Media, Technology, and Education

FaceBook: A Hotel California?

Robin forwarded an article called How Sticky Is Membership on FaceBook?  Just Try Breaking Free from the New York Times.  Of course, because I’m completely addicted to FaceBook, my first thought was “Why would anyone ever want to leave?”  But I can see that there may be reasons that someone might want to leave.  And even if you don’t want to leave, FaceBook’s approach to member information might raise some privacy concerns.

According to the New York Times article, members who want to leave FaceBook find it difficult to do so because FaceBook retains information on their servers after a member deactivates her account.  As one disgruntled member says, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”  FaceBook’s executives say that they retain this information in order to make it easy for a member to reactivate her account.  That is, because the information doesn’t disappear when an account is deactivated, if the account is then reactivated, the information is available for the reactivated account.  This is obviously a problematic answer to member concerns about information retention.  If I decide to deactivate my account, I want my information to be removed from FaceBook’s servers.  In response to the ensuing uproar, FaceBook’s executives provided another process for removing information from a deactivated account.  The member must delete each piece of information and then once all the information has been manually deleted, the account can be deactivated.  Clearly, this is a tedious process that has done little to stem the tide of criticism about FaceBook’s practices.

From a technical standpoint, it should be easy to provide a one-step process for deleting all of the information in an account and then deleting the account itself.  So when I first read about the tedious process required for deleting the information associated with an account, I thought perhaps the technical folks at FaceBook had simply been overwhelmed by the success of the site and had not had time and resources to build in as much user-friendliness as the members demanded.  After all, FaceBook was created as a hobby project by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 and as of October, 2008, there were more than 140 million active members worldwide.  That kind of growth is bound to result in some pain so I figured the lack of easy account deactivation was simply part of that growing pain.

But then I read this excellent post by Steven Mansour.  Mansour points out that we voluntarily give our personal information to FaceBook which can then sell that information to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this lucrative side business is the real reason that FaceBook doesn’t want to make it easy for users to delete their accounts.  This particular privacy issue has been a concern for me for a long time.  For example, I am one of the few people I know who has no rewards cards–the kind of cards that you get from grocery stores and book stores where you provide your personal information in return for savings on items that you buy.  I have not found that the savings on my purchases has been worth the price of making my private information available to these large corporations.  It had not occurred to me that FaceBook might be engaged in the same kind of information harvesting as Hannaford Brothers and Borders Books and Music.  But I guess I was just being naive.  And the sad thing is that knowing that FaceBook might be engaging in this behavior has not convinced me to leave FaceBook.  In return for my information, I get easy-to-use tools that help me keep up with my friends’ lives.  I guess everyone has her price.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

1 Comment

  1. Jamie Capach

    Until I saw the part about selling personal information (which really doesn’t surprise me, it’s bound to happen), I was thinking it would be a great idea to solve both problems if Facebook provided the option to download all personal information from the database in CSV format or some other format that can be reloaded into the database upon account reactivation, plus added a handy “delete all” feature to remove the information from their database. That way the information can be retained and reused if the user wants to reactivate, but meanwhile the information is not stored on FB servers. That would put a crimp on their information selling plans, though, so I doubt it would happen.

    As for rewards cards, I’m right there with you. Kathy and I got a rewards card from one store and did an experiment where for a couple of months we alternated shopping at one store with the rewards card system and then buying the same groceries at another store without the rewards card. In the end the prices were comparable, so really the rewards card just prevents you from paying a penalty of inflated prices for not agreeing to give the store your personal information for marketing purposes. I will admit we do use the Borders rewards card, but we rarely shop there so I’m not sure why. I don’t think we buy enough from them to get any real benefit from the rewards card.

    On the same topic of rewards cards, it really bothers me when I go into stores like RadioShack and they start asking for my phone number and zip code. I’m there to buy components, not give away my contact info to be harassed and/or giving away profit on my personal information.

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