Free Will, Sharing and Facebook

6 minute read

Facebook has been in the news a great deal lately. Early this week, they made some changes to their site design. Yesterday, they announced Facebook Timelines which is essentially a digital representation of your life that will be available on the web unless you choose for it not to be. Neither of these changes have been received well by Facebook users. If you’re on Facebook, I’m sure you’ve seen many posts related to the topics, specifically the new UI design. There are a couple of ideas I want to discuss that are related to these changes. The first is the idea, often seen in the threads like those I just mentioned, that you don’t pay Facebook anything and you don’t have to use the app. You can choose to not use Facebook. I think this is incorrect for a large number of Facebook users. The second idea is the biggie from Facebook, the idea of frictionless sharing. Both are connected through the idea of choice.

I chose to give up Facebook for Lent this year. I’m not a huge Facebook user but it’s a convenient way to stay in touch with people and as it turns out, get invited to things by people I don’t regularly see, typically former coworkers. We have a private group that we use to announce happy hours, football watching and other group events. During the 40 days of Lent, I received not a single invitation to events thrown by Facebook friends because I wasn’t on Facebook. This isn’t entirely due to my absence as I live out in the boonies and am kind of a hermit. However, what happened when I gave up Facebook for 40 days was the default situation changed. Instead of the default being that I got invited and could choose whether I attended or not, I just didn’t get invited. This is because Facebook is the default social application on the web. I had little recourse to change the default while not on Facebook short of just calling people randomly to see if something was going on. While this is how the world worked in the past, the world has changed. The merit of the change is certainly up for discussion but in certain cohorts, Facebook is the default. Without access to Facebook, you lose access to those people.

This idea that we don’t have to be on Facebook sits on the concept of free will. Free will is the idea that as human beings we have the ability to make any decision we want, carte blanche, free of outside constraints. Free will has long been an active topic in philosophy and religion. Most people believe that we truly do have free will, that given a choice between A and B, you can just as easily choose one over the other. This is the core of the argument that “You don’t have to be on Facebook.” For example, someone who believes I have free will thinks that I can make the choice to walk into a crowded theater and yell “FIRE!” at the top of my lungs. However, I believe (as does most of society thankfully) that free will is constrained by social determinism, the idea that the choices you have are limited based on your desire to remain a citizen in good standing in society. Because I don’t want to go to jail, I can’t yell FIRE! in a theater. My choices are constrained by the social mores of the community I live in.

What does all this have to do with Facebook? When someone says “stop complaining, you don’t have to be on Facebook”, it is really just an argument in favor of total free will as it relates to how that person interacts with his friends, family and cohort. However, because Facebook is THE default social application and because so many of our interactions are becoming digital in nature, not being on Facebook is tantamount to not having friends. Many of us are constrained by the social choices our friends and family make, assuming we don’t want to become hermits. Extreme? Possibly but I am not a huge Facebook user and I didn’t get invited to events for 40 days when I left Facebook. Someone for whom Facebook connects the many people in their lives do not have the easy choice to give up Facebook.

Additionally, Facebook will now have something called “frictionless sharing.” This was announced in the f8 conference by Mark Zuckerberg this week. Frictionless sharing is the idea that when you watch a movie or read a link or listen to a song, that activity will be posted to your Facebook timeline if you have authorized the app that controls it. For example, if you authorize the app for Bob’s XYZ Health Service, every time you visit a link at Bob’s XYX Health Service, it will get posted to your news feed. Perhaps you think you’d never do something like that? Think about the last time you encountered a Terms of Service for software you bought or installed. Did you read it entirely? Or did you just click “Agree”? The request for authorization could be as arcane and difficult as a Terms of Service and many people would just click “OK”. Or people won’t think through what they are actually clicking.

There are two fundamental things wrong with frictionless sharing. First, it’s one very huge step on the slippery slope towards the destruction of privacy. Once you authorize an app, there is almost no telling what will get posted to your timeline if it remotely involves that app. Let’s say for example I authorize the hypothetical Bob’s service above. One day, many months later, I go into Google and search for “colon cancer symptoms and treatments”. The second link in the results happens to be a sponsored link from Bob’s. Not thinking anything about it, I click on that link. The link gets posted to my feed but because I’m busy looking up colon cancer treatments, I don’t notice. 12 months after that, I’m diagnosed with colon cancer. My insurance agency denies coverage because they found my search online and ruled it must have been a pre-existing condition. It matters not that at the time I was looking up information for my dad. I still get denied coverage. Or what if it’s a picture sharing app and one day you download some erotic pictures from your camera that you took with your significant other? The examples go on and on. People will make mistakes and in our increasingly connected digital world, a mistake of this nature can be absolutely life changing.

The second thing wrong with frictionless sharing is the idea itself. Throughout time, we have been a social creature. Even before the Internet, we shared our lives, our joys, our griefs with each other. But sharing is necessarily full of friction. The most important friction in sharing is the very act of it being explicit. The concept of sharing revolves around the idea that I chose to share something with you. The phrase “frictionless sharing” is an oxymoron, one created by a company whose single overarching goal is to get you to put as much information about yourself and your life online in manner that gives them the most access to it. Frictionless sharing should terrify you.

Even before the latest changes, we were probably at the point where you should assume everything you do in regards to Facebook is public. These latest steps by Facebook move us down a path where even actions you take outside the application may become public. Don’t ever forget that you are not actually a user of Facebook. You are the product, the thing that they are selling to their actual users, the people who buy ads and invest in the company. Because you are not a user, you should assume that your desires and needs are not considered in almost anything Facebook does. You are the product. They are trying to sell you. Keeping that at the foremost of your mind when you are making decisions regarding sharing data with Facebook will go a long ways towards protecting your privacy.