09 June 2011

Book Faces

I don't have a facebook account. It's not because their business model is all about mining your interaction data to better sell stuff, including the data, or because online activity can be risky, none of that. The reason I don't have an account is more philosophical: unlike the World-Wide Web, facebook is a closed community - you can't access the content without joining up. This is fair enough for personal pages, but my beef is about "public" pages. Of course the organizations that want the public to see their stuff have a marketing incentive to use facebook, not just because of its ease of user access, but also because it really is web 2.0 that lets their visitors provide content for their site and in turn they get great data to mine and an efficient low-cost ad channel that is targeted exactly at those most interested. It is a fantastic model, and thanks to Medcalf's law, as facebook grows it becomes polynomially more fantastic.

My issue is that facebook is to the web what AOL was to the Internet in the 1990's - a closed community. Just like the Internet, behind the gates of its community AOL had email, instant messaging, news groups, file transfer, a web browser, worldwide accessibility, and a lot of useful content. But you had to $ign up to get at it. I had an AOL account, I still do, but it's free now. I got it because I lived outside the US for several years during that time, traveled a lot, and had kinds in school. AOL provided reliable dial-up access almost everywhere: from home, all over the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, ... - very useful. And the kids could do research for school and get reliable information on just about everything, plus things like Cliffs Notes -perfect for those book reports on books that you didn't quite get all the way through. It was great, and a great value for the money, but then the power of the free and open World-Wide Web overwhelmed the proprietary subscription model, and we were all better off.

Now facebook would have the Web become http://www.facebook.com/theworldwideweb. In other words, if you want to find out what is on sale at Macy's for example, they want you to visit www.facebook.com/Macys rather than www.macys.com. It is obviously better for facebook if you do, and in some ways it is also better for Macy's and maybe even for you. Macy's in theory can get access to facebook's data that shows that you like other stores; and because of that, Macy's could be able to entice you with offers made with more knowledge about your preferences. A win-win-win.

But what if I don't want Macy's to know where else I shop. There's the rub, what is private and what is not. In fairness, much of the hoopla, consternation, and political histrionics about privacy on social networks is way overblown. As Scott McNealy is quoted to have said, "Get over it!" In legal terms, there is no 'reasonable expectation of privacy' on the Internet. Watch this video about the latest facebook "privacy" flap:

What does peeve me is when some more-or-less public organization or other posts a link (often a compacted one on twitter) out on the WWW that goes to a page inside the facebook moat. The poster probably never realizes that faceless surfers may miss their boat, because it works for them and all their "friends" (who are always logged in), so therefore it must work for everyone. Even worse and truly troubling is the prospect that with the kind of data available to facebook (and Google and others), they can tailor search results to your preferences and prejudices; thus inhibiting the free flow of facts and opinions that is the essence of the strength of the Internet itself, and the one best hope for creating an enlightened human race capable of learning the mysteries of universe rather than a tribal one that feeds on bias, bigotry, superstition, stereotypes, and ignorance.

No comments: