Can We Trust Facebook?

I’ve heard three stories lately that make me worry about Facebook.  First, my friend Sutton from work posted a message to Facebook about diet pills.  This threw me for a loop because Sutton is on the skinny side but since I’m on the fat side I read the message with interest.  I asked him about it and he said somebody had hacked his account, and it started with a woman he knew that was also hacked sending the same messages. 

Then another friend at work, Joe, told me how people called his wife’s parents pretending to be their daughter stranded on road trip and not being able to get ahold of Joe and thus calling her grandparents wanting them to wire money.  The scammers had all kinds of interesting granddaughter and grandparent details to fool the old people.  The old people just called Joe.

When I told these stories to my wife she told me about a circle of her friends who were getting messages on Facebook from a dead woman they hand known.  They didn’t know if the hackers broke into Rachel’s account before or after she died, but they got messages from Rachel long after she passed – rather eerie.

Sutton and Joe cancelled their Facebook accounts.

I would have quit Facebook long ago because I don’t really use it, except that I’ve discovered it’s a way to keep tabs on friends, family and acquaintances.  I was going to quit because I don’t do anything I feel like posting about.  Being on Facebook makes me feel old and boring because all friends are out doing stuff and I’m not.  However, I have to admit Facebook is a good way to keep up with people.  As a social network it works, maybe it’s far from perfect, but it’s worth having an account. 

People I would have quit thinking about years ago stay alive in my mind because of Facebook.

That still leaves the question: Can We Trust Facebook?

Just before Sutton was hacked, he recommended, an online pinboard, whatever that might be.  He assured me it was fun and I should try it.  So I went to Pinterest and requested an invite.  When the email came and I clicked on the invite I was told to register with either my Facebook or Twitter account.  I was leery of this, but I clicked on signing in with Facebook and I was given a warning about how many rights I would be giving Pinterest and that scared me, so I closed the window.

I wrote Pinterest about this and they said they did this to make it easy to find your friends to share the pinboards.  Now there’s a certain logic in this.  Words with Friends and Spotify also want me to log in with my Facebook credentials.  All these companies are hoping to ride the coattails of social networking.  But it also solves another problem for them – they don’t have to maintain their own login system and manage accounts.

This brings us to question number two: Can We Trust Other Companies with Our Facebook Account?

Social networking is a fantastic idea, but is it being implementing safely?  There are always stories on the news about the dangers of Facebook with warnings about what kinds of personal information not to post on the site.  And Facebook has introduced more and more security features, but because Facebook wants to make billions it seeks all kinds of business partners and ways to integrate our personal lives into their businesses.

Facebook is now seen as a highway to nearly a billion customers so 21st century entrepreneurs are gold rushing to create apps that have symbiotic relationships with Facebook.

Which makes me ask:  How Far Will You Weave Your Life Into the Social Network?

What Facebook has become is a login system to the Internet.  When the internet first started people could be anonymous, but over time sites that makes billions have found endless ways to track us.  Facebook is a pub where everyone can know your name.

And don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain logic of networking people together.  What if all amateur genealogists were on Facebook and was integrated into Facebook?  It could easily link you to all your living relatives all over the world, and let you follow various paths of maternal and paternal inheritance.  What if you wanted to remember everyone in your 6th grade class from 1962?  If they were all on Facebook and the right information was in the database, you could have an instant class reunion.  Facebook has the potential to change society significantly.

Social networking is extremely powerful.  There’s a reason why hundreds of millions of people flock to Facebook.  But can we trust it?  I don’t think so.  Should we abandon it?  No, we shouldn’t do that either.

However there is a new concept on the net called Infosuicide where you leave the internet and try to erase all references to themselves.  I don’t know if this will become a trend, but some people are being turned off by losing their anonymity.  If the Facebook trend continues true privacy will shrink.

What we need is a science of social networking.  We also need laws and etiquettes to match this knowledge.  We need tight controls to how our personal information is monitored.  Our identities need firewalls to protect them, so we can have control over what aspects of our lives are public, or to what degree they are made public.

I think it needs to start by allowing us to control our various social relationships.  Think about it.  We know things about ourselves we’d never tell anyone, but everything else we’d be willing to share with various kinds of people we know depending on the relationship.  I think those breakdown something like this:

  • Spouse/lover
  • Friends
  • Close relatives
  • Close work relationships
  • Acquaintances
  • Game associates
  • Distant relatives
  • Distant work relationships
  • Various level of public networks

Once you start using Facebook for all kinds of social networks you have to divide them into all kinds of categories.  Would you want to let your doctors, dentist, optometrist, plumber, electrician to post reminders and schedules to your Facebook account?  You would if you got up everyone morning and checked Facebook faithfully.  If you start thinking of Facebook as a super Outlook calendar and contact program you would.

I’m not sure most people realize the direction Facebook is taking.  They are letting Facebook grow at its pace and not theirs.  I know people that join Facebook and quit and go back and quit and go back because its so tempting.  Many people don’t want Facebook to take over their lives but as more of their family and friends join Facebook the harder it becomes to avoid it without seeming like a misanthrope.

We can’t trust Facebook one iota, but we do.  Why?  Because it’s too good of an idea of pass up.  This week I got a round robin email from my cousins.  My cousin Jane wrote the first email to another cousin and gave them a list of who to forward the email to next, and I was last with the instructions to return it to Jane.  She then resent it to everyone.  When I saw that I wondered why everyone just didn’t join Facebook.

I don’t read Facebook regularly but I should.  If I did I would know more about my family and friends.  And that brings up another question about Facebook:  Are we obligated to social network?  I’m a loner and I’m extremely selfish with my time, but I feel there is an social obligation.  I don’t know to what degree we should feel obligated to network with the people we know, but I think there’s enough of an obligation that Facebook should exist and be required to legally meet security obligations.  In other words I think we need to make Facebook into something we can trust.  Hell, it’s a lot easier to use than making phone calls and writing letters.  I would make a case that Facebook is the minimum social obligation.

JWH – 10/8/11

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