Using Facebook responsibly

Several months ago, I decided that the most responsible relationship to have with Facebook was none at all. I deactivated my account.  After a rocky five years of ups and downs, I just couldn’t take their arcane and irresponsible positions on privacy.

But now, as so often happens after a sudden break-up like ours, “it’s complicated.”

My hasty de-activation underestimated the benefits of using Facebook, and moving to a new city after college has brought these into the foreground for me. There are many people I consider friends for whom I don’t really have contact information. Birthdays are much harder to remember and acknowledge. I miss invitations or details for other events. Most important, though, not having a Facebook account has affected my ability to do my job. Separation from the cruel mistress with 500 million lovers wasn’t working out, and that means I had to go back to the drawing board on the service.

So: is there a most responsible way to use Facebook? I think that the answer to that question is an uneasy “yes.” I hope for, expect, and support solutions that natively handle all of Facebook’s problems in a manner respectful to the users, but until then, cautiously using the service is the most straightforward solution for conscientious users.

I never thought I’d say this but–to paraphrase Sir Elton John–Facebook is back. This time around, though, I’m sticking to six resolutions for responsible Facebook usage. These are my daily affirmations as a Facebook user, and should serve as a regular reminder as I’m only in this as long as it’s good for me.

Remember that Facebook is not your friend

In order to understand why my relationship with Facebook is so uneasy, it’s worthwhile to consider what the dynamic of our relationship is. I refer to people who make profiles on the site as users, and that’s accurate. But consider, too, Facebook’s balance sheet: they pay for their operating costs by packaging and selling user information to (at least) advertisers. In a very real way, the “users” of Facebook are also the product, and advertisers are the customer.

This relationship isn’t an essential element of running a social network, but it’s easy to see how such a configuration might appeal to a service. From Facebook’s perspective, the benefits are a straightforward revenue stream that scales approximately with infrastructure costs, central control of the “social graph,” and a serious lock-in for users to the service. The drawbacks are the perverse incentives such a system creates, which are only an issue inasmuch as users are capable of and willing to recognize and act on the results. Facebook is faced with divergent options of their best interests and their users best interests, and have chosen the former, with few negative consequences. As a result, the user has to assume an adversarial relationship with the service.

This may seem obvious from the preceding spiel, but it’s important to recognize that your relationship with Facebook is a business one. You can’t expect them to act according to your interests, so a lot of decisions have to be defensive ones. The other ideas derive from this one.

Keep on top of Facebook’s changes

One of the most difficult aspects in managing Facebook privacy is that it is a moving target. The default options have changed dramatically over time, and new policies are often applied to existing accounts automatically or with deceptively vague opt-out updates. As a result, setting up sane privacy preferences isn’t sufficient; users have to plan to stay abreast of changes in Facebook policies and be willing to invest time in understanding and accommodating changes. This is the worst kind of anti-feature, and one that seems baked into the fabric of Facebook.

Monitoring for changes to Facebook’s privacy practices doesn’t have to be entirely manual. There are many sources for news about Facebook, and the EFF regularly publishes and updates guides with suggested privacy settings. Sites like provide tools for managing privacy updates more automatically. Finding a source you can trust to process new Facebook policies helps assuage the problem of maintenance, but doesn’t mitigate the fact that the Facebook business relationship with user information provides them consistent perverse incentives to violate your privacy.

Manage all your data

Importantly, there are different kinds of data provided to Facebook, and not all of these kinds are intuitive. It’s extremely helpful to consider Bruce Schneier’s taxonomy of social networking data. Many people I’ve spoken with about protecting privacy on Facebook seem to have a common strategy: reduce disclosed data. That’s a good start, but it’s important to realize that it’s only a start.

Ideally you reduce the data you provide to Facebook or any other single service in all of the categories. Before adding photos, updates, interests, or other information, consider whether it will improve your experience using the site, or whether it’s just for Facebook’s benefit. Facebook’s decision to semantically link you to your profile interests, for example, did not benefit users at all, and shouldn’t be undertaken without consideration.

Keep in mind that Facebook doesn’t stop collecting data when you switch to another browser tab. Log out of Facebook when you’re not using it, and clear your cookies regularly.

Diversify your services

The problems with privacy and security multiply with the introduction of Facebook products that aren’t contained to their own website. Beginning with the ill-fated Beacon advertising program, each of their attempts to engage the social graph outside of the pages of Facebook have had major problems. In the case of Beacon, those problems prevented the program from being successful, but the success of later projects shouldn’t be taken as an indicator that they’re built on more sound foundations–the “Like Button” that has been adopted by hundreds of thousands of websites has problems that have been well documented.

The introduction of Places revealed some very troubling development and deployment decisions, including the default behavior of allowing your friends to check you into locations until you opt out. Even Facebook Apps, now an integral part of the website and an industry of its own, can “leak” data of users friends. Ultimately, with each of these services, the best strategy is just to opt out as thoroughly as you can.

Consider when you would be adding apps or linking other services to Facebook, whether it makes sense in that case. Diversifying the services where your online data is stored, or consolidating to a source you control, reduces your vulnerability and lock-in to the service. After all, if their interests are not aligned with yours, why should you align yourself with them?

Fight for changes has put together a simple proposal for changes Facebook could easily implement to make their privacy policies less opaque and problematic. The EFF has published an open letter calling for Facebook to make specific improvements. Epic (and a bunch of other organizations) called for the FTC to examine Facebook’s privacy policies, and Congress has gotten involved. These kinds of actions need public attention, and Facebook needs to know these are issues people care about. Tell your friends about these issues, and make sure to voice your opinion.

