the new gatekeepers

Are we wiser about Facebook now, or just more cynical?

December 21, 2018

This week, a New York Times feature with more data and privacy revelations about Facebook triggered the usual range of responses, from exhaustion to numbness. With so many similar reports over the past year, it’s been a steady drip, drip, drip of privacy violations and post-hoc rationalizations and apologies. At this point, most people seem more than happy to see Mark Zuckerberg as Satan, and Facebook as a vast force for evil in the world. This week, a number of prominent users like former Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg, NBC News correspondent Kasie Hunt, the actress/singer Cher, and Columbia University law professor/author Tim Wu have even said they are deleting their accounts in protest.

Without minimizing the real privacy violations Facebook has committed over the years, and its refusal to confront these kinds of issues head on, some of the reporting feels a little unfair. The Times piece, for example, conflates a series of different features and projects that Facebook worked on years ago, some of which were relatively innocuous (as Verge writer Casey Newton pointed out in his newsletter), and makes it sound as though Facebook was rifling through the drawers of your desk, and then sharing your personal documents with anyone who asked for them.

ICYMI: Mark Zuckerberg seems “genuinely peeved” during interview

Among other things, it implies that Facebook and Spotify were doing illicit things with your Facebook messages, while in reality an API simply allowed you to share songs with friends. It suggests Yahoo had suspicious amounts of access, but that access was provided so users could display their Facebook feed on a customized home page, something they presumably agreed to (the Times elaborates on this in a sidebar to the original piece). Everything is lumped under the heading of “granting other companies access to parts of the social network in ways that advanced its own interests.”

Could Facebook have been a lot more open about these kinds of API deals and what they involved? Of course they could have. And it probably wasn’t smart to leave the back door open API-wise after the features in question were shut down. But it’s also worth remembering that, at the time those features were announced, lots of people thought they were a great idea, not just Mark Zuckerberg. If anything, some critics saw it as a good thing that the social network was opening up its walled garden and allowing more competing services to integrate, as a way of leveling the competitive playing field. There were concerns raised about the privacy implications of Facebook’s “instant personalization” features, as in the infamous Kara Swisher and Mossberg interview in 2010 (during which Zuckerberg perspired so much Swisher was afraid he was having a heart attack). But for the most part, the average user seemed to feel that sharing music or likes with their friends was a handy feature.

Was this naive? Maybe, but hindsight is 20/20. If you had told anyone in 2006 that 10 years in the future, Russian agents would use the illicitly obtained “likes” and clicks of Facebook users to create psychographic profiles for targeting of fake news headlines in an attempt to elect Donald Trump president, you would have been sent for a mandatory psych evaluation. Facebook was seen as many things at that point: young and brash, likely out of its depth, not too smart about mobile, a place for wholesome memes and photos of your aunt’s new puppy, etc. That’s not to say there weren’t people raising red flags along the way, because there were, including experts like sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, Swisher, and others. But for the most part, the sharing deals were roundly endorsed—even The New York Times itself signed up for such a deal, as it admits in a sidebar to its main piece, because it was trying to make its website more social.

More than anything, the Times story and others like it are like looking back through time at a more innocent version of ourselves, a time when Facebook seemed like a mostly harmless social toy (as Twitter did) and Zuckerberg a giant nerd who had somehow managed to create this social juggernaut. It’s like watching a movie of people in the 1920s or the 1950s, and all the things they did and said that seem so farcical to us now (“Soon we’ll be flying our own jet-cars to work!” said Popular Science). The pendulum has swung on Facebook—and in fact all social media—to the point where many seem to feel there are no redeeming features to any of it, and it should all be consigned to the trash heap of history.

If we’re going to come to a realistic appraisal of what exactly social platforms like Facebook (or Twitter) can and should do, then we need to be clear about what exactly is involved, so that we can make rational decisions. If an API that allows us to share things with our friends also technically gives other apps access to things like our contact list, is that something we are prepared to agree to, and on what terms? If Facebook can be criticized for anything—and there are clearly lots of things that belong on that list—it’s for not being more open about what it was doing in the first place. This lack of transparency inevitably made it seem as though it had ulterior motives once everyone figured out what was actually going on. But portraying every move the company has ever made, no matter how small or well-intentioned, as a massive privacy disaster isn’t helping.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.