Monday, December 10, 2007

Facebook Sucks

Every time I sign on to Facebook, a little part of me dies. Not only am I usually wasting my time, but I am allowing Facebook to violate my privacy, potentially offending hundreds of "friends" and being bombarded with ads and spam. Furthermore, I am forced to use Facebook's clumsy tools to communicate with others on Facebook who seem to never have heard of email, all while wading through the ostentatious posturing of Facebook's users. In short, Facebook sucks.

Facebook is a great opportunity to offend people. As if I didn't have enough trouble minding my etiquette in the real world, the choice to friend or not to friend (or grant restricted access, or defriend) provides daily chances for someone accidentally or intentionally insult someone else. The heart of the problem is that some people have different conceptions of what a Facebook friend actually entails. Does it mean you are friends in real life? Is it meaningless? Some are willing to Facebook friend total strangers and others keep a very small circle Facebook friends that might actually be closer to the number of good friends they have in real life. There is a point at which this managing of digital networks becomes tiresome, evoking a social network fatigue. The value of a particular user's experience on Facebook (or on any social network) rises and then falls as the number of users increases. [B] At first, the user is excited to connect with all of his friends and perhaps reconnect with some that he had lost touch with. But over time, as more people join the site, more time is spent on fending off unwanted friend requests and friend network management. This eventually drives the user to become much less active on the website, if not to opt out of it completely.

Facebook is a black hole that sucks up time. There is certainly something compelling about browsing your "social network" through a hyperlinked photo yearbook. In fact, it's too compelling -- some have complained of "Facebook addiction." Facebook exacerbates this problem (well, certainly not a problem for them) by sending you incessant reminders of activity on your account by default ("Someone has done x to you on Facebook") which pull you back to the site again. [A] Apps have worsened this addiction because now every app requires its own micro-management and sends its own messages to your inbox. Here is a picture of the overwhelming number of annoyances a typical Facebook user might face upon login. All of the time spent on Facebook wouldn't be wasted if there was substantive communication taking place on the site but, for the most part, there's not. It's all just about how many people you've converted into zombies or whether you identify more with pirates or ninjas.

Facebook reinvents the wheel in a variety of ways, moving online communication a step backwards. Since Facebook wants you to stay within the site's walls, Facebook provides tools for you to accomplish certain goals, no matter how mediocre those tools may be. For example, Facebook provides a "Marketplace" for users to buy and sell items on their site. Of course, there are many superior auction/barter/market sites already on the Internet: Amazon.com, eBay and Craigslist, to name a few. Facebook provides "Posted Items" and "Notes," whose features are poor substitutes for nearly any blogging platform. And Yahoo and Google groups are many times more advanced than Facebook's groups. The most irritating example of Facebook's compulsive re-engineering is Facebook messages -- it reminds me of a dark age when GMail didn't exist, and also gives me another inbox to manage (much more clumsily, mind you).

Twice Facebook has disregarded its responsibilities to its users and precipitated privacy invasions, both for which Zuckerberg promptly issued apologies. First there was the News Feed, which broadcasted users' actions to all of their friends. Facebook followed that with Beacon, a system that tracked a users' actions on affiliate sites, such as the New York Times, and then fed information back to Facebook (and that users' friends through the News Feed) about a users' behavior. Twice Facebook has recklessly played fast and loose with its users' data, and twice it has pushed its audacity to the limit until it faced a revolt by its users. The most shocking part of this whole story is that these systems never went away! In each instance Zuckerberg waved his hands to make an apology, as if users' concerns had been assuaged, and only partially disabled the systems that caused the uproar. The News Feed, although it did get some controls, still doesn't give the user a choice if some types of stories are broadcasted. Beacon is also wholly intact, but was changed from an opt-out to an opt-in system. [C] There is no reason to think this is the last time this pattern will happen, as Scott Rosenberg points out. To justify its massive valuation, Facebook is under a lot of pressure to find additional ways to monetize its service, and there is good money to be made selling out users. What privacy-infringing "feature" will Facebook be pressured to invent next? [D]

And then there are ads -- lots of ads. In addition to the easily blockable banner ads on the bottom and sides of the page (an Internet staple since as far as I can remember), Facebook has devised ways to deliver ads to users that are not so trivially thwarted. Facebook actually embeds ads inside the News Feed that come from the same server as the rest of the News Feed, unlike other embedded ads (like Google's) which come from a third-party server and are thus easy to identify and block. Fortunately, there are some ways to rid your eyeballs of these menaces. It is also much harder to tell that you are looking at an ad in the news feed: Facebook blends them in so well to almost make them indistinguishable from bona fide News Feed stories. This approach is in stark contrast to what Google and other sites do, clearly identifying which content is sponsored and which content is not. This practice is irritating at best and deceptive at worst.

