Facebook quickly issued a strong denial, tech journalists drilled deep, and the story was quickly debunked. Yet the message -- the cautionary status updates -- still spread, translated across Facebook's global communities. Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, people still insisted the story was true: They didn't care what Facebook said, they knew they didn't write that on their Wall, they never would have written that in public.
Our susceptibility to believe reports that Facebook is playing fast and loose with our data comes as no surprise. Facebook has let us down many times before, changing privacy settings without telling us and exposing our information. But in the social-media-powered hysteria, something else was on display. It was almost as if many of us wanted to believe it, as if we wanted to feel let down by Facebook. What the messaging saga showed us was the sheer depths of distrust and unease held by many of Facebook's heaviest users.
I confess: I love Facebook. It is my social network of choice. I am not a basement dweller, living my life online. I live a normal life with friends and family and Facebook is an enhancement of that. I use Twitter, but for journalism and networking rather than for communicating with friends. The Twitter me is the corporate me, truncated and reined in. On Facebook, I can be more myself. Over the years, Facebook has brought me closer with many people I am happy to be closer to. If I didn't use Facebook, I wouldn't have made those connections. The technology did that.
But sometimes, in praising Facebook, I feel like I am a rarity. Being too enthusiastic about Facebook is just not done in polite, techno-literate society. Among the general public, Facebook is the lowest-scoring "e-business company" on the American Customer Satisfaction Indexes with 61 on a 100-point scale. While Facebook has just reached a milestone of 1 billion users worldwide, there are some worrying signs for the company, for example the shrinking number of web-based users in the United States.
The sense of unease about Facebook appears in many different guises. There are those who criticize Facebook -- and social media in general -- for being inauthentic, superficial, and at odds with the "real world." There are those who take umbrage at Facebook's business model, its behavior as a virtual monopoly. There are those -- hipsters, fashionistas -- who wouldn't be seen dead anywhere other than Tumblr. There are those from the church of high-tech who ideologically oppose Facebook's closed platform, its capture of the open web, and long for a distributed open-source alternative. There are those who worry about what they see as Facebook's cavalier attitude to users' privacy, especially when those users are based in odious regimes. There are those who see Facebook as just the latest incarnation of mass consumer society, where our desires and behavior are being manipulated by The Man. And then there are those who just see Facebook, and social networking in general, as trivial and quit after getting too many Farmville requests.
While all of these viewpoints are very vocal, among the great mass of Facebook users they are likely edge cases, a long tail of elite unease. Right in the heart of Facebook's user base, though, the concern about the service is far more complex, revealing, and interesting. The low-level hum of discontent, revealed in the recent hysteria over messages is due to our evolving relationship with data. It is a relationship most of us don't really understand, but it gives us a general sense of foreboding.
The problem is that when technologists talk about data and privacy, for many of us it is still in the abstract. For technologists and computer scientists, data is a thing that lives somewhere, it has a logic and can be parsed, made sense of, organized into databases. It can be searched and ultimately sold. But as Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist, points out, for most people "data is this weird nebulous concept that somebody knows something about me, but I don't know what they know."
Ask the average user what Facebook is doing with their data and the answer will be murky. People will often say they don't like it but can't quite say why. Is it that Facebook is collecting data or that it is passing on that data to advertisers that bothers them? There have been warnings of the chilling effects "big data" could have on society. For instance, if our online shopping history affected our credit rating or if what we Googled impacted our health insurance. But for most users right now, those potential consequences are still too abstract. If Facebook mining our data meant that users somehow lost money or that it contributed to road deaths, they might care. But they don't.
The stakes for users become much higher and data starts to have meaning and consequences when things get personal. People do care about data when their boss sees a photo of them doing a beer bong on a day they called in sick. They do care when a new partner sees a recently tagged photo of them with their ex. They do care when a high-school friend makes a homophobic comment on a conversation thread with a gay friend.
"Because it's about who you are and because it's about personal relationships, it's much more immediately obvious to people what the consequences of that will be," Milo Yiannopoulos, the founder and editor in chief of the tech publication "The Kernel" says. "People increasingly do understand what is happening to their data and increasingly don't like it."
