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Michael van der Galien

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September 26, 2011 - 11:50 am

By Michael van der Galien

Facebook is supposed to be one of the most innovative social networking websites on the Net. It is, at the very least, the biggest — by far.

But for how long will Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard project remain number one? It’s a fair question to ask now that the changes Facebook announced Thursday at its f8 conference are being criticized by virtually everybody — except for Zuckerberg himself, that is.

When Google+, the new social network of Google, was launched, many were critical. The criticism disappeared at the very moment people starting using it, however: all its new users fell in love with it immediately. This wasn’t just a “social network,” it was truly a new home on the Internet, especially for those who had grown tired of Facebook’s clutter and arrogance.

Facebook knew it had to strike back. First came video chat, which is a partnership with Skype. Then, this week, other innovations were rolled out: the biggest changes were a new news stream and the possibility to subscribe to users’ public posts. Then, Thursday, other changes were introduced that, Zuckerberg announced, would truly revolutionize your Internet experience.

But are these changes in the best interest of Facebook’s 800 million users? No. Not even almost.

8. The News Stream: Forcing Non-News Down Your Throat

Facebook changed the news stream to supposedly make it more interesting. You now see the most important and interesting posts first. The idea is wonderful. After all, it’s a bit time-consuming to go through all the updates from your friends — this especially goes for those of us who have hundreds or even thousands of them.

Sadly, however, the algorithm used by Facebook is anything but effective. Users immediately complained (link to Dutch website) that the recommended posts weren’t interesting at all. The nice thing about algorithms is that they can be more efficient than curation by humans. The bad thing is that they can be absolutely horrendous when they aren’t perfect. Facebook can do many things well, but curation isn’t one of them.

What’s more, even if the algorithm worked perfectly, social media users want to be the ones to decide what they will and won’t read. As one angry user put it:

I don’t like the way they decide for me what’s important or interesting, I’m the only one that can make these decisions. I want to decide if I want to see all, most or important updates of friends, which is set by default on “most.” What are the criteria to declare something a top story? Yesterday a story of a Serbian friend (in Serbian, with Serbian comments) was declared a top story. I can’t read that, does FB translate everything that is posted?

It’s rather ironic, but Facebook doesn’t quite get the meaning of social. Users want to be in charge; they want to choose how and what they share — and what they read. Facebook’s new news stream makes that more, not less, difficult.

7) The Subscribe Button Is Anti-Facebook

Facebook’s new subscribe button lets you subscribe to a person’s public posts, even if you aren’t his friend. The thinking behind this new feature is undoubtedly that this is what Twitter and Google+ are doing, that it’s a much appreciated feature there, and that, therefore, Facebook’s users will also love it.

It’s once again proof that Zuckerberg doesn’t know what his own website is all about. Ask yourself these questions: What do users expect from Facebook? Why do they log in? To read what people they don’t know have to say, or to catch up with friends and family members? The answer, of course, is the latter. If they want to enable non-friends (or: outsiders) to read their updates, they’ll post to Twitter or Google+.

Facebook wants to change that, however. If you activate the subscribe button, those who don’t know you can read your public messages. Although this feature isn’t shoved down your throat — you can choose not to allow it — Facebook obviously encourages it.

Additionally, many users worry that those who do activate this feature will start using Facebook like a second Twitter: quick, short updates that are meant to market and promote themselves (or their products), rather than personal messages aimed at their real-life friends. Of course you can simply defriend such people, but that isn’t what you want to do. After all, you came to Facebook to connect to them. That’s why you are spending hours a week talking to them, reading their status updates, and looking at their photos.

6) The New Profiles Are The Biggest Breach Of Your Privacy In Facebook’s History

One of the many complaints made against Facebook is that the website doesn’t protect its users’ privacy. Instead of taking these concerns seriously, Zuckerberg decided to double down on his wonderful utopian dream, in which everybody shares everything — with everyone.

The new profile — which will be rolled out during the rest of the month — looks quite beautiful. Your profile suddenly becomes your personal website; if you want to send your friends and relatives a url where they can keep tabs on your activities — past and present — you just give them the link to your Facebook page.

