Since no one pays a monthly fee to use Facebook, it must be recognized that Facebook users are paying some other way.
By Michelle Martin
Published December 28, 2009
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the novel Pride and Prejudice holds more truth in it than the time-sensitive one it purports to contain in its famous opening line.
By now many people have seen the Facebook parody of Jane Austen's most famous novel (Lydia Bennet and Kitty Bennet joined the group 1,000,000 Strong Against the Officers Leaving Meryton!). While chuckling over it - yet again - with my daughters, I thought how Facebook is used to manage circles of people whom you know with varying degrees of intimacy, the way visiting cards were used by the middle and upper classes in the Regency period:
A lady would start making calls as soon as she arrived in Town, to notify everyone that her family had arrived. She remained in her carriage while her groom took her card and handed it in.
The card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, who would then decide whether or not to receive the caller. If the mistress was 'not at home', it was a rejection of the visitor. A reciprocal card may be given to the caller, but if not presented formally, that usually meant there was no desire to further the acquaintance. If, however, a formal call was returned with a formal call, there was hope for the relationship to grow.
After all, what was a calling card, if not a friend request? What was the non-formal bestowal of a reciprocal card, if not the ignoring of such? And what was a silver tray full of cards in the entry hall, if not the display of a Facebook friend count?
Except they didn't necessarily use the word friend to describe callers, and they avoided intimate topics of discussion or prying questions until their relationships actually advanced to friendship, for to be seen as inappropriately confidential was to be seen as ill-bred.
Now is a good time to stop and insist that I really do endeavour to fight against the tendency to suspect new ways of doing things, so eloquently put by the late Douglas Adams:
Everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;
Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
Anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
And we do allow the high school students in our house to maintain Facebook accounts without worrying too much about it. The computer is in the kitchen, after all, and I have to log them into Windows before they can use it. But human nature being what it is, everyone needs to consider carefully how using social networking sites affects what we class as suitable conduct.
We also need to remember that Facebook exists so that someone can make a profit. Since no one pays a monthly fee to use it (unlike the telephone, a medium to which social networking sites are compared - and a medium also overused by teenagers in years gone by), it must be recognized that Facebook users are paying some other way. Adolescent Facebook members (among others) need to be reminded to enter into this transaction with their eyes wide open, and understand that it is ultimately a business arrangement.
As Ivor Tussell, writing in the Globe and Mail, puts it: "Facebook isn't a private diary where your secrets will be safe from all but your dearest friends, who will cradle them to their bosoms. It's a website where you go say things in public, while the company tries to make money off you [link added]."
In fact, the marketing website Inside Facebook distinguishes Facebook advertising from search engine marketing by pointing out that when the latter is used, advertisers are bidding on keywords; when the former is used, advertisers are bidding on people. Think about that: if you have a Facebook account, you are being bid on. Make all your Facebook decisions accordingly - like the decision to answer quizzes, even if you are dying to know what sitcom character you are.
The American Civil Liberties Union continues to maintain that it is still too easy for people to give away access to their personal information on Facebook by answering quizzes and installing applications. The ACLU has even set up its own Facebook quiz, and walks you through just how much of your personal information can become available to a third party even if only your friends, and not you, decide to answer a quiz without having paid close attention to your privacy settings.
Clearly when someone warns about privacy on Facebook these days, they're not talking about the few brainless souls who post their name and a link to the Google Streetview map of their neighbourhood, then post their travel plans a few lines after saying something like, "Big screen plasma home theatre system just delivered - w00t!"
Even if you've set your privacy controls as prudently as possible, some administrator at Facebook, with an administrator password, ultimately has access. Otherwise, how could the memorializing of pages formerly put up by deceased users be accomplished?
If all of this networking wasn't being accomplished in cyberspace, it might look something like this:
You have a flyer with some personal information written on it that you want only to be seen by close friends. So you post it in a special, locked room - a room to which only you and your friends have a key. The room is in a house where you also post other information that is more generally available to the larger circle of your acquaintances, who have a key to the house but not to the special room.
