Should You Quit Facebook?

Whether you’re concerned about recent news about the extent of Facebook’s tracking or not, this discussion is worth watching:

Perhaps you should reconsider targeted advertising

A paradigm-shifting conversation with one of my editors prompted to consider the merit of not targeting online ads using consumers’ personal information. That, in turn, led to my latest article on MarkLives titled “Marketers should reconsider targeted online ads” which was published today:

Conventional wisdom in the marketing industry seems to be that better targeted ads are more effective. It makes sense. If you can present an ad to a consumer whom you believe is actually interested in your services, surely that consumer will be more inclined to purchase from you?

A prominent example of this thinking in action is Facebook, where ads are customised based on your Facebook activity and profile data. If you start posting about your love for sushi and share that love in your profile, you can be sure you will soon see ads for sushi products and restaurants alongside your News Feed.

One of the implications of not targeting consumers using their personal information is that your marketing campaigns may sidestep the Protection of Personal Information Act’s constraints. It is an interesting benefit, if that pans out, because of the compliance overhead the Act requires. Of course marketers would have to weigh up the benefits of targeting ads using personal information and the costs of complying with the Protection of Personal Information Act but its an interesting idea.

There is more to my article so go read it and let me know what you think?

Ello, good-bye. Stick to @Path or settle for Facebook.

Ello seems to have captured everyone’s attention with the promise of a better social network that addresses the challenges facing Facebook for many users. I don’t have access to Ello yet but based on what I can glean from the Ello site, it isn’t anything to get excited about. Here is an extract from my article on htxt titled “Is Ello the answer to Facebook privacy concerns, or is there another Path?“:

The hype around Ello reminds me of another social network that promised relief from Facebook’s unblinking gaze: Path. Like Ello, Path doesn’t use personal data to inform ads on its network. Path has no ads and, instead, relies on paid premium features to generate revenue to fund its operations. Unlike Ello, Path is private by design. If you are looking for a social network which is not being indexed by search engines and where you can share your personal stuff with a select group of friends with meaningful control over who can see your stuff, then Path is your better bet.

Ello isn’t really solving a problem that hasn’t been solved. Path is a far better bet for privacy conscious users. The real challenge isn’t finding an alternative to Facebook, it is persuading enough people to switch to the Facebook alternative to make the alternative a viable social network. Ello may be a far superior experience (I don’t have my invitation yet so I don’t have first-hand experience with Ello) but it will fail to gain enough traction to make a dent in Facebook’s userbase for one simple reason: everyone is using Facebook and it works well for them.

If anything, Ello inspires more faith in the Path vision:

Read the full article for more.

Advertising should be about attention, not privacy

Facebook’s expanded ad model is controversial to say the least. John Gruber made a good point in his post titled “Facebook to Use Web Browsing History for Ad Targeting”:

“Google does it” is not exactly a badge of honor, privacy-wise. More and more, the entire advertising industry is turning into a threat to privacy. Advertising should be about attention, not privacy.

Facebook, @Path and privacy – redux

One of the fundamental differences between Facebook and Path is that Path is designed around privacy, Facebook isn’t. On Facebook you have to really work to retain some degree of privacy. You have to set up your sharing preferences carefully, decide whether search engines should be able to index your profile and who can re-share your stuff, tag you and more.

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In Path, you can, at best, see that a person is a Path user, how long that person has been using Path and how many moments that person has shared. That is, unless that person hasn’t deselected the option that limits discoverability to friends. If the Path user does that, you can’t even find the person by searching for her.

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If you only want to share your moments with your friends and family and not with Facebook and its advertisers, try Path out. You can always set Path up to publish to Facebook too. What is the worst that can happen? Advertisers won’t be happy with you?

Path is the better personal network you've been waiting for

Path – Share Life from Path on Vimeo.

Path doesn’t have Facebook’s users or nearly as much public awareness and yet it is, by far, a superior personal network. For many people, Path is the social network they were hoping Facebook would be and isn’t.

I know a few friends and family who are apprehensive about Facebook and either use it reluctantly or skip it altogether. If they use it, it’s generally because their friends and family members are using Facebook to share stuff not because they see it as a meaningful way to keep in touch with the people they care most about. The problem is that Facebook is optimised for publicity and this makes a lot of people nervous because they could wake up one day and discover that Facebook made a change that exposes more of their data than they are comfortable with. It’s happened many times before.