Support alternatives

There are ways to set up a social network that don’t compromise your privacy or freedom. Diaspora became the most prominent alternative to Facebook in development, and its code is slated to be released in a few days, but it is not the only possibility. A group of hackers have worked on putting together the “Freedom Box” described in the same Eben Moglen talk that inspired the Diaspora team. Status.Net and are valuable free alternatives for some of the features Facebook provides.

These projects sometimes need developers, but they also need users, and they need support and promotion. Seeking out and helping in the early stages of a developing free network is certainly more work than simply tolerating bad policies from Facebook, it’s also the most powerful way to effect change and protect your freedom as a social network user.

I’ve given Facebook one last chance, but I’ve let her know I’m still looking. I know that somebody’s going to come along soon that takes care of all my needs but lets me call my own shots.  I jumped the gun a little earlier this year, but after 5 years of following Facebook’s lead, I’m ready to make sure that next time I won’t have any hesitation making a clean break.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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  1. As usual, you’ve taken a considered and reasonable position, and one with which I totally agree. I made the decision to stay with FB for reasons both professional (I work with clients who have Facebook Pages I help to maintain) and personal (most of my family is on it). But I keep a close rein on the information I share, and will continue to do so.

    I’ll also continue to shout, to whomever will listen, that the default – and best practice – should always be the most private setting, and that users should need to affirmatively opt-in to less-private options. Facebook fails mightily on that count.

  2. I’ve gone through pretty much the same with Facebook. Unfortunately the network effect is immense.

    Nevertheless, I am keeping my friend count on the down low (as with Twitter) and very private settings. It’s mostly about that people can write on your wall. I never liked the idea of sticking content on another one’s site without his permission.

    Thanks for the great writeup, the tips and once again for reminding me of Since Facebook is not particularly focused on keeping users feel secure and generally well (as opposed to Twitter), Diaspora has a reasonable shot at it.

  3. I did all I could. I took down any important visual content at Facebook and began hosting my photos and art on Flickr. I opened a paid account which came along with a counter, when I logged in; I could see the number of hits a file had gotten after posting it on Facebook.

    Granted, I haven’t been the most malleable of members on Facebook, I didn’t use it for Chat, I wasn’t looking for a relationship and this led to misunderstandings at times regardless of how up front I was in making that clear.

    Then came all the GOP attack ads, Facebook became a political vehicle. I would have been willing to pay a small fee not to get all the targeted ads but I realized Facebook would make a great deal more more but selling to advertisers than members that would pay not to have the ads.
    I did all I could in my account to dummy up where I was, my age, my gender, my preferences in music, books, TV or any other “keywords” that could be used for “data mining”. I even set my political view to “Australian Greens”. For a while it seemed to work, then it seems by not being able to remove what country I was living in, the assault of political ads came again.

    A short time ago, I discovered that my browser would support a plug-in that wold clean the Facebook wall, make it ad free. I installed it, for a while no having targeted ads seemed to be the best thing to averting the angst of logging in each day.

    Then, via Flickr I began to notice the number of hits I’d get on files I’d place on my wall. I am an artist and a photographer, if I place it into a media stream, it means I want my work seen. I am also a member of Twitter but have far fewer “followers” than “friends” on Facebook, a lot fewer. I noticed when I placed a file on Facebook, the thumbnail was slightly small and perhaps this was the biggest reason they weren’t seen but out of 240 “Friends” I’d usually only get two hits. *2. I don’t believe in “tagging” as it makes people feel compelled to say something nice when they may not mean it so, I never resorted to tagging to call attention to my work.

    If I placed the same file on Twitter sometimes I’d get more hits than the number of people on my list but they were all complete strangers. Twitter is not very good for engendering personal contact but it became a much better way to get my work seen.

    After a while, with the attack ads gone, Facebook was continuing to feel regrettable and a thief of my time. I realized there was something fundamentally unenjoyable about it. So, I just left one day. I wasn’t under any pressure, didn’t do it hastily or out of anger. Just closed it temporarily, a move that doesn’t prompt Facebook to automatically alert your friends to convince you to stay. I’ve been gone a month, I’m not going to say I’ll never go back but I have little incentive.

    Twitter is far less friendly. No threaded discussions that may engender humor or the “likes” that may lead to someone adding you as a friend but no one makes the presumption by joining a stream that’s there a social commitment either. On Twitter, I get a lot more hits on my content and no one flirts with me. I have more free time which gives me time to do more valuable things…like, mopping the kitchen floor one more time.

  4. I agree completely with Arlene, I keep most of my information private and never broadcast where I am or going to be out of town. For my business we have a Facebook page but it is separate from my personal page. Facebook is fantastic on one end for what it can do but very dangerous as well for what people do with it.

  5. Hey Michael,

    I hadn’t heard of ChocoBrain, but it seems to have the right idea. It looks like it’s mostly for businesses, but that’s an important niche to be filled. Good on them! I especially like the “Click twice” feature on the embedded like buttons. That’s a great implementation, and should absolutely be standard across the web!

  6. I’m kind of addicted to Facebook right now, but I certainly know how to use it with responsability. For me, Facebook is to have fun and talk with my friends and see their pictures. And I also like to discuss important issues for me and write my opinions about certains things. That is it. Facebook it’s a important tool, but there are a lot of more importante things to care about.

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