Anti-social networking

I’m in a bit of a quandary. I love socializing online but it seems that as time goes on the big social networking sites are becoming more and more invasive, controlling, exclusive, and downright anti-social. First it was Facebook with its data mining, online tracking, and ridiculously complex privacy options. Did you know that even if you log out of Facebook it is still tracking your every move online? It can even share your surfing activities unless you figure out how to turn that off. And that’s just today’s trick. Tomorrow they will find a new way to collect data about you and you’ll have to go through the same exercise again if you want to protect your privacy.

Then there is Google+ which initially seemed like a much freer alternative to Facebook, until it turned out that it was designed as an “identity service.” With the recent harmonization of the Google privacy policy, that means that they can now track your activities across the entire Googleverse, as well as any page with a +1 button on it. Add to that the idiotic “real name” policy whereby anyone who tries to sign up with an unusual name or pseudonym can be suspended and their other Google services frozen. You could create a hundred spam accounts with “normal” sounding names with no problem but if your parents were hippies and named you Starflower your account will be flagged and you will be asked to submit government-issued ID. That’s like a coffee shop asking for your passport before letting you chat with your friends. It’s draconian and excludes a lot of people who have perfectly legitimate and sometimes life-and-death reasons for not using their legal name online. Moreover, now you cannot even create a Google account without joining Google+ and providing a “real” name. This applies to Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, the entire Googleverse. If you have anything to say that you do not want publicly associated with your legal name, Google is no longer the place to go.

Now Twitter, which has been credited with helping dissidents under repressive regimes to organize protests, is getting into the censorship business. They have announced that any government that wants to censor tweets on certain subjects or by certain users in their country can do so if they supply the appropriate paperwork. Twitter says “the tweets must flow,” just not the ones that any government finds inconvenient. Some have pointed out that Twitter is being quite transparent about this, compared to some websites (like Yahoo) that censor silently. Tweets won’t just disappear, they will be grayed out with a message that it has been banned in your country. But for a company that garnered such fame by facilitating the Arab Spring to now collaborate with governments to censor on demand seems particularly monstrous. Freedom of expression is a universal human right, not to mention a constitutional right in Twitter’s home country, so why are they denying that right to others?

I seem to have painted myself into a lonely corner with my ethical objections to these giant social networks. There are certainly alternatives. There’s Diaspora, a distributed, open source social network where you fully own and control your own data. It’s great but the problem is that about 99% of the people on it are software developers talking about software development. There is also identi.ca, which is an open source alternative to Twitter, but is also dominated by techie types. There are plenty of great subject-specific web communities out there, but obviously they don’t offer the convenient one-stop-shopping of the big social networks. Then there is the little problem of the good friends I have already made, mainly on Twitter. Just moving on and leaving them behind is not an option.

I honestly don’t know what to do. It does seem as though the free and open internet we used to know and love is being eroded, bit by bit. Both governments and corporations are getting more and more control over what we can do, share, and be online. The question of who owns the internet is being answered by those with the money and political influence to stake a claim in cyberspace. At the same time the open internet movement is strong, and as we saw with the SOPA/PIPA protest, the virtual masses are aware and willing to stand up for a free internet.

I am faced with the age old question of whether to vote with my feet or try to create change from within. I’ve seen some people leave Google+ in protest and others stay to fight the good fight. I cannot say which is better. It remains to be seen what will happen on Twitter after today’s #twitterblackout boycott. Perhaps people will decide to up and leave for identi.ca, Disapora, and other free and open social networks. It doesn’t seem too likely though. It also seems highly unlikely that Twitter would bow to pressure, refuse to censor, and allow itself to get banned in every country that stifles dissent. Those are some pretty big markets we’re talking about.

I guess I will just have to wait and see and try to learn more. I recently started reading the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, which explores all these issues in detail. At the very least we should be well-informed about the forces that are shaping our online lives.

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16 comments on “Anti-social networking

  1. Technogran says:

    A very interesting take on our current big social networks. Its a shame that once they gather momentum and become a certain size, then their users needs tend to be forgotten about completely.

  2. Thanks, Technogran. Yes, I think that all companies including web companies are always under pressure to expand and make more money, no matter how successful they are, and once they reach their natural limits they have to start transgressing in order to keep growing. If we don't object they will keep doing it.

  3. Tom says:

    “I love socializing online…”
    I'm not on F-book or +, or any other social network. Commenting on blogs is the extent of my online socializing, but as a card carrying introvert, that's how I like it. I can imagine what a quandary this really is for you. Unfortunately, I suspect that maintaining an account with any service constitutes tacit approval of the service provider's activities. If no one jumps ship, if the providers keep revenue up, why would they change? There's no reason to. What you need is an “un-occupy” movement. You need to become a Saul Alinsky radical!

