Don’t feed the troll

Over the next few days I’m going to make a few changes to my facebook profile, apps, settings, privacy, content, likes, pokes and all the other granular and unseen ways its crept into my life. In short, there’s going to be less, a lot less.

This isn’t me trying to quit facebook in a storm of indignation. I’m all too aware that I need facebook, but I need it for a set number of things, and anything beyond that it isn’t going to happen anymore.

It’s more that I’m trying to wrestle back some control. I don’t think that I have ever enjoyed using facebook. I joined, reluctantly in 2005, back when it was a student-only website. Almost overnight I stopped getting invited to parties. When I asked why I wasn’t told about some spectacular event the response was inevitiably “but it was on facebook”. A couple of week’s protesting that people could still invite me via text or in person fell on deaf ears and so I signed up.

Gradually I got sucked in. I posted more status updates, I even uploaded a few photos. I played a lot scrabble. Once I left university it became a useful tool for keeping in touch with my friends. I could find out their phone numbers and birthdays, and organise reunions. Crucially at this point facebook was not – scrabble aside – a destination. I went there to find out something (e.g. Sarah’s phone number) then carried on doing what I was trying to do (e.g. call Sarah). In retrospect, I guess this was the sweet spot.

Because shortly after I started work, in 2007, things began to change. Firstly, the number of people using facebook increased astronomically. It was no longer just a student thing. Secondly – linked to this I’m sure – commentators starting fretting about facebook’s value, about how they were going to monetise all these people freely giving the kind of information a market research company would kill for. And that led to facebook becoming about data rather than people.

That’s what it is today, data. Personal networks, employment networks, likes, interests. If it’s not directly saleable like hobbies (Buy Manic Street Preachers tickets here!!!) then facebook will encourage you to strengthen its data pool by ‘connecting’ with others, or tagging your friends in photos. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that facebook isn’t for me anymore. I’m here for facebook, feeding the data monster, and that’s not what I signed up for.

Let me pause here for a moment and say that I’m fully aware that I saunter through life complicit in my own exploitation. It’s my belief that, say, my job, my landlord and the Manics all exploit me and I let it happen – because I think I get something in return. Even though I see my hourly charge-out rate vs. my own salary and weep, I accept that in the face of having money to rent a room (at an inflated price) and go to gigs (and buy crappy merchandise). Someone else is profiting from my behaviour but as I feel I am too, I find it hard to be indignant.

It was the same with facebook. I’ve always known that when I upload pictures to facebook, the data monster claims copyright. I think that’s ethically wrong, but I’d conceded that point because it was an easy way to share snaps with my friends. The benefit still outweighs the cost. Compare that with one of facebook’s more recent innovations: face recognition. More than once I’ve seen photos (sometimes mine, sometimes others’) in the sidebar, and the monster asks me if I know them, or will have a guess at a name and ask me to confirm.

Who does this benefit? It’s not me. If I can identify the person, maybe they’ll benefit from being tagged. But what if they don’t want to be? It’s not my business to make that link for them. Now, if the monster used this technology for good it would offer me the chance to ‘search for untagged photos of me’. Then, I get to decide. I am in control and I benefit. But with the current model the only person who benefits is the monster.

(Also, I didn’t agree to have my photos served up at random across the site, even to friends. Alright, I probably did ‘agree’, but that in itself is an issue. Facebook privacy settings are complicated, and could well be in breach of European law. Europe vs. facebook does a great job of explaining all this. On requesting his personal data from facebook, the founder of the site was sent 1000 A4 sheets’ worth.)


My interests page before and after.

Then there’s interests. My favourite music, books, films and quotes. I copied mine off Myspace when I first joined, but when I added to them I was initially disappointed that facebook didn’t automatically alphabetise them. To do so would have meant basic machine reading. Myspace did it by using commas as a separator, it never built entities and automated pages around the interests itself. That’s helpful data crunching that benefits me. The monster, by indexing my interests fully, has a different agenda.

Yeah, yeah, advertising. I can’t really object to that, I see that it has to happen. I do object to an already incomprehensible news feed being further clogged up by spam. (I’ve got that Manics album. Trust me, I have.) There could be a special defence for interests though. That’s what some of the first social networks were built on. I met fellow Manics fans on a forum, and on Livejournal, where I could enter my interests as tags, and view other users with the same tag. That makes perfect sense on a site full on strangers, but far less so given that facebook is supposed to me about people I know.

Maria likes Super Furry Animals and Black Blooks. I know. She’s my friend. She also likes lazy Saturday mornings and waving at people. So again, who does that serve, except the monster who no doubt wants me to add some more valuable interests to my profile?

The pages themselves, I suppose, have some use. But I personally don’t use facebook fan pages as a source of information. Either there is no new information (e.g. a seven year old film) or I rely on twitter, email and friends. So once again, no benefit. (Actually, I’ve kept three because I do rely on facebook for them. So they stay.)

Facebook, using the like plugin, now follows me around the internet. And if I could remember my spotify password it would be listening to my music too. The monster has escaped from the cage, as if AOL’s Walled Garden of the 1990s suddenly grew great vines of poison ivy, which drag me back wherever else I try to go.

Or to put it another way, there’s been an article floating around the internet recently about how facebook is becoming the black hole of the internet. If something like 10% of all time online is being spent feeding the monster then it’s no wonder that we say we’re ‘on’ facebook. We’re not ‘on’ the BBC. I visit the BBC, I read the Guardian. I am on facebook. I think some of that is because facebook is an extension of the self, and so works as ‘I am on the train’, but it’s also a reflection of how much time is being spent.

I think I spend 10% of my online time on Twitter (there it is again). But the difference with Twitter is that for the moment at least, I feel in control. I chose who to follow, and it’s easy to unfollow if they’re boring. When Twitter does suggest to me, it tends to be unintrusive and far less demanding than the monster. I still feel like I’m using it. Facebook is using me, but from now on I’m going to be far less helpful.

Monster, you can keep my birthday but not my year. You can have my whimsical status updates because no human can understand those, so I suspect machines can’t either. You can keep, for now, all photos I’ve tagged friends in so they can still have them, but no others unless I explicitly want them shared. Any photos of me I want to keep I’ll save and de-tag ones that I don’t like or aren’t really of me. I don’t mind new tags at all, I just may not keep them. I really like photos, but not stored forever on the data monster.

Henceforth I’ll have no interests, but I might keep the odd quote. Events, well, no one I know uses facebook for events any more because it’s so easy to be non-committal. Only clubs and societies – where it doesn’t actually matter who turns up – seem to bother. Take that, 2005.

All this without even whinging about the structure and layout of my data, as it’s presented to me, or how incredibly hard it is to delete my interests – not just in terms of process, but also having to ‘unlike’ the Manics feels wrong. Facebook is part of my identity more than I like. Facebook’s IA is terrible, though emotionally canny, but that’s a whole other post.

I know, thanks to Europe vs. Facebook, that after my deleting spree, it make not truly be gone. But my compromised self doesn’t really care. I just want to use facebook for keeping in contact with old friends and have some degree of control over what I hand out. I’ll make sure people can still find and recognise me. I’m not stupid enough to think I run away from the data monster. If anything, the internet will become more like this, not less. What I will do is ensure that what little bits of me it does eat don’t taste very nice.