Posted by Billyjam, February 18, 2009 02:30pm | Post a Comment
"Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life," claims the heading on Facebook once you arrive on their website. But we all know, or should suspect, that the phenomenally popular social networking site (175 million + members worldwide) would love to share your information with more than just "the people in your life" (i.e., advertisers or anyone willing to pay), especially when increased revenues for the company are at stake.

Hence the news this week that, following a tidal wave of protests from its justifiably anxious users that Facebook (FB) would again modify its rules by withdrawing recent changes to its so-called "terms of service" (TOS) dealing with the data (personal information, wall postings, messages, images etc.) supplied by its legions of devoted members, should not come as a big surprise.

The new message posted on FB reads, "Over the past few days, we have received a lot of feedback about the new terms we posted two weeks ago. Because of this response, we have decided to return to our previous Terms of Use while we resolve the issues that people have raised." That recent adjustment to the Facebook/member contract occurred about two weeks ago when the site deleted a provision from its TOS: an important one that said users could remove their FB data anytime they wished, and once they deleted it, that the license would expire. Suddenly FB added new data stating that FB could and would retain users’ content and licenses even after a user's FB account was terminated. Understandably this was perceived as meaning that FB forever owns everything you post on their site and naturally this unnerving bit of news set off a domino effect of paranoia amongst its members.
facebook ceo zuckerberg
Hence the back-peddling by FB top dog Mark Zuckerberg, who assured members in a blog posted two days ago that the fact that “people own their information and control who they share it with has remained constant.” This is the guy, you will recall, who forked over a whopping $65 million settlement in a lawsuit by his three old Harvard buddies who said they came up with the idea first -- intended for their own site, ConnectU -- and that that Zuckerberg (whose net worth is guestimated to be $1.5 billion) simply stole it from them. The case got settled before going to court so we really don't know the real dealio and it is possible that Zuckerberg is innocent, but I sure doubt it. This is the guy who millions are entrusting with their most personal information! 

Of course many FB users will defend the site by saying that they do indeed control all their info and more importantly who exactly gets to see it, and when. But many others who have deleted or deactivated their FB accounts and later decided to rejoin will note that even though they believed that the trail of all their personal information had been deleted forever, once they rejoined FB and logged back in, they are greeted by a welcome back notice, informing them that their account info is in fact still there.

I am not trying to demonize FB. I know so many wonderful stories of old friends being reunited through the site. Same for MySpace. Nor am I trying to demonize all or any social networking sites, but rather I genuinely question the reasons behind their growing popularity. I question the need for the average person to feel compelled to post so much personal information on some world wide website when these same people are (not always, but often) too busy to stop and say hello to their next door neighbor or facebookspend quality time talking face-to-face (or even on the phone) with a family member? Why is it apparently fast becoming easier for so many of us to freely communicate virtually than in reality? Are we that busy that we can't just talk or even write and send a postcard? Or are we just too scared to have the protection of communicating digitally stripped from us?  Does having 20,000 MySpace friends really mean more than having two real friends? 

I recently watched a telling episode of the British sitcom The IT Crowd that poked fun at Facebook  (Friendface they renamed it) obsession. The show's three twenty-something characters sat in the same small room, within feet of each other, but clearly were more comfortable communicating via their laptops than simply speaking to one another. The scene was at once comical and tragic as it highlighted how, in the illusion of us feeling more "connected" in this ever-easy access digital age, we are increasingly more isolated and less able to be truly communicate in a honest and vulnerable way. In real life there is no delete button when you screw up and say the wrong thing, but at least there is an honesty there.

Please add your thoughts, opinions, and arguments for/against the popularity of social networking in the COMMENTS below. Thanks for reading.

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Mark Zuckerberg (1), Myspace (4), Facebook (9)