Unlike us but like me: Facebook as private corporation or public service

The Federated Web Show @ Unlike Us #3

(All conference images available here)

Here at the Unlike Us #3 conference in Amsterdam the debates run rampant. The conference has a bohemian feel, taking place in a re-purposed printing warehouse with a green wall and organic pear juice on all the tables. The lack of plug-ins, unreliable wifi, and brochure void of QR codes is enough to give off the sentiment that we have all moved beyond a reliance on technology. However, not everyone has jumped on the Facebook refusenik boat, as is evident in the lively debates.

Is a world without Facebook really better? Can decentralized services provide us with the functionality we need? What is the functionality we need and how far would it actually deviate from the Facebook template if we were to think outside the existing structures?

After a few sessions, I’m not sure I can answer any of these questions. I know I’ve expressed before that I don’t think targeted advertising is the worst inconvenience, especially since it’s only a logical way to hone in on commodity fetishism in a capitalist society. I’m not even opposed to exchanging some of my information for benefits, much the same way my Shoppers Drugmart card gives me discounts for revealing my Q-Tip brand loyalty. However, the key is in being able to control which information gets exchanged and to whom. Currently, Facebook’s data use policy is opaque with broad statements about ‘sharing information with affiliates’ and therefore does not provide the consumer with any agency. If social networking is going to function as part of the private sector, it needs to have consumer protections built in, such as transparent policies and choice of service (instead of monopolies), in order to ensure that people are not exploited.

Despite this, there are some convincing arguments for why social networking will never fit into a private sector model and therefore should be treated as a public service. The more people who use Facebook, the more value users get out of it – this is the network effect of web 2.0 platforms – Facebook is popular because everyone is on it, not because it has some inherently wonderful design. Therefore, even if data portability were built-in and even if the market included many worthy competitors, the possibility of fair competition and user choice is thwarted by the entropic implications of moving billions of people from one platform to another.

Secondly, in order to get the most out of a social networking site, I need to use it to share about my life. I need to post a bunch about myself so that others can respond in meaningful ways. Therefore, I’m sharing much more with Facebook than I would in order to get a few cents off Q-Tips. Yes, I receive benefits from this exchange but without the type of regulation and accountability that should be/is part of a democratic, public sector system, the potential risks of where my information will end up are just too great to justify this. Given numerous governmental security breeches in the past (Canada Student Loans, I’m looking at you), I know that the public sector is not infallible but at least the elected officials’ jobs and authority is on the line if they misuse my information. The same cannot be said for a private sector corporation whose management must only appease shareholders and has no obligation toward the consumer.

These concerns were raised by participants in my Facebook Site Governance research project and have been echoed here at the conference. As a left-leaning Canadian, it’s not surprising that my bias is toward the public service side (just as I believe wifi should be an essential service). However, I shudder to think of a social networking site constructed and maintained by a large, lumbering bureaucracy. I’m also not sure anyone, whether they belong to a government or private sector organization, should be given as much power as can be derived from having control over the information on my Facebook profile. At the same time, I’ve started to take the approach that if I wouldn’t want it posted to a giant billboard, I shouldn’t put it on Facebook. So while I’m not yet ready to emancipate myself from Facebook, I’ve definitely amped up the amount of personal responsibility I feel in protecting my identity on and offline – I just don’t know if this will continue to be enough.

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