My Faults My Own

Any human’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in humankind.

Facebook is Not Your Friend

And...we're back from unofficial, finals-imposed hiatus! With controversial, zeitgeist-conscious commentary! Did you miss the front-page redesign?

To quote one of my favorite blog titles ever, "almost no one is evil; almost everything is broken" -- especially in the digital world. Unfortunately, I don't have a post from Jai for you; it's just me today. But it is the case that almost no one evil and almost everything is broken -- most recently-notably, Facebook.

xkcd comic #274, I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation... I'm just bloggin' 'bout my generation


Background reading:

  • Facebook, in a continuing trend of "We're actually paying attention to the date -- maybe people won't get angry about it this time", offers users auto-generated slideshows of "Your Year in Review".
  • Noted web designer Eric Meyer writes: Meyerweb | Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty.
  • Basically every news site on the web posts some variant of the following: "Facebook Apologizes for Pain Caused by 'Year in Review' Posts", uniformly consisting of the following: (1) quote a paragraph from Meyer (2) publish a few paragraphs of screed about how this is the year that Facebook became heartless (3) conclude with a line from Meyer's post saying something about "empathetic systems" (4) publish an update about how Facebook Itself has publicly apologized to Meyer and (5) quote a sentence from Meyer's follow-on post about how he hadn't meant to make quite such a big deal about it, but (6) ultimately miss the point.
  • These are basically all useless, unless your intention is to drive yourself to pointless outrage, in which case -- welcome to the Internet; you're in the right place. Instead, just read the follow-on itself, Meyerweb | Well, That Escalated Quickly.

I believe that Meyer has this one right, and the news outlets have it wrong. I mean, they're right that "for some, the virtual scrapbook brings back bad memories". (But no, I'm not hotlinking that, because I don't think that news-media-parrots deserve clickcounts for cherry-picking quotes in order to stir up outrage.) Such is life.

But they're wrong that "UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook's 'Your Year in Review'". (Okay, that one's from Jeffrey Zeldman.) It was Zeldman's post, linked -- ironically enough -- on a friend's Facebook, which brought the issue across my radar, and it seems a fine place to start...


Writes Zeldman:

A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features. (...)

I've got one nit to pick here, which is that the Harvard University CS Department, while expensive and exclusive, hardly deserves the moniker "design program". But Zeldman does have a point -- Facebook was made by upper-middle-class elites, for upper-middle-class elites. The question, then, is: What was everyone expecting?

Zuckerberg &co. are not the divinely-appointed architects of tomorrow; they're the producers of a moderately-successful website. They've built a tool which began as a networking site for college-age students on the leading edge of the digital-native generation; of course it's going to promote over-sharing, include minimal-to-nonexistent privacy protections, A/B test users' experiences without notice, and assume that users may want the chance to show off glitzed-up versions of their lives to everyone they've ever met. This is precisely the zeitgeist of the 201xs.

Public Service Announcement: If you do not want a social networking site that does all of the previous, as well as track you around the web and turn your data over to the government en masse, don't use Facebook. If you're concerned about viewing disturbing, triggering, or otherwise unpleasant news stories and posts without warning, don't use Facebook. In fact, if you're not a twentysomething comfortable in the digital, all-online, zero-assumed-privacy age, it's probably a good idea to seriously think about whether using Facebook is a good idea.

I have no idea why ~1.2 billion people around the world think that using Facebook is a good idea. In a perfect world, they'd have decided so after considering its advantages and disadvantages, weighing other options, and determining that becoming part of its ecosystem would make their life better on net. I've got no illusions that this world is that world, though, so I suspect that they did so largely because they felt that they had to, to keep up with the times, their friends, or the outside world, and were not particularly aware who, precisely, they were putting in charge of crafting their digital environment.

And therein lies a serious issue -- yes, the site purports to be a social network for everyone, but it's not. It looks an awful lot like what it did when it had a much-more-specific userbase. People assume that it's a network for everyone, but why in the world would it be?

Yeah, advertising your new user-custom feature by showing users a selected picture from 2014 is kinda thoughtless, and a product team with more diversity might have caught it before sending it live. Or they might not have. As Eric Meyer (remember him?) puts it:

[T]heir design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they’re hardly alone. This happens all the time, all over the web, in every imaginable context. Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all. I was using Facebook’s Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue.

(emphasis sic) He continues:

What surprised and dismayed me were the...let’s call them uncharitable assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review. "What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?" seemed to be the general tenor of those responses.

No. Just no. This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options.

First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain? How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three? How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal? Do you know what they’ve been through? No, you do not. So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.

Second, failure to consider worst-case scenarios is not a special disease of young, inexperienced programmers. It is everywhere.

Similarly, failure to protect credit card information. Similarly, miscommunications about what of your social-network activity is visible to whom. Similarly, a cavalier attitude toward using users' content and personal information for whatever clever purpose crosses your mind. The industry standard for social media in the digital-native generation is not considerate of your privacy; the industry standard is not particularly aware of or careful with your feelings; the industry standard is a lot more concerned with the next big thing than it is with users like you.

At risk of sounding like my own parents circa 2005, I suggest that you be careful giving modern websites personal information like your name, your interests, photos of yourself and your loved ones, words you write, things you buy, and the people you know. You should expect, at a minimum, that any one of them won't hesitate to jump at the next opportunity to cook up a clever ad campaign that, as Zeldman puts it, is intended to "stab you in the heart".


This concludes the part of this post that's perfect fodder for critics looking to quote me out of context, and begins...some other part of the post.

