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Goodbye to Facebook?

Facebook, dammit, I wish I could quit you. I need to quit you.

When Facebook played fast and loose with my privacy settings, I stayed. My friends kept track of how to fix them, and I’m pretty good at keeping on top of such things myself.

When it got more and more obvious that Facebook’s news feed algorithm was engineered to make money, not keep me updated on people I cared about, I stayed. The benefit of staying in touch with friends and family outweighed the frustration of sometimes missing words-only messages while the site served me up yet another “inspirational” message forwarded by a business contact I barely knew, because it was a photo, and those grab attention better.

The fact that Facebook is a walled garden, little better than AOL, closing off the free Internet, didn’t turn me away.

The unprecedented details the company gave to advertisers about our personal preferences didn’t turn me away, even though I’ve always been critical of advertising.(1)

I even applied to work for Facebook, knowing the company had fascinating data about online behavior to work with. Back in January I thought about deleting my profile, too. I felt like I was spending time on meaningless Facebook interactions that I should be spending talking on the phone with my family and friends. But I kept it open, because it wouldn’t do to delete my account while I sent in my resumé, right?

Facebook, you can delete my resumé now. Given how you manipulated your IPO, I won’t work for your company. And I’m going to delete my account.

I know Facebook isn’t the first company to exaggerate about its worth in an IPO. It probably isn’t the first to give privileged information about re-valuations about their stock to big investors and not small ones.

The reading I’ve been doing about the IPO showed Facebook at the moment it was perhaps deepest into the kind of ugly Wall Street culture I’m upset about. Some of it suggests that Facebook may have been engaging in even more practices that favor big corporations and screw small investors than the average company does at IPO.

Barry Ritholtz, a Washington Post columnist and author of Bailout Nation, notes that Facebook’s value has been slowly driven up over the last few years as they let a number of corporate investors in before the public offering. Ritholtz alleges that they’re playing fast and loose with their numbers about users and defections, ginning up more profit for themselves with the kind of machinations which have already caused two separate, destructive economic bubbles, dot com and housing, since I graduated from college.

I know high-frequency trades are endemic to the stock market by now; the out-of-control bot-driven trading that has been adding enough volatility to the stock market to outright crash it in a matter of minutes, and which may give an edge to those who can afford to be in on these pricey computer-driven systems (Financial Times, requires login, sorry), can’t be blamed on Facebook’s IPO, obviously.

But Facebook chose NASDAQ for their IPO, and Ritholtz, drawing on an analysis by market data provider Nanex, alleges that failures specific to NASDAQ made it a particularly bad choice of exchange. I have to admit I don’t fully understand the argument that NASDAQ is worse than NYSE, so I can’t totally buy it. The problem seems to be that when NASDAQ choked on high-frequency trades, its data somehow only ended up going to the high-frequency traders whose servers were co-located with (i.e. in the same physical place as) NASDAQ’s servers. Not entirely sure this can be blamed on Facebook.

Regardless, the fact that Facebook’s IPO was enough to cause some major system outages, exacerbated by robot trading, which had to be hand-fixed by the exchange, is just a reminder of how divorced all of this market crap is from human value and how subject these supposed indicators of economic health are to the whims of those who can afford to play this game.

And Facebook was perfectly happy to play a rigged game with sharks who think nothing of playing with economic instability. Ritholtz sums up his points in his Economonitor piece:

what we see are a series of bad decisions made by Facebook’s executives going back many years. The insiders got greedy, too clever by half, in how they used secondary markets. They picked a bad banker and an awful exchange.

* * *

Reading Ritholtz’s piece set off a mental schism for me which suddenly just seemed intolerable. Just a day or so before I’d been chatting on Facebook with my little sister, who is pregnant, and worried she won’t have a job by the time the baby arrives. Why? Because the government can’t afford to pay biology majors like her to keep pests from killing Michigan’s trees.

And Facebook, which had just given the stock market a mild case of the fantods, was deriving its value from knowing that the link between Ariel and me is labeled “sister,” and that it can sell ads against the conversations we have about her baby.

The government can’t keep paying my sister because rich sociopaths like Facebook’s Wall Street friends and founders leave the country before they pay taxes, and lobby Congress to keep tax breaks for their buddies low.