However, sadly that isn’t all there is to the new profiles: there’s that … privacy issue again. With whom is the new profile shared? Who can and who can’t see it? What do you have to do to protect your privacy (which is what Facebook does not want )? Additionally, it’s downright creepy that other people may want to go through your old photos and messages. Why are they doing that? Why would they spend their precious time in that fashion? I don’t know about you, but the first thought that comes to my mind is: Stalker alert!

Most people are using Facebook because they want to share what’s happening in their lives today and they want to see what their friends are going through today. They have no interest in what happened years ago.

Some users have pointed out that taking a trip down memory lane is the exact opposite of what Facebook once stood for. This website was once forward looking. Now, however, it will all be about the past. That may be fun for the elderly among us, but for everybody else? Not so much.

5) Make Insurance Companies Happy: Share Your Medical History

One of the most troubling “innovations” of the last few days is Facebook requesting you to share your medical history. Now, as with many of the other features, you can simply choose to opt out. However, that isn’t what most users will do; they won’t understand who’s watching them and who’s hoping they will share that information.

The obvious answer? Insurance companies.

As blogger Emmett Lollis points out, Facebook clearly wants to have the health records of its users on file. Of course, that isn’t useful for Facebook – at all – nor is it very interesting for the average friend. Insurance companies will love it, however. Imagine applying for health insurance. Next thing you know, you’re in trouble (you’ll either have to pay more or they’ll refuse to insure you) because of what your prospective insurer found on your Facebook profile.

Wonderful innovation, isn’t it? With a little bit of luck, Facebook will proceed to actually fill in your insurance application. Isn’t that exactly what you want your social network to do?

I didn’t think so.

4) Clutter, Clutter, Clutter

Do you remember how Facebook looked a few years ago? If so, do you also remember why you stopped using MySpace and made the switch to Zuckerberg’s pet project? Your answer probably is: “MySpace became so cluttered, I didn’t know where to begin and where to end.”

Well, welcome to the new MySpace. Facebook is making sure that history repeats itself. If you log in and go to your news stream, you’ll see that they added a wonderful “news ticker.” This ticker is constantly updated and it tells you what your friends are doing at that very moment. When they “like” a photo, you’ll know about it — not today, not one hour from now, but immediately.

The idea behind this ticker is that Facebook wants to enable you to share more than ever before. The problem, however, is that it looks absolutely horrendous: if they purposefully tried to make Facebook so cluttered users would run away screaming, they couldn’t have done a better job.

Now, you can disable the news ticker, by changing your language into English UK, rather than American English, but that isn’t what the average user wants. He wants to be able to get rid of such fancy (but completely useless and even annoying) gadgets without having to work around the system. As always with Facebook, its developer-in-chief couldn’t care less. He know what’s good for you, and if you don’t like: too bad, good luck fixing it.

3) Facebook’s New “Open Graph” Or Why The Government And Businesses Love Zuckerberg

Facebook’s new Open Graph creates a permanent record over which the user has no control. Read that again: its new Open Graph creates a permanent record… over which you exercise no control whatsoever. Facebook collects the information — it keeps an eye on what you’re doing and records it, whether you want it or not. Here‘s a short explanation from tech website Mashable:

In the past, apps that accessed data from the Facebook APIs could only store that data for 24 hours. This meant that apps and app developers would have to download user information day after day, just to keep up with the policy. Now the data storage restriction is gone, so if you tell an app it can store your data, it can keep it without worrying about what was basically an arbitrary technical hurdle….

The author, Christina Warren, explains what the privacy issues involved are:

I took a look at the different documentation of the Open Graph API and the different social plugins, and gathered that the data collection and overall privacy settings don’t differ from what has already been available. Again, what changes is how that data can be displayed to different people and how it can be integrated in different ways.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that users who have concerns about privacy make sure they read and understand what information they are making available to applications before using them. Users need to be aware that when they “Like” an article on CNN, that “Like” may show up on a customized view that their friends see.