A Democratic candidate for the Maine State Senate was attacked recently by her Republican opponent for her playing of the multiplayer online game "World of Warcraft." According to her critics, the politician playing a "rogue orc assassin" was unbecoming. This collision of two seemingly different personalities -- on the one hand, a social worker and moderate politician, and on the other, a violent assassin (online) who likes stabbing things -- is what sociologists have called "role strain."
"Identities that were cultivated in little tide pools, that were conceived to be separate, come clashing together," says Marc A. Smith, a sociologist and social-media expert. "The issue now is that all of these other identities, the idea that we can perform them on separate stages and that they had separate audiences, that is collapsing and the sound of its collapse is the sound of people squealing."
In his 1959 "Presentation of Self In Everyday Life," the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the idea of "front stage" and "back stage." In Goffman's theory, when they're "front stage," people engage in "impression management," choosing their clothing, speech, and adapting the way they present themselves to their audience. "Back stage" they can be more themselves, which might mean shedding their societal role. In the era of social media, Smith says that "we live in a culture where the back stage keeps disappearing." We think the conversations we are having are in private, but, in fact, they are publicly accessible and data has a long half-life. When U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to a select audience about the "47 percent," he was, in fact, speaking to everyone. What happens in "World of Warcraft" doesn't always stay in "World of Warcraft."
A large part of the problem, according to Smith, is that sites like Facebook promise to compartmentalize our data -- so we can tweak our privacy settings and only share certain things with certain people -- but such "selective sharing" is actually a myth. It isn't just that the privacy settings are opaque or overly complex for the average user, but that if data exists it is likely to become public in the end. Data is leaked, it gets spilled, it is vulnerable to bad code.
In a blog post, Smith argues that "eventually private bits, even when encrypted (no matter how well), become public because the march of computing power makes their encryption increasingly trivial to break and their exchange over networks (no mater how well secured) is subject to leaking, intentional and otherwise." It isn't that people are necessarily against living in public in this way, they are just still getting used to it. To extend Goffman's metaphor, they are being pushed to front stage by an over-zealous director.
But could it be something more than that? Are we seeing the early signs of fatigue about the very design and user experience of Facebook, a murmur of discontent about the way people think they are being forced to behave?
This was a recent status update from a friend:
I assume most of you are having a laugh, but today's posts have got me wondering what the point of Facebook is. Does everyone really get such a kick out of hating stuff these days? It's pretty sad when you see what technology has given us in our lifetime.
My first thought was that he's just blaming the technology and it is his friends who are the problem. Facebook, after all, just mirrors society and group dynamics. A 2011 University of Texas at Austin study found that people's behavior mirrored their behavior offline, meaning that extroverts were still extroverts when they logged into Facebook and introverts tended to engage less with others. But social-media theorist Jurgenson says that it would be incorrect to ignore Facebook's "role in shaping our behaviors when we're on it, and even shaping our behaviors when we're not on it."
The theories of the Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan that "the medium is the message" have been revisited in the social-media age. McLuhan argued that we should pay as much attention to the medium, as it could shape our behavior and have broader implications on society. Not considering that Facebook might have an effect on our behavior "would be analogous to the 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'" aphorism, says Jurgenson. "That the technology of the gun has nothing to do with it, it's all about the people."
"I don't think it's a conspiracy theory to think that [Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg] might want to shape our behaviors to maximize his own profits," he says.
Scientists have shown that the very act of sharing, of posting to social-media sites, releases dopamine and gives us pleasure. But for every high, there is a comedown, a period of self-examination. Perhaps some of the unease we are seeing is the collective morning-after of all that sharing.
Facebook's business model is based on the idea that we should share more and with as many people as possible. We share what we buy, what we listen to, what we want, what we read, and what we think. We are being pushed to be as in-your-face, as forthright, as public as possible about everything we do. The design and user interface are exhaustively tested and meant to keep us there for as long as possible and to click as many things as possible.
"I don't think people hate Facebook, but I think that people are becoming increasingly suspicious of their own behavior on it," Yiannopoulos says.
