Facebook, Interests, and Privacy

I’ve just been on BBC Radio Solent, speaking to the lovely Steve Harris about my views on Facebook and privacy.

If you’ve been keeping up-to-date, you’ll know that Facebook have been having something of a hard time, recently, what with Quit Facebook Day fast approaching. They’re set to announce new, simpler privacy settings this evening, and I’ll be keeping my ears open. I think Facebook have certainly been abusing their position as a makeshift Information Commissioner, for those familiar with the Data Protection Act.

Something that I think has flown completely under the radar, however, is Facebook’s radical redesign of its users’ ‘Information’ pages; a former space where you could write to your heart’s content about what you’re interested in, in whatever format you desired. All this changed a few, short weeks ago, when Facebook essentially catalogued each one of these ‘interests’ as fan pages. Essentially, you can no longer like anything without ‘Liking’ it. I think this is bad for two reasons. Firstly, it removes any notion of individualism from the site, as users are now defined by the connections that tether them to a predetermined set of interests. Confusing, right?

For example, say I like The Beatles. I don’t think this would define me absolutely, as there are many types of Beatles fans. This is obvious. I could, say, insist that I like their ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but not their later psychedelic ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. That little difference is what defines me as a certain type of Beatles fan. It’s what signifies me as myself. Under Facebook’s new information regime, I wouldn’t be able to just type that in the ‘Music’ section of my Facebook profile. I’d only be able to include that I’m a fan of The Beatles, which doesn’t really say anything about me at all. It’s these differences in opinion, expression, and even syntax that define me as a person. Instead, I’m now forced to live my life as an all-encompassing Beatles fan. I’m forced into a convenient pigeonhole, where I define myself through a predetermined list of interests. The network has lost its dynamicism, which is a very sad thing.

Why have Facebook done such a thing, then? To move on to my second point, to further exploit us as commodities to advertisers. Thanks to this new hierarchy, Facebook now (potentially) can map out advertising reach a lot easier, by saying to advertisers, ‘Look, we’ve got X number of Beatles fans that you can advertise to!’ The new system will clearly make number crunching a whole lot easier to sell us, and our information, which some of us are unwittingly giving away.

My main gripe is that Facebook has lost its focus. When I first discovered the social network back in 2006, I was attracted to its simplicity and uniform layout, as opposed to MySpace. When Applications arrived, I balked. Slowly, Facebook has turned its users into commodities, which we can see clearly now, and we’re very, very angry.

I’m very eager to find out what Mark Zuckerberg comes out with this evening. I’ll be listening intently, probably along with the rest of the world.

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