Lauren Weinstein — an expert on the Internet and privacy – adds rather succinctly:

Biggest fans of Facebook’s new Open Graph:

  1. FBI, CIA, NSA, TSA, + (all Department of Homeland Security departments and assets)
  2. Local Law Enforcement
  3. Your boss
  4. Your medical and life insurance companies
  5. Your auto insurance company
  6. Department of Motor Vehicles
  7. All lawyers (especially divorce and personal injury)
  8. Anyone else who might want to know how you’ve spent your time, at any point in the future, based on the permanent data record created automatically by your activities at vast numbers of sites, all collected in one place for ease of court orders.

Is it any wonder that Big Government and Big Business love Facebook?

And that brings me to…

2) You Aren’t the Customer, You’re the Product Being Sold

There’s a saying in the business world: if you aren’t paying for the service you’re using, chances are you are the product being sold.

Well, that’s pretty obvious in the case of Facebook — and users are noticing it. 

Most of the changes aren’t meant to make life easier for users — that means: for you and me — but for advertisers. The goal clearly is to make it easier for them to target people whose Internet behavior implies they may be interested in a company’s products. If that means that you and I have a more difficult time using the world’s largest social network, so be it. Facebook has more important things to consider, namely money. Selling out its users is par for the course if doing so helps Zuckerberg cash in just a little bit more.

Of course, every single company in the world is driven by the profit motive. I’ll be the first to say that there’s nothing wrong with that. Quite the opposite is true, even: capitalism tends to reward excellence. Companies that do well, that deliver excellent products, are encouraged to innovate and improve their product even more, for us consumers, so they can make even more money.

As far as Facebook is concerned, however, we aren’t the customers, but the products being sold. That’s why our feedback is completely and utterly ignored. Users tell Facebook time and again what’s wrong with the website. Many folks have wondered why Zuckerberg and his friends don’t listen. The reason is simple: they listen to their real customers, meaning their advertisers and other companies that use Facebook to make a quick buck. You and I are taken for granted; after all, we are the product.

1) Big Brother Has Arrived, His Name Is Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg’s mission in life is to make people share — everything, everywhere, and all the time. He believes in the hacker’s perfect world, one in which everything is transparent and open, and where there’s no room for secrets… or closed doors.

The rest of us may have a somewhat different vision of the ideal future, but “Zuck” doesn’t care. He has a mission in life, and he’ll achieve it. That’s that, end of debate. As Wired explains:

Facebook believes that when people share within its system, without fretting about the data they generate, his company can deliver tangible benefits. (Just as American Express made productive use of Ek’s information.) People will become closer with each other, be able to express themselves, and generally participate in a community of friends and contacts more deeply and fruitfully than they could hope to do so in the physical world. It is an idealistic vision, but self-interest is involved as well. Facebook stores all the data that people share with their buddies, family, business associates and people they sat next to on an airplane once and impulsively friended. And it can use that to allow advertisers to micro-target their sales pitches.

In other words, Zuckerberg’s mission is both idealistic and pragmatic. He envisions a brave new world, which sounds rather frightening to me, in which we all share everything. Bringing this nightmare about is wonderful enough for him, but what makes it even better is that he can get rich by shoving it down our throats.

I have seen the future: it’s filled with Facebook’s blue color, watching our every move. Not because we believe that to be in our interest, but because Zuckerberg has decided it is.

George Orwell wrote about a frightening future (or past for us, of course) in which the government knew what we were doing constantly. His nightmare may still become reality. He was wrong about one thing, however: it isn’t the government that poses the biggest threat to our privacy, it’s a company called Facebook.

Michael van der Galien is a political and social media blogger from the Netherlands, but currently residing in Izmir, Turkey. He edits his own social media blog, Michael Blogs. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Michael van der Galien is the founder and editor-in-chief of Media Tapper and <a href="http://theatlanticright.com", and managing editor of Dutch news and opinion website De Dagelijkse Standaard. He can be contacted at mpfvandergalien@gmail.com
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