Leaving Las Facebook

From the New Yorker:

Zuckerberg’s business model requires the trust and loyalty of his users so that he can make money from their participation, yet he must simultaneously stretch that trust by driving the site to maximize profits, including by selling users’ personal information. The I.P.O. last week will exacerbate this tension: Facebook’s huge valuation now puts pressure on the company’s strategists to increase its revenue-per-user. That means more ads, more data mining, and more creative thinking about new ways to commercialize the personal, cultural, political, and even revolutionary activity of users.

There is something vaguely dystopian about oppressed peoples in Syria or Iran seeking dignity and liberation inside a corporate sovereign that is, for its part, creating great wealth for its founders and asserting control over its users.

I was off on the day that Facebook had its I.P.O. a week and a half ago so I got to watch some of the market reaction as it unfolded. I also happened to be eating lunch with my father, a retired financial advisor. As we watched the stock price flatten to the opening offer of $38 a share on one of those financial cable networks, he looked at me and said, “They left nothing on the table.” The translation of that statement is this: in making an initial offer, companies and banks want to price a stock so that it goes up initially to show market confidence in the valuation of the company. In order to get that gain, there has to be a value to move towards; like from $34 a share to $38 a share. In pricing it at $38 a share, that’s the same number that the investors thought it should be at. The price didn’t budge because people didn’t feel it was worth more than that. There are many reasons why investors might feel that way, but that’s a whole other post for people with better financial knowledge. The bottom line is that in pricing the shares, the company and the bank ‘left nothing on the table’ for investors to move towards.

As the computer class instructor at my library, I felt that my father’s statement is rather apropos when it comes to the Facebook class I teach. In taking people through the site, I spend the largest portion of my class on the privacy settings as well as giving my students the pros and cons about information sharing on the website. Share to your comfort level, I would tell them as I described how the data that they offer can be used to sell advertising on the site. In light of the new investor pressure, I am considering advising them with the same thing my father said: leave nothing on the table. While I do my best to offer as much information as possible so that people can make their own privacy choices on Facebook, the importance of personal information management has only grown. It’s no longer about what how much you entered into your profile or your current and future updates, but revisiting and revising previous updates and inputs.

Some may interpret this as revisionist personal history; I would opt for calling it timeline curating. I don’t see an issue with a person going back and removing information they no longer want to share with Facebook; it is not actually removing it from existence. While the site encourages you to make it a home for your history, it’s pretty hard to not notice that there is a bottom line that is also in play that utilizes that information. In looking at the sum total of your Facebook profile and timeline, from the first update to the current photo album, it’s still your data that you can remove at any time.[1] While you cannot delete your Facebook account, there is nothing stopping you from stripping it down to the bare essentials: a birthdate and an email address. Leave nothing on the table.

For myself, privacy is a odd library issue these days. There is a push to get libraries on social media to engage and share with their members. Conferences and workshops have speakers tossing out hyperbolic statements like “you must be on [insert social media site here] or your library will [insert dire consequence here]”. They tend to talk about what the library could share and how awesome it would be while sprinkling in some success stories, but then glaze over the nuts-and-bolts portion about how it requires staff time, integration, and an actual organizational strategy and purpose. Using Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest is not for casual outreach because it’s a ‘free’ platform, but something that needs to be maintained and grown over course of months and years. (To steal a phrase from Toby Greenwalt, “Free as in kittens, not as in beer.”) I can’t recall much discussion given to privacy in these cases, so I’d be curious to hear a speaker who addressed this issue head on.

Contrasting this urge to share is the ALA’s own campaign, PrivacyRevolution, complete with its own website and week. There’s even a webpage that offers an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights as it pertains to privacy. On top of that, there are (in general) state statutes regarding confidentiality and disclosure of a library record. Here in New Jersey, a library record can only be disclosed as part of proper operation of the library, a request by the user, or a court subpoena or order.[2] Your state or country’s laws might be different, but I’m guessing that if you are in the United States, it’s probably something similar. The message here is that information inquiry is a private matter that is business of no one else but the individual; that in this age of increased monitoring, it is paramount for libraries and librarians to work to ensure personal privacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favor of educating people about what happens to the information that they put out online or in person. But it is a odd path to walk when there is an advocacy push to embed ourselves in social media and “go where our users are” while others are raising flags of concern about privacy and offering caution and wariness about our online footprints.

“Tell us what you are reading, but don’t tell us what you are reading.”

In the end, I think that last line of the first paragraph in the quote at the start of this post holds the most truth: as social media sites go public, there will be a push to use personal data in new and possibly not privacy kosher ways. Personally, I’m not overly concerned; people already make their choices as to what they want to keep to themselves and what they want to share. Sure, we have websites loaded with poor choices of the latter, but that seems statistically correct in the broad scheme of things. The best that computer class instructors like myself can do is lay out everything and let the people make their own choices. I’m not planning on leaving Facebook at this juncture; it still serves a purpose and I understand the quid pro quo of what I am getting in exchange for allowing access to my personal information ‘stuff’. Right now, for myself it is about finding those privacy limits and making plans accordingly. And when I do go, I’ll be sure to leave nothing on the table.

 

[1] I do wonder if deleting something would actually remove it permanently and how much data Facebook collects about information that has been ‘deleted’. I’d really wonder if they’d want to dedicate resources to hanging onto such things, but I wouldn’t put it past any social site these days.

[2] Strangely enough, while the record is protected by statute, there is no librarian-member confidentiality privilege like doctor-patient or lawyer-client. So, while I couldn’t disclose a library record to a law enforcement official without the paperwork, any conversation I had with the member is not legally protected. Library records in New Jersey are defined as any document or record for maintaining control over circulation or public use of library materials. I wonder if anyone has gotten slapped with obstruction of justice for not sharing their conversation with a member.

2 thoughts on “Leaving Las Facebook

  1. Andy, what a thoughtful post. I think about these things all the time, and the privacy issue frames how I guide my library social media usages. (and with any luck I’ll be speaking on this at ACRL in 2013) But you’ve said it very well, and I thank you.

    I’m wondering, in light of the phrasing of the statues you mention if a text-based interaction via Google Voice, Facebook, twitter, etc. would violate that law? Is the library presence on those (data-mining) sites “maintaining control of library material”: when the materials are services?

    • Thanks for the comment, Rudy. I wouldn’t have a clue as to the interpretation of the statute nor would I hazard a guess. I’d be curious to see if there are any cases that are related or on point.

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