I do not mean to say that the social-media Internet is and ought to be a young-white-boys' world, where you're either perfectly privileged (including, here, privilege of age) or continually running the risk of being hurt unexpectedly. I mean to say that it looks an awful lot like that now, and if you hadn't noticed yet, you're not paying attention. An anonymous commenter on Zeldman's post takes it further:

Facebook is a for-profit behemoth that exists solely to record, recycle and sell your personal data. At best, it will pander to the biggest swath of users it can with the least amount of work. That this process occasionally, unavoidably, regurgitates the grotesque should be a surprise to no one.

Instead of shaking your fist at a lion for acting like a lion why not add this to the already sizable pile of offenses and abandon it. This is not about Eric’s unexpected stab in the heart, it’s about the actual source of the problem... and how it can and should be avoided by rational people. (...; emphasis mine)

I continue to use Facebook because I'm comfortable with my name, personal history, pictures, and written words being publicly available to the entire Internet. (Yes, even my petulant, passive-aggressive statuses from the day my junior-prom date bailed on me.) I use privacy controls with zero expectation that they will actually work. (Even as I take care to make sure that they are, in theory, doing what I want them to do.) Maybe, a week ago, I wasn't thinking about the possibility of Facebook dredging up bad memories to parade in front of me, but if that possibility actually concerned me, I wouldn't be using it today. Certainly, I don't expect that my worst Facebook UX experience is behind me.

There are, of course, things online about me that I'd prefer not resurface, recirculate, or be recycled into Facebook's next ad campaign, and there are definitely ways that people can -- intentionally or carelessly -- hurt me with things I've put online. But that's the rent I've decided to pay for a particular piece of digital real estate. It's not no cost, but it's a cost which I've decided I'm fine paying, for what Facebook offers me in return. I give Facebook pieces of my life, and it lets my live in the Facebook-run world. And what's more, I'm fine saddling future versions of me with the inertia of having used it so long if I ever decide to stop paying rent. Both pieces of that are important.

Facebook is not your friend; Facebook is not nice; if you expect any empathy from its product team, prepare to be (painfully) mistaken. I'm really not sure what Facebook ever did to deserve your trust.

Facebook is not for everyone. It's the first social network to reach even a fraction of it's current size, and it's highly unlikely that the first virally popular network has been optimized for something like empathy. So maybe, if you're in need of empathy (e.g. you don't share the latest-buzzword "lack-of-hardship privilege" with the stereotypical Silicon Valley web-dev), maybe Facebook isn't for you.


Someone out there will read this far into this post and come to the conclusion that I'm an ageist asshole. Which might not be an entirely unreasonable conclusion, if you squint a little and turn your head to the side a lot. But I beg of you a little charity -- hear me out here. A commentor on Zeldman's Unexamined Privilege writes, explaining that "old people on Facebook" are not a minority group, and are growing in numbers...

Finally, in re: the [previous] ageist comment about "what is a 40 year old doing on FB?", this only betrays how out of touch the [above] commenter is in re: FB demographics...

Although FB was started by college-age kids (and is still run by them), in January 2014, 46.7% of FB users were 35 and older. The median age of FB employees, by contrast, is 26. (...)

...and in doing so, very succinctly makes the point I was trying to make. If you're in the majority of Facebook users, close to half of Facebook developers are ten years younger than you. And you trust them to design the shape of your digital life...why?

If they don't understand how to create social media for an adult life, it's because they're not adults. Don't expect them to start acting like it soon, either -- the company isn't aging that fast. And don't expect that publishing online screeds accusing them of insensitivity is going to inspire any sort of sense of real urgency to improve, at either the individual or corporate level; user complaints about Facebook's UX are just business as usual by this point.

No, the correct response for concerned readers of Meyer and Zeldman's editorials is to (1, optionally) explain, publicly and loudly (it helps if you have a well-read blog, for example...) what they find objectionable about Facebook -- and then (2) leave the site for another social medium more resembling the online environment they'd prefer to inhabit. Recall an earlier quote: "Instead of shaking your fist at a lion for acting like a lion... add this to the already sizable pile of offenses and abandon [the site]."

Now, alternatives are rather limited at present -- Google+ has been around long enough to be declared legally dead, despite having basically everything that everyone wishes Facebook has, and as much as I'd like to see an Archipelago-inspired world of social blogging develop, I don't harbor illusions that that's where the next ten years of social media lies -- but all this merely calls for activism. (Remember that thing that our generation is supposed to be good at?)

Rather than living in the world Facebook has built, and occasionally complaining that it isn't really what you want, look for alternatives. Talk to your friends. Nominate them to connect in new ways, rather than to dump ice water on their heads. Stage protests, and mass log-outs -- but mean it. Walk away and don't come back the next day, week, or until things have changed.

xkcd comic #918, You should join Google+! / What is it? / Not Facebook! / What's it like? / Facebook! / Oh, what the hell. I guess that's all I really wanted.

And then think twice about who's building the digital world around you. Getting mad at them for being exactly who you knew they were is kinda silly, to be honest.

Epilogue: My good friend Cyndia's got a great piece on her own blog about what it's like being a privileged-young-twentysomething without a Facebook, how it's hard, and how it makes sense for her. She'll probably yell at me if she realizes that I've publicly linked to something she wrote, but oh, well.

When criticisms of Facebook come up–psychological testing, insensitive Year in Review apps pushed on users without consent, suggestions to connect with exes–some people say that everyone joins Facebook understanding the consequences, and with the service you agree to experiencing some of the pitfalls. This argument is mostly valid, but I know how it often feels like it is impossible to not join the wave. It feels, sometimes, like you will fall behind or be left out if you don’t join in, and that is a powerful motivator against our better judgments.

Why do I not have a Facebook? (...what, you wanted me to spoil it?)