It seems like everyone is on Facebook. Almost everyone. I’m one of the dwindling holdouts, a child of the web who builds computers and designs websites but who doesn’t see the attraction of jumping on the social networking bandwagon. I’m not the only holdout. The media has been quick to pounce on Facebook and similar sites over issues like lost privacy and cyber-stalking, and while I think these issues are little more than network ratings fodder, others have taken them to heart. My grievance with Facebook is more fundamental, not at heart a problem with what Facebook does, but a problem with what Facebook is—a monolithic private company that millions of people have chosen to facilitate the most important thing in their lives: their relationships.
People, or so I recall, have mouths for just this purpose.
The irritating thing about Facebook is that it does nothing new and promises nothing that isn’t inherently true anyway. Social networking has existed since the dawn of humanity. Ever since people learned to speak, they’ve been networking with their friends, families, and neighbors. Communicating and sharing is part of what makes us human. Over time, new technologies have made communicating easier and more efficient. The development of writing allowed people to send precise messages to distant places. The development of the telegraph allowed people to send those messages instantaneously, and the telephone allowed people to carry their voices across the world in the same way. Radio and television enabled a few people to broadcast their voices to millions of people simultaneously, and the Internet now allows everyone to broadcast anywhere, instantly. Facebook does nothing to build on these past advancements; it is simply one application of the Internet’s inherent capacity. The Internet is a social network. The Internet makes it easy to share information with your friends and people around you, as well as people quite a long way off in the foggy distance.
The only thing new about Facebook is that Facebook is a monolithic private company with complete control of how its members use the service. Facebook’s so-called Statement of Rights and Responsibilities spells this out explicitly. All Facebook users must agree to the Statement, which acts as a service contract between Facebook and its users. Sections 12.1 and 12.4 of the contract allow Facebook to impose whatever it likes on its users by stating first that Facebook can adjust the terms of its contract at any time, and second, that it can make these changes without allowing for users’ input whenever the site has “legal or administrative reasons” to do so—”administrative” being a blanket word that Facebook’s administration can invoke whenever it chooses. If you don’t like the service Facebook offers or the terms it requires, you have only one real option: you can terminate your account, and thus cut off all the relationships you’ve built using the Facebook service.
This is a radical departure from older ways of communicating. It would be ludicrous if people had to sign contracts with a private company to facilitate face to face conversations–humans are social creatures, and they network this way by nature. More complicated means of communication, however, have required more complicated arrangements. People must agree to contracts with their telephone carriers and email providers, but these arrangements are crucially different from the situation with Facebook. Neither the telephone network nor the Internet is controlled by a single monolithic entity. When a customer tires of her current telephone carrier, she doesn’t have to abandon the telephone system and break her ties with everyone she talks with on the phone—she can simply switch to another phone company, because all phone companies connect to the same open and universal network. The Internet functions in the same way. If someone is sickened by hotmail, he can switch to gmail, but he doesn’t have to abandon email altogether. Likewise, when I got tired of hosting this blog at Bluehost, I was able to switch to another host with a better contract, but my site is still part of the same open and universal network, the Internet.
Facebook does not “make the world more open and transparent.” Facebook takes something already open, the Internet, a network where everyone can send messages or put up a personal web site like my own, and Facebook closes that into a propriety network with one service provider, one point of access, and one point of control: Facebook itself. Those who don’t like it must leave it, and although they can sign up with another social network like MySpace, they have no other way to reconnect with the same set of friends and contacts as before. This is an extraordinary bargaining chip, and it gives Facebook extraordinary power to do what it likes with your information, your friends, and your conversations.
True, Facebook provides an easy way for millions of people to make use of existing technologies to communicate and share information, but at what cost? Facebook is a business, and its foremost purpose is simply to make money. If you don’t have a problem handing control of your personal relationships to a monopolistic private business, go ahead and use Facebook. If you trust a business that will slip product endorsements into its service but “may not always identify paid services and communications as such,” (Facebook Terms, Section 10.3) then Facebook is right for you. If you like granting a private company the right to sell advertising space in the middle of your personal conversations with loved ones, by all means, make Facebook your home.
I hold my friendships in higher esteem. In the meantime, I became who I am without Facebook’s help. I learned to write by sending emails instead of pokes, and I learned to design websites by creating a web page of my own instead of making an account at Facebook or MySpace. Now I have real, practical skills that I can use for the rest of my life, while Facebook users have gained—what? Tell me, what have I missed, what have you gained? Why do you use Facebook?