The house is in a community of like houses, administered by a consortium of landlords whom you have never met; and who have promised you that, though they have the master keys to all of the houses and rooms, they will not make use of them for nefarious purposes, and the keys will, most of the time, be kept locked up in a very strong and inaccessible safe.
You can have the use of the house and the rooms rent-free: you only have to allow them to make a profit by using all of the information that they consider non-identifying, and trust no outsider will somehow manage to steal the master keys (wait a minute - there's an airport novel in here somewhere that would give Dan Brown a run for his money...).
You also have to be very vigilant to keep criminals from stealing your personal key, or tricking you into giving it away, just as in cyberspace: witness the story in last week's Spectator about stolen Facebook identities.
It may certainly be the case that you are astute enough that this would never happen to you - but you'd better hope that all of your Facebook friends are just as astute.
Alright. Suppose you simply use Facebook as a tool to manage your social life. Suppose you change your password regularly, and it's always a strong one. Suppose you don't have any gullible friends, and you never post anything that you would mind the whole world seeing. Overall, let's say your approach to your own privacy is sensible.
Heck, let's go further and say that by now most people are learning how to look after their own privacy sensibly, too.
What about your approach to the privacy of others? Now, I know most people aren't out to steal passwords (though I must admit the number of websites like these makes me wonder), but what about using Facebook to check up, frequently, on people you know, because you're bored or procrastinating?
Does the fact that they've put stuff up on Facebook and friended you make all of that information fair game? Or is it a little weird to know that at four in the afternoon someone you know from work is expecting the in-laws for dinner?
And this is where the room and key analogy breaks down. Let's say you asked a real-life friend out on a date, and he or she refused.
You, feeling a little crestfallen and paranoid about your attractiveness, might be tempted to visit his or her special room several times a day, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what's up on the bulletin boards and to see what others have got that you haven't.
But you wouldn't, because others entering the house would see you, and they would think you were a bit of a stalker. Besides, common sense would kick in, and the physical act of doing it once or twice would make you feel foolish and desperate - much better to keep calm, carry on, and find something else to do.
With Facebook, you can torment yourself visiting that special room repeatedly, and no one would ever know.
It has become a truism that life online enables many to do and say things that they would never do or say in person. Think of how Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, got his start. As a sophomore at Harvard, he hacked into the dormitory facebook (that's facebook with a lower case f) and made use of the photos to create a website that invited students to rate their classmates as "hot or not."
He had even been planning to work pictures of farm animals into it somehow, according to an article in Rolling Stone, which also carries a quote from him that I've seen repeated: "People are more voyeuristic than I would have thought."
And perhaps more exhibitionistic, too. I would love to research the relationship between social posing (if there was a reliable way to quantify it) and the number of Facebook friends a person has - my hypothesis would be a strong positive correlation between the two.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings of a Facebook backlash - even among teenagers, who are tired of the time suck it has become for them, and among employers, who are tired of the time suck it has become for employees. One of the undergraduates in our family has turned into enough of a young fogey to complain about being fed-up with the whole thing.
Still, Facebook is a useful tool to stay connected - but a more formal, deliberate approach to its use would be a good thing. It might even save a few marriages and prevent employers from spying on employees. Anyone can decide to be a little more etiquette-conscious for their own protection and the protection of their friends by setting their privacy controls accordingly.
It really boils down to remembering that Mark Zuckerberg himself has classed your information as semi-private. Speaking at the South by Southwest Conference in 2008, he said, "With Facebook, your information is not completely private and it's not completely public." All everyone has to do is manage their Facebook accounts with this in mind.
If they did, do you suppose it would be as profitable?
I'd wager that the more you use Facebook as a tool to stay connected with real friends and to plan actual face time, the less you post about marketable banalities that are chosen to correspond to your idea of yourself and the persona you wish to present.
People need not worry about how they look to their real friends. As Darcy said to Elizabeth when she referred to her lack of practice on the pianoforte:
No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.
- Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31
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