And speaking of deceptive ads, how about using my image in an ad for a sponsor, as if I were sending a personal recommendation to a friend? Taking a "social action" (as Facebook puts it) is not a license to use me as a viral marketing stooge for Blockbuster, et al. [I] To add insult to injury, Facebook is now allowing advertisers to send targeted emails directly to your Facebook inbox (the first line of the most recent one I received from CbsSports.com: "Hey College Hoops Fan!"). Hm, unwanted emails in my inbox trying to sell stuff; I think that's better known by its more conventional name -- spam. You spam your "friends" with application requests, corporations spam you with messages in your inbox, your "friends" spam you with pokes and news feed items. This is essentially what Facebook has become: a very efficient platform for spamming people.

You can put a lot of data in to Facebook, but getting that data out is an entirely different story. It is quite easy, for example, to import your contacts from another platform into Facebook. Facebook, however, provides no convenient method for exporting those contacts into Outlook, Gmail, or the other social network flavor of the week. The same goes for photos, videos and all other multimedia. Looking for a "backup my photos" link? Sorry, it doesn't exist. There are ways to get data out of Facebook, but they are inconvenient and few. One is to use the API either by writing an app yourself (clearly out of the reach of most users) or using an application like FriendCSV [K]. The API, however, doesn't allow extraction of some types of information, like email. Another is to scrape the site, which is against the terms of use (like most companies') and can lead to the termination of your account if they catch you doing so. And it is also impossible to get Facebook to delete your information from their servers, even if you quit using the site! Facebook is not only a black hole for your time, but also for your personal data.

Facebook has become the victim of its own success: phishers are starting to use the site as a launchpad for attacks. Phishers embed links on a user's wall that point to a malicious domain that harvests their names and passwords for Facebook. This, in turn, can lead to more phishing attempts as well as stealing other credentials (such as banking login information) and/or spamming for pharmesuticals, etc. Of course, no site is immune from the scrutiny of attackers, so this is hardly Facebook's fault. As a commenter on the Wired blog puts it, "Anywhere there is popularity and potential profit, there will be hackers and scammers." However, it is notable that criminals now see Facebook as a lucrative target. Facebook needs to crack down on these activities if it expects users to continue to feel comfortable using it. [J]

Perhaps this isn't the fault of Facebook per se, but a lot of the people on Facebook are really annoying. You know the ones I'm talking about. The coward who thinks that the epitome of activism is clicking a button that says "Join Group." [E] The gullible student that believes the world will be changed by joining groups with titles like "For every [number] people that join this group, I will donate [amount] to [cause]." [F] The narcissist that ceaselessly uploads pictures of themselves and her friends partying and broadcasts her status message to the world at least ten times a day. The clueless folk carrying on what, prior to Facebook, would have been a private conversation on each others' walls. [G] And people that have way too much free time giving each other gifts [H] and engaging in poke wars (or now, thanks to SuperPoke, throwing cow wars or the like). Facebook is often a cesspool of narcissism and ignorance that I could do without.

It may come as a surprise that, despite all of these grievances, I haven't terminated my Facebook account. It is true that I still grudgingly sign on to the service at least once a day because it provides some tangible benefits that no other service offers. Regardless of its flaws, I haven't quit Facebook... yet. I intend to write two follow up articles to this one, the first discussing what Facebook gets right and the second as an answer to "Why don't you write a Facebook application?" Stay tuned.

Update: I'm finally getting off of Facebook. The straw the eventually broke the camel's back for me was the sheer unusability of the site. Nearly every page load on Facebook maxes out my processor (on a decent machine). It's not just the sheer load of crap that Facebook is bringing into each page; even the most basic user actions cause my browser to lock up. For example, entering characters into a text box (for commenting on a photo or sending an email) has a delay of several seconds between when I hit the keys on the keyboard and when the letters show up onscreen. These inexcusable bugs plague the site. Congratulations, Facebook, you've finally driven me away.

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[A] Yes, I know you can change this in your settings. Yes, I know that they now send the contents of messages in the email as well. Everything else, however, still gets you the same information-void kind of notification that begs you to come to Facebook if you want to find out what was actually said.

[B] I'm certainly not the first person to identify this phenomenon, by the way. I'm not sure who, if anyone, is the right person to attribute this to. Thoughts?

[C] And who knows what Facebook thinks "opt-in" means? The devil is in the details: does not clicking on an "I don't want this" indicate the user wants to participate? Zuckerberg, upon Beacon's release, already had some interesting ideas about what "opt-in" meant.

[D] Ed Felten provides an excellent Beacon post-mortem here.

