourage users to install apps that function within the Facebook interface even though they utilize content from the broader internet.  For example, if a friend has posted a link to a Washington Post news article, clicking on that link doesn't take you to the Washington Post web site, but rather serves the article to you through a internal app that you must install within Facebook. Of course, keeping a user within the Facebook interface allows even more thorough tracking of online behavior.  Wired's Steven Johnson raised a broader and more philosophical objection in his article that resonates well with my personality quirks:
This reluctance to link to the outside is, to say the least, hard to reconcile with Zuckerberg’s paean to open connection. Hyperlinks are the connective tissue of the online world; breaking them apart with solicitations to download apps may make it easier to share data passively with your friends, but the costs—severing the link itself and steering people away from unlit corners of the web—clearly outweigh the gains. Surely we can figure out a way to share seamlessly without killing off the seamless surfing that has done so much for us over the past two decades.
In the meantime, I'll just keep hiding......


SimoneStan said...

I also have fears about facebook although I use it more than you. I set my security levels to restrict access to only friends (72 of them) and self-moderate my entries. I occasionally "like" a commercial page (such as my former store Wide World) I do it rarely and cautiously. I do not want to give permission and access to all of my info and my friends info. If one of my friends seems to be too forthcoming (posting many times a day) I hide them from myself as I don't want to know that much about them(each meal or every thought or human encounter).

That said, I do enjoy seeing what people are doing and it is a pleasant way to maintain contact with friends and relatives.

Coleen Hanna said...

I have found FB tremendously rewarding at times, and also just as frustrating at other times. I have ended up "hiding" a lot of people either because they post too much uninteresting nonsense or what seems to me to be serious Dem or Liberal-hating trash (despite knowing that some of their "friends" belong to those groups). I do make use of the privacy settings. I have "friended" a lot of organizations, and people I don't know (e.g. Baltimore Sun, Julian Lennon, Dave Mason, Sheryl Crow, various Buffalo groups)and I enjoy their posts, and information that helps me make plans for what I'm going to do. I post a lot of photos, and my far-flung family and friends love looking at those. I've seen public fights on FB and that gives me the creeps. When someone decides to nail me publicly, I don't respond, but simply "unfriend" them. How can someone make personal statements potentially seen by 200 people that they would never say to my face? YIKES.

Richard Sherman said...

Thanks for the comments so far! A friend who is maybe even more paranoid than me sent a link to a short video he shows to his students -- I'd love to hear the discussion afterward:

PaddleDoc said...

Despite how much we embrace the age of digits we remain non-native, fish on the surface perhaps, but not able to dive to depths and live full digital universe. That's not what you said, but I think personally, that's how I feel. I rarely am enriched by FB and still I use it. I'm no paranoid about it, and maybe should be, but I am often... disappointed. There's no there!

PaddleDoc said...

Ok, I saw the video and see the connections between the dots, but I would want to hear more about how this is adding up to something sinister. I suppose the coming age will much different from what we have now. I have generally felt marginal in this age. I suppose it is easier to pine for the old days forget all the negatives. I try to do that as much as possible. I look the planet and wonder how it was without so many people, maybe back when there a few hundred thousands. I am disappointed now with the destruction of this lovely planet and suspect the coming age will be much worse, i.e. we have lived in a golden age. In that next age the digital native will come to have a much different view and expectation. Perhaps they will engender the idea that they are all one, connected and enjoying the benefits of their interlaced every moment. I'm not going there, but I can't say it won't work for this next group. Get outside people and enjoy the sun and wind and the rain while you can! (How's that for a throw back concept Dick?)

Coleen Hanna said...

After just reading an article about our aging infrastructures and in particular, the electricity grid, I'm beginning to think our discussion here may be moot because in the future there may be no electricity, or if there is, only the very wealthy will be able to afford it!

Jim Hawkins said...

In late December 2009, a 29-year-old fan started a Facebook campaign dubbed “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!” Five months and half a million fans later, Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live. In her monologue Ms. White thanked her Facebook fans and admitted she knew little about Facebook. She went on to say that she spent a lot of time learning about this cultural phenomenon. She said now that I’ve learned about Facebook and have used it for a few months, I have concluded that it is a huge waste of time. This got her a big laugh and it got me thinking. Yes, using Facebook can take a lot of time. Fortunately, I’ve got lots of time to waste so it works for me. I know I’m naive about invasion of privacy and I do worry about the effects of this invasion on me and my family members but Facebook is fun for me (and isn’t that what’s important in life).