If your corporate culture’s goal is to enrich only your wealthy friends, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to make your friends richer by telling you who my friends are and what we like to talk about. Facebook seems willing to go along with places like Morgan Stanley and NASDAQ which have already demonstrated they’re perfectly willing to make an ugly economy uglier — to lie, outright — to make the people they know richer.

What do we get in return? Slightly easier ways to do what we’d be doing even if the site didn’t exist. Facebook gets value which we generate, and uses that to attract investment money which could go to improving our communities instead. What do we get? A “like” button. “Like” buttons don’t fund afterschool programs.(2)

Facebook, you’ve built a tool to help me reach my friends online. But you are not my social network. You’re a big advertising company. Like most advertising companies, you help sell cheap crap that everyone thinks will make them happy, for a little while, but probably won’t solve any of their problems, while your bigwigs can pay to have all but the most superficial problems of human life taken care of for them.

If I’m going to engage in a social network, I want to do it to support my own family and friends. And other people in my community who need support. Facebook has been instrumental in helping me keep tabs on my former students from the South Bronx, unfortunately. I’ll need to work harder to keep track of when they’re going through depressive spells, or need help with their resumés.

What am I going to do instead? I give up. I honestly don’t know. Make use of my Google+ account for a change? How is that anymuch better? Google is also making money by reporting to advertisers on the links I follow. I’m less unhappy with them(3), but I’m not naïve enough to believe “Don’t be evil” is a business plan instead of a motto.

I still hear the warnings of law professor Eben Moglen echoing in my ears, about trusting the details of my social network to anyone outside that network. About the implications for my free speech, privacy, and liberty (which have also been noted by Steve Coll in the New Yorker).

I’d like to run my own little server for my community out of a little box plugged into the wall of my house, like Moglen said. Connect it to a network of other communities. It appeals to my homesteader instincts, my do-it-yourself instincts. The Internet used to be more like this, with people running servers out of their homes.(4)

I wish Diaspora was a real alternative that could support this (peace to poor Ilya), but one of my friends who codes for a living couldn’t even get it set up. I’m not convinced it can build a network that can support everyone who needs Facebook to make connecting online easy and frustration-free, like my grandmother and her sisters. I did like my community better when we gathered around blogs — I do like the time I spend on MetaFilter – but the barriers to sharing are higher there.

But I can go somewhere else, take my traffic elsewhere. I don’t have to give what power my social network has to the social network of Facebook executives.

If there was a moment to vote with our feet, if there was a moment to call bullshit, it would be now, when critique of Wall Street is in the public consciousness and Facebook has just shown its hand as just another Wall Street dealer. Facebook is not an eternal fact of life just because of its network effects, as fellow Hampshire alumn Mako Hill recently pointed out.

I’ve got 862 contacts on Facebook. I’m hoping some of you all will join me in sending Facebook a message, by deleting your accounts and cutting our social network off from Facebook’s. Because what Facebook gets out of our network, versus what we get out of Facebook, is incredibly unequal.

1. Here’s my guilty secret: ad models based on rich personal data intrigue me. Before I had a puppety political critique of ads, I had a critique of dumb ads, as a kid — ads which clumsily missed their target, or struck the wrong tone. In my naïvest secret heart of hearts I believe ads could really do what they purport to do, namely inform people about new products and services, if they were just able to target the right people. Personal-data-driven ads would be less likely to rely on crude stereotypes, and could keep people from the noise of products which don’t interest them.

2. Or even, as I’ve learned, geeky puppet shows about media literacy.

3. Full disclosure: I received a Google Academic Research Grant to continue my dissertation in 2010; that grant has since run out. I generally see things differently when wearing my research hat, my end-user hat, and my hacker hat, though, and my feelings about Google in this case have more to do with their “openness” in the sense of engaging with open-source projects and sharing data; less about their own privacy challenges, which I still think they’re mostly handling better than Facebook.

4. My immediate response to Moglen calling for home-based servers was: how do we solve the spam/botnet problem if everyone’s running their own servers? Escalation in the botnet wars has left nothing smaller than an ISP equipped with the aggregative defenses needed to keep a server up and running, as my friends and I discovered some years back. Solutions can surely be developed, but they’re not there yet.

Note: Comments up to May 29th below refer to previous drafts of this piece; many have been considered as I have rewritten it.

16 Comments

  1. Rob wrote:

    This is one heck of a piece which gets your point across well.

    If you haven’t already, I’d advise you to make sure your sister is okay with being written about in this context.

