Facebook: the Shadow Internet?

Jeff Alworth

This morning, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook's newest feature, email. Not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things; email's a web 1.0 innovation in a 2.0 world. Actually, it's a little techier than grandpa's old AOL in that it will streamline and organize your various communications--provided that they happen on Facebook, of course.

And what doesn't happen on Facebook? Over the past year or so, I've noticed how much of what was once general internet content getting transferred to Facebook. I blog about beer, and I've seen that breweries are starting to use their Facebook pages as their central communication medium--their old-school, non-interactive websites are more like yellow-page listings. More and more, Facebook has collected information under its own, easy-to-use, interactive banner. Almost anything you can do elsewhere, you can do on Facebook, too. It doesn't take any imagination at all to see Facebook more or less supplant the regular internet. Commerce, communication, and content could all easily happen on Facebook, seemlessly. Sort of like Windows to the DOS of old.

Politicos have already embraced this, of course. Kari Chisholm was my entree to Facebook, when he posted about it on BlueOregon 3 1/2 years ago. Politicians were quick to sign up, and it's unimaginable that a candidate wouldn't have a FB page up now. Fundraise via Facebook? Of course you can. I think Sarah Palin gets credit for popularizing Facebook as a mass-communication medium. Remember the "death panels" incident? Facebook. Now journalists watch her page like they watch the wires.

In some ways, this doesn't seem like a bad thing. Facebook is handy, ubiquitous, and free. The company's a bit indifferent to their users' privacy, but hey, everything's got a downside. But I wonder if it doesn't have a much stronger downside than the loss of privacy. Facebook, because it's based on connections, manages to give you a wonderful image of the world you want to live in. My "friends" tend to be of three varieties: liberal politicos, beer folk, and Buddhists. Oh, and a few actual friends (almost all of whom are liberal and beery, but not always Buddhist). It is a seductive simulacrum of reality, appearing to possess the full diversity of the great wide world. Yet for all the information that flows down the "news feed," I'm getting a highly filtered view of the world.

This trend is nothing new, but it is nevertheless a change. We know when we're watching MSNBC that there's a FOX News out there. We see the filter. As communications become more subtle, and logarithms that bring the threads of our life together become more sophisticated, we can ignore the other side without even realizing it. There's no "news" in that news feed; I wonder, will we always remember?

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    FB is pure evil. I abandoned it once and may again.

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      Oh, I don't know about that.

      It is what it is -- an online entertainment that is provided for free by a company in exchange for that company's right to show you advertising.

      People are all freaked out about the privacy implications - but there's one important, simple, and often-overlooked rule.

      Facebook only knows about you those things that you tell it. You can have a Facebook account and decline to populate it with personal data.

      Also, when it comes to that privacy, Facebook doesn't care who you're sleeping with, what you're posting on blogs, or your family photos -- it only cares whether you like Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonald's, etc.

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        Facebook only knows about you those things that you tell it

        Not really, it knows much more. It can out you even if you don't reveal your sexual orientation in your profile.

        Facebook is creating, as Henry over at Crooked Timber put it, an Internet where everyone knows you're a dog. You could certainly make a case that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but don't pretend it isn't happening, especially as you force people to join Facebook just to leave a comment here.

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          When I first joined Facebook under an assumed name, I was shocked to see a list of "suggested friends," one of whom I had known only through a discussion board some years back. I didn't even know the person's last name. Facebook did -- and that we had had some internet contact. I'm still started how it "rounds up" people ... yes, that you really have known in this or some other life.

          Computer whizzes always have told me there is no privacy on the web other than slipping in with the sheer blinding numbers.

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          "Not really, it knows much more. It can out you even if you don't reveal your sexual orientation in your profile."

          No, that's ridiculous.

          First of all, that study is predicated on the "interested in" factoid. You tell Facebook that you're a man interested in men, and you've told Facebook your sexual orientation.

          Furthermore, that article says that Facebook's "ad-targeting program has the potential to out gay men to advertisers". Wrong again. While an advertiser can target people based on certain profile data, the advertiser doesn't get the names. (Now, if you click on the ad for a gay bar and sign up for their e-newsletter, well, Facebook didn't out you -- you did.)

          Again, if you don't tell Facebook something, it doesn't know it. It's not freaking magic.

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            I think you're wrong. I think Facebook has access to many if not all (and I'm not sure about that) things you do on the world wide web. It definitely has access to far more than you tell it or access from its site.

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        I basically use a fake name (I drop my last name) and I have a cat avatar. I only have 93 friends on FB and they are all ones that I have reached out to because no one can "find me" (like people from High School). I've hopefully futzed with all the privacy settings so as to make me as private as possible. I don't play games or use any of the apps. I don't click anything on the right hand side. And only under those circumstances do I feel I am as private as possible. I'm not really using it as it's intended. But I do feel my speech is uninhibited on it.

        It's handy for sites like this, but I would rather use my Twitter when writing to forums where I don't know people because Twitter is really anonymous for me.

        I'm sort of paranoid when it comes to privacy.

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      I'm really really really inclined to agree with you, Sonya.

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    As Facebook becomes more crowded it becomes less interesting. It is hard to stay current with people that I want to read and I get overwhelmed by too much. I and I expect most people, need to go and purge my "friends" list. That is why I am uninterested in any corporate friends.

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      I'm interested only in corporate friends. I got all excited last weekend to hear on NPR that the Queen of England had a Facebook page. I wanted her to show up on my very short list of friends. Alas, she & Mr. Peanut are relegated solely to "like" status. (And I don't even like the Queen particularly.)

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    Facebook is an utterly fantastic tool for business marketing.

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    I love this article! During the 2008 election I remember being so concerned about election outcomes because I'd realized my media intake had become so slanted; it still is.

    The polarization of media (whether social media like FB or more traditional media) leaves little opportunity to absorb a median (haha) perpective, but instead challenges us to acknowledge the extremes and define our own understanding of the middle ground. Where are we trained for this? As we settle into this polarization are we cognizant of the challenges it presents and educating ourselves and our kids on reasonable information consumption?

    I sometimes wonder if the negative result of "free speech" get lost behind flag waving; not to suggest that free speech is a bad thing, but rather that we should remain aware that freedom does not equal equality... a notion I suspect we are uncomfortable addressing on many levels, not just in regards to this medium.

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