[E] Some think that the best way to protest Facebook's practices and policies is to join a group whose cause is to recognize the fact that all its members dislike a new feature. It's not. The best way to protest is to delete your Facebook profile.

[F] A frequent question I ponder when I see groups like this is, why do people waste their time supporting these groups if they have zero assurance that the donation/action/whatever will actually happen?

[G] I really, really don't need to know the day-to-day private details of your life. And I REALLY don't need them broadcasted to me in my News Feed. If you're negotiating a play date with your friend, take it off Facebook! If you're dumping your boyfriend, take it off Facebook!

[H] Perhaps these do serve a cause since Facebook donates $1 for most of them to charity. But it annoys me when it is implied that there is some kind of scarcity to information, playing to misconceptions about the Internet. Okay, pet peevey rant over.

[I] In the legal sense, as well: could this practice be illegal?

[J] It is also a testament to the cleverness of the phishers (and the nature of Facebook's users) that they are using such well-targeted bait in the text for their links: "lol i can't believe these pics got posted.... it's going to be BADDDD when her boyfriend sees these,"

[K] Careful, FriendCSV's creators try to sign you up for their own social network when you use their product. How hypocritical, offering a way out of someone else's frying pan and into their fire.

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UPDATES:

Facebook is sharing too much data with application developers. (Link)

Facebook, in violation of their privacy policy, is now sharing your personal data with Microsoft. Hm, does that have anything to do with taking $240 million of their money?

Facebook is arbitrarily removing applications that don't seem to be in violation of their privacy policy, a la Apple and the iPhone store. The victim this time? Burger King.

Facebook may be eliminating local networks, exposing more personal data to more people.

In a rare moment of good news, Facebook has agreed to abandon Beacon.

Another reason to stay off Facebook: STDs.

2 comments:

Patrick said...

Good rant. I agree with most everything thing there. I've come very close to quitting facebook twice, and one time giving it up for a month. What keeps me quiet and connected to the great matrix-eque hub that is facebook, is the unlimited upload space for photos and the 300mb limit on videos. Even YouTube caps those at 100.

Natalie Andrea said...

I second Patrick, good post danny. I agree with it and enjoyed it, however, I am compelled to bring up two random valuable points about Facebook because there are communities out there it serves. The first community is comprised of people who have not yet found a place in their physical communities. Facebook – or any virtual social networking for that matter – brings people in touch with other people “like them,” even if they have never met. More specifically, I had a friend who came to this country as a refugee and was placed in middle-of-no-where, VA – basically, your quintessential small town, and she had nothing in common with anyone. Upon getting Facebook, she realized there were others just like her who survived a war, came to this country, learned English, and worked all the way to a prestigious university. For her, this was not only empowering, but it also brought her in touch with a community of her own. This was a brand new community created by Facebook, not an old high school community or middle school friend she lost touch with. So, while random, they are still valuable friends.

Secondly, you mention the Facebook user becomes less interested in Facebook over time; random friend requests and silly applications like, “which Les Miserables character are you most like?” mount up and desensitize the user to the initial excitement of Facebook. For you and I that is very true, but I think there is a group of people out there that finds enjoyment in these trivial quizzes, rankings, requests, and applications. They may even seriously consider the different values and uses of the poke vs. the superpoke. Sure, I say this with sarcasm, but when I came back on Facebook after 6 months and was bombarded with all this new crap, I was even more shocked to see some of my friends had actually loaded up to 30 different mini applications on their profiles. And they are still using them. What a ridiculous waste of time. But plainly said, we can’t all be STIA majors. America needs people to watch MTV, to tape daytime soap operas, and yes, even to click on Facebook ads. Our economy needs it. And, I whole-heartedly agree: “a lot of the people on Facebook are really annoying.” But those people who annoy you on Facebook, probably annoy you in class too. Facebook doesn’t make people annoying. It also doesn’t make pirate and ninja identifiers out of exceptional minds, Facebook just offers a different look to a certain type of mental exercise or activity people are either interested in or not interested in. While application overload is boring to some, it is all the rage to others.

These are just minor points to a much larger debate. I think the overall worth or quality of something like Facebook is hard to assess. Like everything in a postmodern culture, it may become a staple of consumerism and superficiality - another abused tool. Sadly, I have noticed it has become more and more about ourselves and less about friendship. Applications to find out if people would secretly date you, see who has a secret love for you, or see who ranks you the best listener or hottest, etc, etc, only fuel our interest in hearing about ourselves some more. But it can also be a tool to add a new twist to the ever-changing nature of social interaction. Is Facebook also helping to mobilize change?

As far as the privacy thing goes, it is rather unfortunate. I agree it is untrustworthy.