On Monday, the Web erupted with reports, blog posts, and even memes about something we all should have ignored in the first place: The so-called “Privacy Notice,” a Facebook chain letter that quickly spread from News Feed to News Feed until everyone, from Reddit commenters to Facebook itself, were talking about it.
The Privacy Notice, as well as a similarly contagious ”Copyright Notice,” are just blocks of anonymously written text, littered with meaningless legalese, which claim to provide Facebook users with greater authority over the content they share on the social network, as well as their privacy settings, with a simple bit of copy-and-paste.
Of course, posting a Facebook status update has absolutely zero effect on Facebook’s rights to your content (which it doesn’t own) or your privacy settings. So why did this hoax – something so obviously meaningless – spread so quickly (twice)?
The complete reasons are, I’m sure, vast and varied. But among them, one thing is clear: Facebook makes us feel powerless. And because of this, we jump at any clear opportunity to regain control over what has become the jail keeper of our online lives.
Simplified though they may be, Facebook’s privacy settings remain an impenetrable source of confusion for users. We check off what we think are all the right boxes, but it’s difficult to be sure. On top of that is the sense that getting our privacy settings wrong could result in our private thoughts and photos making their way onto the Web at large. (Which is a perfectly justified fear.) It is these moments of confusion that makes us feel trapped and out of control. And with that in mind, it’s completely understandable that users would try to clarify that they just want their information to be private with a simple Wall post.
This feeling of powerlessness over Facebook extends beyond privacy settings, and hits me on a regular basis. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think, “I want to quit Facebook – just delete my account. But I can’t.” One reason I can’t is, of course, because I am a technology journalist who regularly reports on Facebook-related news. The other reason is less limited: Facebook is how I keep in touch with almost everyone I know. If I leave, I fear I will get left out – not just left out of silly Internet jokes and nonsense status updates, but of friendship itself.
The reason I have this fear is because it already happened. Back in 2008, I decided that I was done with Facebook once and for all. I completely deleted my account, and went a solid year without the social network. Alas, my abandonment was short-lived: The following year, I began to run into an increasing number of people who communicated exclusively through Facebook. Eventually, I succumbed to social necessity, and launched a new account, thrusting me back into the sad state I’m in today.
As foolish as my fear of being left out may be, I know I’m not alone: A recent survey by The Sydney Morning Herald found that, of 753 Facebook users surveyed, 61 percent between the ages of 18 and 29 said they spend too much time on the social network. And of those who said they had considered closing their accounts, 19 percent said they only stayed on the social network “because they felt socializing would be difficult without it.”
The problem here is that Facebook will remain our online relationship hub as long as it’s where our relationships exist – a factor that creates a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle: We stay because everyone else is staying. Everyone else is staying because we are staying. And on, and on. This, despite the fact that many of us feel duped by the social network, and sold out by its policies – something this week’s “notice” debacle made painfully clear.
This does not mean that we have to delete our Facebook accounts, or stop using the social network altogether. (That’s just not going to happen anytime soon.) Instead, we must diversify and expand our online selves. No longer can we upload all our photos to Facebook alone, or communicate solely through Facebook’s channels. We must seek out other networks, other services – preferably ones with less daunting terms of service and policies that respect our privacy without question. Is this solution as convenient as being able to do everything and find everyone all in one place? Of course not – but freedom is rarely convenient.
For me, at least, the quest for some place new begins today. Will you join me?