Every few months the same complaints about social networking sites appear in the press. Lack of privacy and control over who sees what is a common point of point of editorial hand-wringing. While these concerns are valid, directing them at social networking sites is misplaced, and shows a lack of understanding of the relationship these sites have with the public.
This post is an attempt to state clearly the realities of the situation. I am using Facebook as an example, not because Facebook is particularly bad, it is merely the most popular. Google Plus, MySpace, and even services like LinkedIn all share the same properties.
Reality 1: You Do Not Have a Facebook Page
No really, you don’t.
Facebook has a page on you. You occasionally log on and add more information to Facebook’s page about you, but neither the page nor the data is yours. You gave the data to Facebook when you posted it.
This is not a necessarily a bad deal. In return for maintaining Facebook’s page about yourself, you get a platform to broadcast your doings and to see Facebook’s pages about your friends and family. I don’t know about you but I enjoy both these activities and participate willingly.
Reality 2: You Are Not a Customer of Facebook
No you aren’t.
Facebook’s customers are the advertisers that buy advertising on the site, and the marketers that pay to access to the fantastic demographic data we have all provided. They are paying Facebook for this service, you are not paying anyone for anything.
I know you enjoy using the site as it is, but don’t get upset when Facebook decides to improve things for itself or its customers. The customer is always right, and you are not a customer. You are the product. Facebook gets paid providing access to you.
Reality 3: Facebook Owes You Nothing
They certainly do not.
You may have been a loyal Facebook user, diligently posting photos of your cat and that batch of cupcakes you made last month, but that doesn’t mean anything to Facebook.
You have, in fact, cost Facebook money. Server farms don’t grow on trees.
Each time you view a page or update your status, Facebook wears the cost in electricity and CPU time. But don’t worry, Facebook is willing to bear the burden to provide a better product to its customers.
Reality 4: Your Privacy is Not Facebook’s Problem
If you have uploaded something to Facebook then it is public. That is the whole point of Facebook. Sure there are privacy settings, but they just mean that Facebook makes a small effort not to show things you have marked private to random people. Nothing stops other people from re-posting the photo of you at the Christmas party, or even just printing it out and sticking to your car. If you had wanted it to be private then you wouldn’t have put it on the Internet.
Likewise, if one of your friends tagged you in a photo that you don’t want to be associated with (a common source of privacy issues), that is not really Facebook’s problem either. You have a problem with your friend.
Reality 5: Nothing is Really Removed From Facebook
You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. Removing stuff from Facebook does not guarantee that it will not be accessible. Your data will still exists in uncounted backups, caches, redundant servers and log files. That is not even taking into account the memories of the hundreds of people who might have seen it before you “deleted” it.
If you didn’t want it seen, you shouldn’t have uploaded it.
Reality 6: Facebook Is Not Picky About Who It Deals With
Despite what I have written here, Facebook does at least pay lip service to the illusion of privacy but the same can not be said of the many developers that piggyback on its service to provide apps and games. When Facebook tells you that installing a particular App gives the developer access to your profile, they mean it. You have even less of a relationship with these developers than you do with Facebook. Your trust is a commodity to them, spend it wisely.
Reality 7: Facebook is Not (Especially) Evil
Facebook is just a simple company trying to make its way in the universe. By all means, use and enjoy Facebook without concern (perhaps even “like” this page). But Facebook is not your friend, and they have their own interests to look after. And besides, they take nothing that you don’t give them.
Your relationship with social networking sites will be better if you remember that.