Let's face it, social media networks are annoying ... but we can't live without them.
Especially Facebook. The controversy around the social media giant's re-launch of Facebook Messenger has once again stirred up a nest of privacy concerns.
Like all social networks, Facebook has benefits and warts. The benefit is that it is sublimely designed, it works very well, its got a gigantic user base (including most of your friends) and its got a world-class team constantly refining and tweaking it.
The downside is that Facebook is an immensely commercial operation and it doesn't seem to care too much about your privacy. This is not Craigslist. Let's face it: Facebook is chronicling every subtle activity in your life in a gigantic database so it can cash in on your life.
Why Do We Use It?
That's it, really. That's the tradeoff: You get a great way to connect with people and share information, in exchange for handing over your privacy and accepting floods of marketing. And Facebook keeps all the money.
The most recent moves do seem to be heading in a more extreme direction -- and this may be the flashpoint for larger amounts antipathy toward Facebook. Let's take a look at how much anger is warranted and what you should do.
The new Facebook Messenger strategy has some people angry on several levels. First, Facebook has been trying to guide users into a new, separate app that includes photo-sharing, messaging and video conferencing features. You have to download this app on iOS and Android, rather than being able to access the features via the regular Facebook app.
Old School Move
This is a classic tech business move: Use the carrot of increased functionality to draw the users deeper into your software walled garden -- and get people to download more software. It's annoyed lots of people, but this is not revolutionary in the world of software annoyances. It's kind of normal. Microsoft did this for many, many years.
The fact is, you will still be able to use some of Facebook's messaging features in other places, for example, on Facebook when you are accessing it from a desktop or a laptop.
But something that's got people even more angry are the privacy settings from the Messenger Android app, which asks you for permission to do just about anything but hide in your bedroom closet.
Concerns about the Android terms of service first went viral from a Huffington Post story by marketing expert Sam Fiorella, titled in incendiary HuffPo style, "The Insidiousness of Facebook Messenger's Android Mobile App Permissions (Updated)."
Fiorella, listed as a partner of a firm called Sensei Marketing, complained in his article of all the permissions a user must agree to when downloading the app. These include allowing the app to read your log data, control your mobile data connection, see your contacts, send SMS messages, detect your location, look at your phone history, access your camera and microphone, etc.
Not So Fast
There are several problems with this critique. The first is that these are generic permissions for almost all Android apps -- and most apps, understandably, need much of this functionality. If sharing this information is insidious, then most apps are insidious. Fiorella points this out, but buries it in his column, because it does not jive with the headline, of course (less money for AOL).
The revelation that apps take personal data from your phone is not exactly a smoking gun. What social app do you know that doesn't need to access the data in your contact list? And if you are going to call somebody via a data connection, it most certainly will need to use your data connection.
But it makes good copy. Mashable had a more reasonable take, pointing out that issue might be a bit overblown.
Facebook itself responded to the criticism, explaining what it uses the data for. It has a pretty good response which you can read here.
The hysteria and PR war about Facebook's Messenger Android app might be an overreaction, but I think it's getting more attention because of Facebook's questionable history of handling privacy. Remember Beacon? That was a failed Facebook project that collected data from other websites you might be visiting and using the data to target ads on Facebook. The short-lived project was launched and shutdown in 2009 after it was targeted by a class-action lawsuit. Zuckerberg said it was a "mistake."
There's dichotomy of the culture of Facebook: Take a cold approach to users' privacy concerns, but constantly upgrade features and functionality so it's too sticky to leave. This gets to the heart of the paradox of social networks: The more useful they become, the more dangerous they are on the privacy front.
People can complain, but they still use Facebook. It has more users than ever. Facebook's growth is healthy, and its mobile growth is accelerating. It's mobile daily active users (MAUs) have increased 39% in on year.
Many of the criticisms leveled against Facebook can be leveled at many social media sites -- or software in general. You are giving the company your data in exchange for increased functionality. For example, you exchange location information so that you can get access to location-based services. Yelp then knows where you want to eat. This is a tradeoff that the user is making.
Facebook is currently the most commercially successful of social networks. It's also the most aggressive about adding features an functionality. Maybe that's why it makes so many people angry.
Can I Live Without It?
Facebook and other social networks are of course under the watch of government authorities to make sure they aren't doing anything illegal with your information. In Europe, privacy advocates have ramped up pressure on governments which have pressured Google into more privacy-friendly laws such as giving users the right to delete their search history. But in North American, at least, the government hasn't shown much gumption. And users continue to flock to the site, means that such issues aren't a sufficient turnoff for customers to use the site.
Some days, I actually think about quitting Facebook. But I'm in the media business, so I require it for communicating to readers. If I ever got out of the media business and wanted to disappear a little more, I might quit Facebook.
But for now, I have to accept the tradeoff that we all do: I will be forced to share my information with the Facebook ad agents and understand that Facebook is "watching me" as long as I use it. I use it with caution, with the knowledge that basically anything I do on Facebook is public information.
As former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said in 1999, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Those who want privacy are going to have to give up their mobile phones and broadband connections and crawl into a cave.
If you want true privacy, don't use social networks -- including Facebook. If it's bothering you -- quit -- that's the bottom line. You'll give up the ease of access to information and sharing of your photos with friends, but you'll be seeing fewer toothpaste ads and contributing less to Mark Zuckerberg's private jet fund.
Title image by Redsapphire/Shutterstock.