June 3rd, 2007


by Wendell Weeks • in The Internet

“You must enter your real birthday to register.”

The online form is refusing to process my registration and has given me a gentle rap on the knuckles. In the birthday field I’d entered the oldest available date — January 1, 1910 (If it’s not a financial institute or a government website, I don’t like entering my real birthday online — any other situation I figure it should be optional). Naturally, my first thought is: “How the HELL does it know how old I am?” I calm down, realizing it’s probably just some device to weed out dishonest entries (enter a date too old, they figure you’re lying). I’m somewhat placated when the form accepts my second effort, not my real birthday, but close enough. In the internet nano-moment that my registration is processed and accepted, my heart goes out to all the 97-year-olds born January 1st stuck on the sign-up screen.

“John Smith is watching hockey and enjoying a lovely beverage.”

Welcome to Facebook.com: sign up, log on and find out what your friends are up to. Close friends, family, people you haven’t spoken to in 5, 10, 20 years. Upload and share photos, post an event and invite your friends, start or join a group, write things on people’s “walls”. And be sure to update your status when you log in, so everyone knows what you’re up to. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was happy that Allen — uhhh… I mean John — was enjoying a lovely beverage, I just couldn’t help but be amused that this information was coming to me on my Facebook homepage under a column titled “News Feed.” More on that in a moment.

“I love this!” comes the voice from the living room. It will come as no surprise that the more social and outgoing you are, the more likely you are to enjoy the Facebook experience. After two weeks of using the site, I feel I have a respectable forty-three friends. In 24 hours my wife has fifty and within a week is up to hundred. “This is brilliant!” she yells. I guess opposites really do attract.

Facebook is currently the fastest growing social networking site on the net, with new accounts tripling in the last year to over 18 million. Not yet on the verge of toppling MySpace or YouTube, but with the recent addition of a craigslist-style “Marketplace” within the site, the launch of the Facebook Platform (allowing third parties to develop applications that interface with the site), and with plans to allow users to start posting video, they seem to have set their sights on doing just that. Add to that that they’re already beating Flickr in image uploads and they look poised to establish themselves as a one-stop outfit for all your social networking needs.

[ By the way, if you've never heard of Facebook, social networking, or even the internet, head to Silicon Valley and march into any venture capitalist's office. Say something, anything, like... "People who eat rotten cheese" or "Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys!" As they're dialing for security, add "...and social networking." They'll hang up the phone and you'll leave with a briefcase full of money. ]

But back to the “News Feed”. In addition to being alerted to John’s beverage enjoyment, items like this regularly appear in the column:

“John Smith added (some album) to his favorite music.”
“Jane Doe added (some movie) to her favorite movies.”
“John Smith added (some book) to his favorite books.”

Now, while you may or may not be interested in every single album, movie or book that your friends have added to their “favorite” lists, it turns out that Facebook is definitely interested in every single one of them.

I confess I didn’t read the close to 10,000 words that make up the “Terms of Service” and “Privacy” statements before I registered. It seemed like an excessive investment of my time for a service that keeps me informed of what movies my friends like. Like most people I reckon, I’ve become so used to the “I Accept” button as part of online forms, that I clicked it without even blinking. But since I did, I figure Facebook can do what they said they could do.

Judging by how much discussion there’s been online over just precisely what Facebook is doing with the information in your profile, I’d guess that quite a lot of people didn’t read the terms of use they agreed to when signing up. I haven’t delved into the hard core details of it, but it should come as no surprise to anyone that Facebook is a money-making operation and given how little advertising I saw on the site, the money’s got to be coming from somewhere else. I think this comment to a post on digg.com sums it up simply enough:

“Social networking sites aren’t around because [they] genuinely care about you keeping in touch with your friends [...] They’re around to gather trends, figure out what people like and don’t like, and to provide you with something in return that makes you keep wanting to come back to their site.”
Digg.com Post

And then there’s the theory that draws links from Facebook back to the CIA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and to the fantastically ominous sounding “Information Awareness Office” (I thought that was just a department in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil?). All of this could very well be true, I suppose, I just figured a long time ago that if the government wants to know something about me, they’ll know.

If you’re about to join, and are concerned about privacy, consider actually reading the terms & privacy statements. Alternatively, you could always spend thousands of hours developing, programming and promoting your own social networking site and give it all away for free. That’s an option.

Already have an account and want to close it out? Know that deactivating it does only just that. Facebook continues to keep your profile in their database so that it’s there if you want to reactivate it. I contacted them about how to completely remove a profile from their servers, and they did provide an answer:

“If you do want your information completely wiped from our servers, we can do this for you. However, you need to remove all profile content before we can do this. Once you have cleared your account, let us know and we’ll take care of the rest.”

I haven’t done so, yet, but I have deactivated my account. So in case any of my Facebook friends are wondering where I went, apparently my profile is in peaceful hibernation on the site’s servers. Part of me can’t seem to let it go and thinks about going back, so maybe I’ll hold onto it a just a little longer. Until then, I’ll see you all in the real world, you know, if I actually really see you.

About the grade

The full 25% is for the one reunion night that Facebook made happen (got together with old high school friends). Otherwise, it’s just not for me.

Related Links

The Wikipedia entry for Facebook — a good place to get the background story on the site, and there’s a ton of links to external articles.

Social Network Ad Spending to Reach $2.5 Billion in 2011

Truth Behind Facebook: about who has money in the site, and the connection to the US government. A little bit conspiracy theory, but who knows? I was able to watch this the other day, but at post time I think the site was getting hit hard and the page was very slow to load, the video not loading at all.

Information Awareness Office
I wanted to include a link to this site, but found only a link that led to a broken page (making it all the more ominous). But here’s the Wikipedia entry.

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John Smith said:

I thought it was valuable information that I was watching hockey.

Seriously, you can change what appears in the news feed if u want. You dont have to have status updates there.

But yes, i agree that the more social you are, the more you like social networking sites, including FB. Thats why I would give it a 60 or 70. But at the same time, i do believe its a fad. already i spend less time there then when i started.

June 5th, 2007 at 2:48 pm

wendell said:

Excellent article on Facebook in The Guardian posted today:

January 14th, 2008 at 5:10 pm

wendell said:

More Facebook-bashing in this month’s Details Magazine:

April 19th, 2008 at 8:06 am

Joel Perras said:

Facebook’s Terms of Service are getting completely ridiculous:


They now own all of my data, forever, even if I choose to delete my account. WTF.

February 16th, 2009 at 10:20 am

Administrator said:

And now they’re making all status messages, photos and videos public by default:

‘A whole lot of people are going to hate it. When ex-lovers, bosses, moms, stalkers, cops, creeps and others find out what people have been posting on Facebook - the reprimand that “well, you could have changed your default setting” is not going to sit well with people.’

- http://www.nytimes.com/external/readwriteweb/2009/06/24/24readwriteweb-the-day-facebook-changed-messages-to-become-18772.html?em

July 12th, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Administrator said:

Nice historical overview here:

The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook:

May 12th, 2010 at 7:06 am

Administrator said:

And a thorough analysis on NY Times a few days ago:

(via Flowing Data: http://flowingdata.com/2010/05/17/facebook-privacy-options-untangled/)

May 17th, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Administrator said:

From the BBC today, “Facebook privacy settings to be made simpler”:

“Facebook faced a barrage of criticism from users over a series of tweaks that left its members unsure about how public their information had become.”


May 25th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

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