Facebooked up

I was a latecomer to Facebook. I remember hearing everybody talk about it but I could never quite figure out what it was for. Flirting was the half-joking answer I heard at least once. It’s true enough that, over any given time period, for any social networking site that allows the uploading of avatar pictures, the probability of it turning into a dating site approaches one.

No really, I asked, what’s it for? There didn’t seem to be any social objects to build a network around. In that respect, it reminded me of LinkedIn, another site I never really “got” (but one that at least seemed to be in no danger of turning into a dating site).

But just because I didn’t “get” Facebook doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be “got.” After all, I really like Twitter but I find it really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t tried it yet. So I signed up to Facebook and, in some ways, it’s similar to Twitter: the phatic communication through the timeline has a real sense of ambient intimacy.

Still, I couldn’t quite throw myself wholly into publishing inside a walled garden. So I installed apps that allowed me to publish to Facebook from outside. Instead of putting my pictures on Facebook, I put them on Flickr and push that to my timeline; instead of updating my status, I update Twitter; instead of creating events, I use Upcoming.

Over time I built up my Facebook network, adding friends and acquaintances. Even though I had heard all the hype, I was still surprised by just how many people were on Facebook. I made contact with people I hadn’t heard from in years—people who had no other online presence. That’s when I finally figured out what Facebook is for: it is Friends Reunited done right.

That was a good enough reason to keep my account bubbling along. But the feeling of being corralled inside a walled garden still felt creepy.

Then the Beacon debacle blew up. It was a step too far even for those crazy kids:

The complaints may seem paradoxical, given that the so-called Facebook generation is known for its willingness to divulge personal details on the Internet. But even some high school and college-age users of the site, who freely write about their love lives and drunken escapades, are protesting.

If you want an excellent explanation—verifiable through experiment—of just how nefarious Beacon is, be sure to read the CA Security Advisor Research Blog.

In a nutshell, a whole raft of websites that are in bed with Facebook are transmitting data back to the mothership about your browsing and shopping habits—even if you opt out of having that information published to your timeline. Y’know, we poke and prod at Google’s “do no evil” policy but at least they take some kind of moral stance.

Now everyone’s giving Facebook a hard time—and rightly so—but it’s worth remembering that it takes two to tango. Or, in this case, it takes more than thirty to tango. They all knew what they were doing when they signed up for Beacon so save some of that ire for them. If you don’t like the idea of shopping under surveillance, consider boycotting those websites—otherwise you might find your Christmas shopping surprises spoiled.

For me, the Beacon ickiness has added to my overall discomfort with Facebook. Maybe I should just shut down my account. Ah, but that’s not so easy, as Brian can attest. And what about those long-lost contacts, the ones that I can only communicate with through Facebook right now?

Here’s what I think I might do… I may trim down my friends list on Facebook. If I know you through another site—Flickr, Twitter, Last.fm, Pownce—then we’ve already got that connection. That would leave my “friends reunited” subset. Perhaps I should stay on Facebook to keep my connections to them. But then I will also take on the task of encouraging them to step outside the walled garden. Like a virtual evangelist, I will write on their walls asking if they’ve let blogging into their life… or at the very least, Twitter.

Have you published a response to this? :