On the other hand, Path is designed for a very personal, private experience. It is fundamentally different because of its emphasis on a more personal and meaningful experience. When people talk about any social network they almost inevitably compare it with Facebook and, given Path’s relatively tiny userbase, Path is frequently dismissed as Dave Morin’s wishful thinking. That is also a really superficial perception.

We essentially pay for our Facebook access using our personal information (demographics, preferences and connections) which Facebook uses to personalise ads we are inundated with in Facebook. That works better if we spend more time using Facebook and, in the process, giving Facebook more signals about which ads to present is with and which friends to associate with brands so we’d be more likely to click on pages and ads.

Because Path is not ad supported like Facebook, there is no need to persuade users to share anything publicly. Instead, Path is designed for privacy. Your default is to share with your connections who are preferably real friends and family members. The idea with the 150 connection limit in Path is to encourage users to focus on more meaningful and personal connections unlike on Facebook where users are constantly prompted to add more “Friends” whose value is ultimately sell more valuable ads.

When it comes to Path, having 20 connections is perfect if those 20 connections represent your real friends and family members who you most want to share your life’s moments with. Consider how many Facebook “Friends” you have. How many of those Facebook Friends would you regard as real friends? Is Facebook really a personal network or is its appeal its inertia?

Sure, Path’s utility to you is still dependent on whether the people you most want to connect with are Path users and that is likely to be the reason why most people will stick with Facebook with its overbearing ads and changing publicity settings.

It may be possible to improve your Facebook experience by trimming your list of friends and brands you follow. You should also see more updates from your Friends if you sort them into individual lists and check in with those lists (Google+ handles these lists far better with its Circles) but if you want a simple and beautiful way to share meaningfully, perhaps you should take a closer look at Path. Better yet, install it and try it out for a while. It may be what you’ve been waiting for.

Why "if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear" argument is flawed

Today’s encryption may be easy to break in years to come but that doesn’t mean tomorrow’s encryption won’t be stronger. This idea of “we’ll if you haven’t done anything wrong, you shouldn’t have anything to hide” is flawed for so many reasons.

It assumes we shouldn’t be entitled to a degree of secrecy based on our personal preferences. It also assumes whoever is monitoring our communications has a sense of right and wrong that aligns with ours and is consistent with whichever law governs that surveillance (in itself a challenging baseline).

We shouldn’t need to surrender our privacy, particularly where I suspect the real targets of this surveillance (assuming the authorities are being totally open with us on that one) are probably using pretty secure channels to communicate and develop their nefarious plans.

Privacy isn't dead and it's not about what you have to hide

One of the responses to revelations of NSA and the UK’s GCHQ surveillance of our data is a throwback to that idea that privacy is dead and we should “get over it” and adapt to a world of almost radical publicity. Coupled with this position is the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from increasing encroachment on your privacy. Both arguments are either the product of particularly narrow perceptions of privacy or a self-serving business model.

To begin to understand the fallacies underpinning these arguments, read Professor Daniel Solove’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have ‘Nothing To Hide’” which includes the following:

To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status, isn’t particularly sensitive. Many people don’t care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of beverages they drink. Frequently, though not always, people wouldn’t be inhibited or embarrassed if others knew this information.

Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

Choosing to live a life of radical publicity where anyone can view almost any aspect of your life may be a choice for some (although I suspect even the most radically transparent people still have some private space) but it shouldn’t be a lifestyle forced on anyone, especially by inherently paranoid, suspicious and secretive government agencies who are collecting data for the purpose of identifying what they deem to be unacceptable behaviours and trends.

One of the fundamental components of the right to privacy is the right to the right to “informational self-determination”. This has been recognised by our Constitutional Court and is the central issue Solove describes in his overview of Kafka’s book. What the NSA, GCHQ and other agencies are doing is utterly disregarding our entitlement to keep aspects of our lives secret as well as our right to have some measure of control over how our personal information and data is used, in part to ensure that it is processed bearing in mind the appropriate context.

Simply accepting that “privacy is dead” is foolish. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be. It is certainly injured by our governments’ callous disregard for it and utter failure to develop mechanisms to safeguard our security without sacrificing our right to privacy and dignity in the process. We may be heading towards a world of radical transparency, in some respects at least, but that goes both ways.

Similarly, the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from this sort of surveillance (the same thing applies to commercial entities) is, quite frankly, immature and the product of a total failure to appreciate the complexities of what the right to privacy entails in the first place.

This is one of those things to resist, not just throw up your hands and try figure out how to live in a glass house with no curtains.