The following piece is cross-posted on Personal Democracy Forum.
It's like the premise of a science fiction novel; what would happen if all of your friends disappeared in an instant? It would be like a neutron bomb that killed everyone around you, except you, and there you were standing all alone. Derek Blackadder had an experience like this on Facebook several weeks ago.
Derek is a forty-nine year old organizer in Canada for CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees. The job of union organizers is to actively reach out and attract new members. This was, of course, all done face-to-face in the past, but Derek and his colleagues had been wondering about organizing on Facebook. If social networking sites are the new portals for community connections and actions, particularly for younger people, and were now being used to organize support for causes like breast cancer and literacy, then they figured they should investigate how the site can be used for organizing workers. So, Derek created his own profile on Facebook and began to friend people who were on groups that focused on labor issues. Admittedly, Derek was friending at a frenzied pace. He quickly amassed 450 friends, but -- and here's the key -- about three quarters of the friend requests he was making were accepted.
Derek received a warning from Facebook that this pace could lead to suspension of his privileges on the site, but they offered no sense of how an acceptable pace was defined. In essence, it was an "or else" threat. Then, on January 11th, Derek received this message:
Facebook has limits in place to prevent behavior that other users may find annoying or abusive. These limits restrict the rate at which you can use certain features on the site. Unfortunately, we cannot provide you with the specific rates that have been deemed abusive.
Your account has been disabled because you exceeded Facebook's limits on multiple occasions when requesting friends, despite having been warned to slow down. We will not be able to reactivate your account for any reason. This decision is final.
Thanks for your understanding,
Customer Support Representative
While what happened to Derek seems a bit arbitrary, there are valid reasons for Facebook guarding against someone who seems to be abusing the site. Any site has the right and responsibility to ensure that its environment is safe, particularly when it is a mecca for young people. If Facebook were to become a place where unpleasant things happen often -- sexual predators friending children, unwanted friends hacking into social networks -- then the presumed multi-billion dollar value of Facebook, which is based on the social networks and not the software, would start to decline rapidly.
I asked Derek about the reasons that Facebook rescinded his membership He said he was surprised by the cancellation by his privileges and the instant and seemingly irrevocable loss of his whole social network. After the news broke of his situation, aome bloggers, like British blogger Johninnit, implied that Facebook's actions were anti-union (see post here). Derek was quick to put that to rest, but then he raised a series of very interesting, and somewhat disturbing, concerns about the site.
Who's the Boss? The first issue was the clear and overwhelming power differential between users and the company. As Derek said, "Facebook and MySpace share the same limitations, and that is that they are not controlled by the people who are using them." There have been instances when Facebook users have shouted very loudly, mainly about the release or use of their personal data, and the company has changed course. But, as Derek found out, Facebook is not really a democracy, and at any moment it can pull the plug on your social network with no explanation or appeal.
What's Commercial? The lines between for-profit and nonprofit activities and between downtime and work time are blurring across society. Facebook struggles with the same issues. The terms of service on the site explicitly state that Facebook activities are intended only for noncommercial use, but those rules were created during the first iteration of Facebook when its use was restricted to high school and college students. There were unintended, or at least unplanned for, consequences when the site opened to all comers last year. What was originally envisioned as a friend-to-friend commons for kids in high school and college had become a much larger universe of people with a variety of different professional and commercial interests and relationships that were not part of the original intent of the site. Facebook then ran face first into the complicated intersection of commercial and social interests around causes. In the late spring of 2007, the Causes application was launched to allow Facebook users to friend and fundraise for their favorite social causes. Derek raised interesting questions as to whether these causes are a commercial or social activity. If a nonprofit organization raises money using the Causes application on Facebook is that a commercial or social activity? If a group of Facebook users who are all, say, caterers, create their own group and then decide that they want to work in concert on safety or payment issues while not formally calling themselves a union, is that be a social or commercial activity? When Facebook opened itself up to everyone and allowed developers to place their own applications on the site last year it unwittingly created all kinds of new issues for itself.
Who's the Customer on Facebook? Facebook is no Wikipedia, and not just because their functions are so different, but because their ethnology, the very essence of their being, is so different. Facebook is a commercial site, meaning it serves advertisers and users in equal measure. Its users are its customeres only to the extent that their eyeballs on ads serve as their commerce. Wikipedia is a community of users that largely monitors itself for the benefit of all.
Unfortunately, Facebook seems to have taken the opposite tack, and judging from the contradictory responses of two of its staffers to Blackadder's situation, isn't necessarily providing consistent customer service. Even with its large investment from Microsoft last year, its main corporate interest seems to be going public or being bought, and the key to doing either one of those things is to continue to add millions of users while starting to convert their presence into advertising income and otherwise keeping costs down. Wall Street isn't interested in customer service per se, only in profits and, more importantly, future profits. While users on Facebook may have a community, or belong to many mini-communities, they don't have a clear relationship with the company.
Whose Data is It Anyway? Derek Blackadder isn't the only Facebook user to have a tussle over his social network. Last month, Robert Scoble, a self-proclaimed tech geek blogger, had his account rescinded and then returned when Facebook objected to his adding his own code to the site to export his friends to another social networking site. The New York Times reported that Nipon Das went through many hoops to erase his data on Facebook only to find that the company keeps archived user data on backup servers. The article describes the contrasting view of other social networking sites use of user data with that of Facebook. "MySpace and Friendster, as well as online dating sites like eHarmony.com, may require departing users to confirm their wishes several times -- but in the end they offer a delete option." It is perhaps one of the worst-kept but least well-understood secrets of the Internet that a user turns over their personal data to the site they entered it into. And yet, Facebook, of all of the major social networking sites, seems to have taken the ownership and use of private data to even greater lengths. It may be clear to for-profit companies that their goals are primarily financial, even if it means pimping data users' believe to be their own. But for users, it is not at all clear that they don't own their own friends and information - even if the fine print says otherwise.
As Derek found, sometimes Facebook users form communities in spite of the company. A rather tongue-in-cheek Facebook group called, "Free the Blackadder One!" created by John Wood, a friend of Blackadder's encouraged members to email Facebook to reinstate Derek. They finally did - but with no explanation as to why they reversed their "decision is final" stance.
As anyone who has wrangled with the site knows, customer service at Facebook is a black hole of algorithms. Users are cut off when some calculation is tripped and the user is flagged for abuse and charged by automatic emails. Even more unsettling than Derek's rights being taken away in the first place was the way they were reinstituted. What made the "final decision" unfinal? Was it because there was a protest? How large does a protest have to be to reverse the irreversible? Who makes these decisions, how and why? Companies can operate capriciously and continue reaping profits. Communities can't, or if they do, they won't continue to be growing, trusting, vibrant, robust meeting places.