Novelist Zadie Smith, among others, has argued that Facebook is an approximation of our lives, that our Facebook selves are mere reductions, devoid of nuance. Empirical evidence on whether and how Facebook has changed our behavior is still lacking, but perhaps the source of some of our unease isn't that Facebook is an approximation but rather an amplification.
It is not the blandness of interaction but the in-your-face-ness, the hyperactivity, the constant requirement to keep up. It is not necessarily the choice of music, but the volume that might be making us weary. Characters revert to type on social media, but their attributes are turbo-charged. The annual family update ("Chloe has had an impressive first term at Brown and seems to enjoy the social life as much as the academic!") has become the hourly update. The whiny friend we once met now and again outside the grocery store is now a daily occurrence. Of course, we can hide these people on our feeds, but this is information we love to hate. That is the dichotomy of Facebook: Just like the self-destructive urge to snoop on ex-partners online, we sometimes just can't help ourselves. Facebook is a mirror that reflects society for good and ill, but it can sometimes resemble a fun-fair mirror, getting our attributes all out of proportion or rearranging them.
The problem with analyzing Facebook hate might just be that we hear from the haters a lot more and the very dynamics of social media give their views more airtime. New York University media professor Clay Shirky wrote by e-mail: "I don't think that many people hate Facebook. They are very vocal but not so numerous."
They are so vocal that a new genre has emerged in recent years: Facebook confessionals. "Why I Decided to Quit Facebook" or "How I Found a Life Offline After Quitting Facebook" -- the narrative is always one of sin and redemption. The confessionals are morality plays, cautionary tales, where all is going swimmingly in social-network land, friending, poking, sharing pictures of unicorns, and then it all goes wrong, relationships turn sour, jobs fester. And then the social-networking equivalent of pouring the booze down the sink, the final "goodbye, world" post, and then a new world of acceptance, discovery of life's true meaning, and redemption.
With Facebook's global growth, these tales of woe are still edge cases. And while Facebook's interface can encourage certain behaviors, many of the confessionals seem to tell us more about the person than they do about Facebook. We hear of users crowdsourcing what to have for dinner that evening, self-destructive hot-or-not contests with high-school friends, and monitoring the relationship statuses of exes on the hour every hour. When we hear how they used Facebook, the evangelical fervor and earnestness of their confessions suddenly makes sense. It is no irony that, just as they chose to live very public lives on Facebook, instead of quietly unplugging, their confessions are made in public.
It is also no irony that the very dynamics of social media can perhaps exaggerate and overamplify our sense of unease about Facebook. Talking about the viral spread of status updates warning that Facebook was making private messages public, Jurgenson says that negative information of this sort -- the bread and butter of Facebook unease -- goes viral and travels faster than positive information.
"One of the things that social media trains us to do is to share things that are sharable, resharable, likeable, retweetable. Social media has trained us to find things and say things and speak in a way that other people will like it and retweet it and so forth," he says. "A story like 'Facebook is now publishing all your private messages,' or 'Facebook is going to start charging $5 in January, sign this petition' -- all of those things are very sharable in a way that true information just isn't," he says.
Ultimately, much of the unease is just due to Facebook's ubiquity. Technologists and privacy advocates debate whether Facebook should be treated like a public utility. It has strong implications, for instance on freedom-of-speech and privacy issues, but for most of us, we already treat Facebook as if it were the water company.
"Complaining about the thing that you rely upon is one of the ways in which you get to pretend to have some power over it," says Smith. "Complaining about your infrastructure is a uniform trait of humanity. I know of no one who has high praise for the things, the roads, the bridges, the trains, the tunnels. They are always not as good as they would like them to be. People used to make all sorts of jokes about how late their letters would arrive."
Whether people decide to stick with Facebook (and my bet is that they will) depends on a collective cost-benefit analysis.
"We stay in relationships we shouldn't really be in because our own internal cost-benefit processes don't always function very well and we are not very good about judging our own best interests and we are not particularly good at making dispassionate analyses about things that we care about," Yiannopoulos says.
Or perhaps front stage there is a deep sense of unease about Facebook, but back stage we are not half as worried as we seem.