    Minor grammar nit: “I wish Diaspora was a real alternative” would more properly be “I wish Diaspora were a real alternative.”

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  2. Ekaterina wrote:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. If I had the ability (at 8 months pregnant) to get up on a chair and clap loudly, I totally would.

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  3. mike wrote:

    I’m curious how the IPO came to be the proverbial camel’s-back-breaking-straw for you. Most of what I’ve read (and I’ve tried to read as little as possible, so maybe I’m missing the point) is that Facebook was enriching itself at the expense of Wall Street — see e.g. Nocera on this issue. And, if there’s a fight between Zuckerberg and Wall Street and there’s for some reaosn no other option than to choose between the two, my very limited sympathies would tend to lie with Zuckerberg.

    So, it’d be nice to see a fuller explanation of your thinking here, or at least links to the shenanigans that offend you most, or whatever.

    Also, there are two places where you say (1) and (2) and so I think there is a footnote or something, but there are no footnotes at the bottom of the piece.

    And, Rob, the subjunctive is optional in English: “I wish it was” and “I wish it were” are both understandable.

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Roger wrote:

    What, specifically, upset you about the IPO? I can’t tell from this — all I see is that you think they “lied to the public” (how?) and are a “Harvard clique” (huh?) and are “contributing to the awfulness of the economy” (how?).

    I fully agree with your laundry-list of concerns about privacy, walling off the Internet, profiteering on our personal relationships — but none of these are new things. The IPO didn’t seem, to me, to change the cost-benefit analysis that keeps me using Facebook despite hating it: my friends are still there, so if I want to hear from them and talk to them I also want to be there. The moment that stops being true — that the network effect stops locking me in — I’m out, of course. But the IPO didn’t really change anything that I can see; it was a profiteering corporation run by privacy dicks as a privately held enterprise, and it still is as a publicly traded one.

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  5. kermix wrote:

    I think I also independently had the idea of an open-source peer-to-peer social network, and I still really like the idea as the next evolution of the beast, at least in the sense that it removes the central corporate server and potentially the ad-supported model. hopefully, someone is working on it, especially in light of all the various corporate wonkery exhibited by the current models.

    hopefully, they’re also thinking about security issues that could arise from having things (presumably) shared directly to others’ computers, and the moral quandary of how both potential virus transmission and illegal file-sharing will be handled.

    because that would be cool.

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  6. mina wrote:

    done, done. done! i’m sure you know how to delete the account and not merely deactivate it.

    they seem to not have a problem with what has happened to all their investors, if you recall zuckerberg’s appeal the night before they went public. boo for Facebook!

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  7. CRM wrote:

    I think you are an amazing writer, but I agree with Roger that many of your points assume a knowledge base from the reader that I do not have. I know you, but I would worry that someone who doesn’t know you AND doesn’t know what you mean by “lied to the public” and “contributing to the awfulness of the economy” would simply dismiss you as bitter and/or unstable.

    I also don’t get why the ipo was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  8. Jill Andrews wrote:

    Maybe just ratchet back a bit? You’ll be missed! :)

    http://lifehacker.com/5538697/how-to-quit-facebook-without-actually-quitting-facebook

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 4:23 am | Permalink
  9. Glyph wrote:

    I’m very interested in your answer to Roger’s question. Some links under all the claims would be nice, especially for the lay reader (and it is precisely the lay reader who needs to be made aware of privacy and security issues with sites like Facebook). This seems like a good start: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/the-facebook-ipo-shareholders-werent-invited-to-the-real-party-20120523

    Also, I think a big part of the problem here is that there is no sustainable economic model to finance things like Diaspora. Sympathetic as I am towards poor Ilya’s struggles, the original Kickstarter was so staggeringly underestimated that it bordered on fraudulent. Even with 2000x their original estimate they still haven’t managed to produce anything useful. Facebook can fund a near-infinite amount of future development with advertising revenues, but when the seed money runs out, Diaspora is going to be stuck running on a few dribs of charitable income. Plus, even the IRS is becoming increasingly dubious of the idea of software development as a charitable activities: can you really call it “charity” to give money to rich suburban white boys to play with computers when there are still people in Africa who don’t have access to clean water?

    (Answer; of course you can, that software can quite frequently help *get* clean water to those disadvantaged folks, and it quite clearly is a public good as it diminishes overall scarcity of an arguably precious resource. But that’s the way I see it, not the way that the people who decide what “charitable activity” legally means see it.)

    My solution to the problem of online social interaction is basically “email and IRC”. I correspond with lots of people through mailing lists, personal correspondence and IRC chats. I have RSS feeds from various people’s blogs – including this one – delivered into my email (thanks ) so I get a reasonable news feed. It’s not a complete solution because most of my “social networking” is fairly task-oriented; I have yet to set up something that my family could use to easily blabber away at each other. (If you’d like to discuss how to do that offline, I’d be happy to.) And many of those blogs use centrally-hosted infrastructure; I personally use Blogger which is ever-so-slowly being turned to chyme by the digestive enzymes of Google+, and I fear I may eventually have to abandon it.

    Setting up those sorts of services costs money though, and very very few people are willing to pay for it when freely-available advertising-based services are so cheap and the costs are so subtle and poorly understood. (Personally I already _do_ pay for the requisite hosting and bandwidth and it’s an issue of the time it would require to set everything up, but I suppose that’s just me being unwilling to pay for a personal sysadmin.)

    So I think the issue here is not one of malice on Facebook or Google or anyone else’s part. It’s an economic problem. We are getting exactly the internet that we are paying for, and that’s not going to change until we are all willing to pay more for a better one.

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  10. Martini-Corona wrote:

    Agree with above posters that you might want to further clarify why you’re upset NOW as opposed to all the previous times FB has changed their user privacy settings and corporate behavior. See also: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2012/05/leaving-facebookistan.html

    Also you might want to clarify a bit why the conversation with your sister happened on Facebook. Which is to say: why are people using it *instead* of more private types of communication, and for serious discussion, w/o realizing the privacy implications? Is that a permanent change or just a fad?

    I’m not on Google+ because I’m still pissed at Google over the death of Google Reader. The fact that my Gmail is getting slower and slower and slooooooweeeeerr and that I hate the interface changes isn’t helping. :p

    As for later employability… uh. I’m very very risk-averse and behaviorally (if not politically) conservative, so, yeah, I personally think this could hurt future employment outside the non-profit/academic sector. But who knows, tech companies sometimes reward this sort of ballsy behavior… if you can persuade them that you are a ninja-rockstar-zombie-killer-whatever-the-cool-word-is-today.

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  11. BobbyBear wrote:

    Nicely written, as expected.

    What about expanding the letter to focus a little more on one of the root causes – continued lack of the right type of regulation for a sophisticated, automated stock market? My point here is that I don’t feel like Facebook’s IPO was that much worse than many others. It just made the news b/c it’s a highly visible company and their stock price went the wrong way after its initial offering. The emotion for me is less focused on Facebook and more on the our inability (and our political leaders’ inability) to discuss and mitigate the aspects of the market that encourage companies like Facebook to do exactly what they did.

    On a personal note: It’s interesting to me that I’m not even considering deleting my FB account. I have scaled it back recently in terms of size, but it still provides value that I can’t get anywhere else in a package that I find OK. Your letter makes me think that I need to learn more about regulation and the gaps in our system, but it doesn’t make me want to delete my account.

    Bear hug,
    -R

    Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  12. brianh wrote:

    I appreciate the thought you put into this and the link round-up. Last time I tried quitting FB was for G+, and that didn’t work out… now I just use both. Double-bad! Two companies profiting off my social web! Of course, I’m a little less worried about my data than Moglin than others (notably Moglin himself). And I suspect the value of FB for network effects is actually in the realm of the vast fortune they’e mustered… but never mind — I also wish we could come up with something better!

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  13. admin wrote:

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  14. Roger wrote:

    “LOL ur IPO” only gives your company a market cap over $50 billion instead of over $70 billion? Or is the point Google is somehow less profiteering because their share price trends upward instead of downward? I don’t get what message the GIF is supposed to communicate (or yet see the connection you seem to see between the share offering and the company’s products and policies, unless it’s just a matter of IPO = more public attention to Facebook = good time to campaign about totally unrelated issues).

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  15. admin wrote:

    Roger, it’s LOLspeak in an animated gif. Chill out. And yes, it’s more an issue of IPO = public attention = good moment for public thought.

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  16. Roger wrote:

    Okay, you might want to make that clear, then, because a good chunk of this piece still seems premised on the idea that the IPO *changed* something about Facebook rather than just serving as an occasion for reflection about it.

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

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