Thursday, December 17, 2009

Responding to Facebook’s lions: Stop friends using the apps

Facebook has made changes to their privacy settings that have two major consequences. The first is that the default settings now share much more information. The second is that users can no longer protect their social network from Facebook’s “Applications”.

Most of the media attention has been on how information is exposed to search engines such as Bing and Google. This is important, but there are complex workarounds. It’s not the most interesting or important consequence anyway.

The more important consequence is that Facebook’s shady App vendors (see: Scamville Furor, Facebook and the eBay disease) can no longer be blocked from accessing a player’s social network. So every App vendor has access to all player “friends” and all of the information they in turn make available in their public profiles. Remember that most of those public profiles now contain a great deal of personal data.

The Facebook Apps are “free”, but these vendors are not charities. They earn money by selling game goods, marketing extra-game services and products (some fraudulent), and by selling information. They will sell the social network information they harvest. They will also use that social network to find new “players” (aka “victims”).

To understand this it helps to think of Facebook as the African plains. In this metaphor Facebook users are rhinos and zebras and Facebook App vendors are lions.

Both rhinos and zebras graze on Facebook grass (photo sharing, social stories, contact information). They get along. So how are they different?

The rhinos don’t do Apps and they restrict access to their personal information. They’re tough and nasty; they don’t directly feed lions. The zebras, however, do Apps, and they travel in herds. They’re sleek, soft and vulnerable. Find one, you can find more. Lions eat zebras.

It’s messy for the zebras, but that’s how the market works. The Facebook ecosystem is a rich feeding ground, and lions have to eat.

Of course the Facebook ecosystem is more complex. Facebook rhinos and zebras are often friends and family. Even though lions don’t eat rhinos, FB lions find rhinos through their zebra friends. They then sell Rhino locations (information) to big game hunters (banks?) who sell Rhino horns for fertility potions (risk profiles).

The market world is different because rhinos and zebras can fight back. Not every vendor scores a 10 on Gordon’s scale of corporate evil; Google’s a mere 3 at the moment. There’s more than one way to make money – though the alternatives may mean a smaller IPO. On the other hand, Facebook’s current strategy runs the risk that IPO buyers will remember eBay.

It’s not clear that there’s anything to be done about Facebook. The corporate culture there is probably too much like 1990s Microsoft or 2010 Goldman Sachs for them to find another road. I’ve stopped encouraging my friends to join up with Facebook.

If you want to continue grazing Facebook’s grasslands however, and you don’t want to be lion fodder, there’s now only one possible response.

Convert your zebra friends to rhinos. Get them to stop using Apps. If they persist in using Apps, unfriend them. They’re leading the lions to you.

As of today, Facebook apps are the enemy.

Update: Great comment from Nettie. She refers us to Brad Stone's announcement of the EFF's complaint to the FTC - cosigned by ten other privacy organizations ...

... Ten other privacy organizations signed the complaint, including the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the American Library Association and the Consumer Federation of America. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada has also been looking into Facebook’s privacy guidelines...

I think it's fair to say that the fan has been hit. Like Nettie, I've noticed people drifting away from FB ...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Do you think the FTC complaints will make any progress?

I had been thinking I might have to leave FB eventually (sadly because it is so very useful). Also with the new UI changes it seems a lot of people have been drifting away so it's not as interesting as it used to be (except for you of course, John!)