  4. “un-occupy movement”– 😀 I like that! You're right, if we keep using these services, the shareholders will be happy no matter how much we complain. I kind of feel bad because in the beginning I encouraged people to use Google+ and now they like it and don't want to leave. Sometimes activism backfires!

  5. Tom says:

    I think it's time to un-backfire the activism then. If you helped move things one way, you can help move them another!

  6. I'm afraid I'm in the situation of the boy who cried wolf. Not everyone is as happy to jump on and off technological bandwagons as I am. Next time I'll be more circumspect and thoroughly investigate before getting out my megaphone.

  7. Stefanie says:

    Thanks for the EFF link! I completely understand how you are feeling. I was deeply disappointed when I heard the news about Twitter. I keep thinking I am going to delete my FB account but I don't. I log into it so rarely that they send me welcome back emails when I do. I'd also like to keep my various Google accounts separate. And now I have the added moral dilemma of whether I should avoid buying Apple products in the future unless they treat their factory workers better. I am sure Apple is not the only one with bad factory conditions and no one is yet advertising themselves as the ethical computer tech company. So does that mean I disregard human rights for the sake of technology? Or do I eventually drop off the superhighway when the tech I have gets obsolete? I really hate that we are being asked to sacrifice both our privacy and our moral values for the sake of technology. I just don't know what to do about it at this point.

  8. Exactly. There aren't a lot of viable alternatives out there, especially when it comes to electronics. It's almost impossible to buy anything not made in China, electronic or otherwise. The big box stores are giant monuments to our willingness to put the welfare of other human beings (and the planet) beneath our desire for more stuff. I am certainly no better, though I do try not to buy the cheapest of the cheap. I do think the internet is doing a good job in bringing these issues to light, which makes is to much more important that we keep it free and open. Without information and awareness none of these problems can be solved.

  9. Matt says:

    I think there should be laws in place to prevent these large social media companies from invading our privacy. Unfortunately, legislation in these matters are so far behind.

    I, too, am in a quandary. Inspite of these issues, I can't get off these social media companies, since most of my friends are registered with these organizations… 😦

  10. Yes, the legal system is waaaay behind the internet, and considering how fast technology changes it's hard to imagine how they could ever keep up. In some ways that is good because governments, at least in North American, seem to be more interested in surveillance than protecting their citizens' rights online. I think they are doing a much better job in Europe (as usual), though there is a copyright battle going on there right now too.

    One reason I really like blogging is because I always have a home base online no matter what happens on other social sites. I always say that my blog is my profile. Maybe blogging will attract new people who are uncomfortable with the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

  11. Matt says:

    I was really planning to take myself off the social media scene(like Facebook), and just retain my blog, especially for the reasons which you've cited.

    My wife, however, intervened. She said that I shouldn't, because it's one of the ways that I keep in touch with family (Mom & siblings, in-laws, nephews & nieces) who have all migrated to the US (I'm from the Philippines). I have to admit – she made sense.

    I just hope that the issues you've raised (especially privacy issues) about social media will be resolved soonest.

  12. There's no question that sites like Facebook are very good at what they do (though I do find Facebook to be overly complicated). I think it is possible to use them safely but you have to keep on top of all the privacy settings and changes as they happen. Facebook and Google have been forced to make changes due to the criticism, so it does work, eventually, at least to some degree.

  13. Jeff says:

    Increasingly, I share these concerns as well. Although it's more noise than signal, I like that Facebook lets me stay in touch with a handful of relatives and friends…but lately I live in fear of accidentally hitting one of the Facebook or Google+ buttons that have popped up everywhere, from newspaper websites to YouTube to many high-traffic blogs. I may quit G+ and start using a separate browser solely for logging into Facebook.

    It would be nice if disaffected social media users came back to blogging, but they'd have to re-learn how to write full-length posts…

  14. I don't think full-length posts are really necessary on a blog, and perhaps the notion that blogs must be long-winded and serious with proper grammar keeps some people away. Blogs can also seem technically complicated but compared to how Facebook is now with screen after screen of settings, perhaps blogs are now the simpler option! I think people just don't know that they can create private blogs or post by email and upload pictures in a snap. The blogging platforms I'm familiar with even have social tools built in, though there is much room for improvement there. I think the blogging platforms could be doing more to show that they are a great alternative to invasive and otherwise questionable social networks.

  15. Jeff says:

    Well, what I meant was that people who used to write full blogs, particularly folks in academia, have now spent two or three years sending out only fragmentary thoughts via Facebook and Twitter. But I think you have a good point re: how relatively easy it is to have an online presence via blogging software. It would be nice if the default method of tracking people down were not Facebook. (I occasionally get messages from people via FB who claim they can't figure out how to contact me–even though my email address is on my easily-Googled blog and my phone number is listed…)

  16. I see what you mean. Yes, I'm afraid Facebook has become the 'phone book' for the web. If you're not there it is questionable whether you exist!

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