Over the years we’ve all seen technological trends come and go (I’m old so I’ve seen more come and go than some others). I regard Facebook as one of these fads that will fade quickly.
As a mathematician I have been interested in the study of random graphs that arise from social phenomena. Examples include the link graph of the web, the email graph connecting email addresses together, the sexual contact graph, the coauthorship graph, the coworker’s graph, etc. In trying to understand how these graphs evolve, I’ve noticed a lot of buzz surrounding websites that try to build explicitly upon this phenomonen, namely social network sites like LinkedIn and Orkut. In the past I even joined a couple of these to see what the hype was about. In each case, after screwing around with them for about ten minutes I’ve been thorougly underwhelmed with the technology and the privacy compromises that they involve. I predict that these will go the way of geocities (or at least they should).
First of all, they offer a walled garden model, where only people who surrender their privacy are allowed to participate. In order for any of these sites to have any value to you, you have to put some energy into surrendering your information to the control of the closed network. If your friends choose to put their effort into the same network, then you can benefit from it. On the other hand, if your friends put their effort into another network (e.g., myspace or orkut or 360 or linkedin), then you end up having your friends walled off from each other. I have friends all over the world, and I don’t see any value in having them walled off from each other. If the web taught us anything, it is that walled gardens are inferior to gardens without walls.
The privacy issue is a confusing one to many people. Some people are attracted to Facebook because they perceive that it offers some control for them over the information that they share with friends. What they overlook is that in order to gain this control, they have to surrender other forms of their privacy. In particular, in order to join the Google group at Facebook, I have to give my work email address to Facebook. In exchange for surrendering this information to a faceless corporation, I would get to exercise some control over the sharing of information that I put into facebook. Specifically you can limit your data to those who you declare to be in your list of friends. It even offers some fine-grain control over which of your friends can see certain pieces of information. Whoopdy doo.
By contrast, when you create a web site like this one, you have no control over who can read it or what use can be made of it. That drives some control freaks and fearful people crazy. The advantage of giving away control is that you don’t limit your ability to communicate. As a social animal, I like to share information with my friends, but I’m not particularly interested in using a crude web tool to exercise limited control over who gets to see what. I adopt the notion that if you don’t want to say it in public, then you probably shouldn’t type it at all.
In my opinion there is far too much paranoia in this world about privacy, and sites like facebook prey upon this paranoia in a cynical way to exploit the data of others. There is a lot of data about us as individuals that circulates in this world, and sometimes that data gets used against you in ways you may not like. I see sites like Facebook as a placebo against this trend.
Anyway now I’ve joined facebook. Just don’t expect me to put any time into building my network – I like my gardens without walls.