I Want to Quit the Gym — Err, the Facebook.

If you watched the TV show “Friends,” you might remember the episode in which Chandler tries unsuccessfully to terminate his costly membership at the local gym, but his resolve weakens with each successively less-convincing utterance of “I wanna quit the gym,” until he eventually gives into peer pressure and remains a member.  Facebook is a little like that: I want to quit the Facebook, but I can’t.

Make no mistake, I love social media.  Social media keeps us in touch with one another in a fashion unimaginable a scant decade or two ago and it has the effect of making the world a smaller place — a kind of global village, to use a popular phrase. One of my first forays into making something creative with the Internet was the creation of a kind of social media web page of my own back in 1996, which ultimately lead to rebuilding some of my old friendships and, most importantly, to marrying my wife  (you can read about how that happened here).  If only I had scaled that idea the way Mark Zuckerberg did, I would be writing this on my yacht —  I mean on one of my yacht’s.  Hindsight.

Digital technology has generated a kind of Renaissance in communication.  If you have read some of this blog, you already know that I am fascinated with the Internet and its impact upon the law and upon society.  Through the rapid exchange of information, the Internet has been a touchstone that has ignited the development of a myriad of new technologies that rely upon that simple yet immeasurable quality: the ability to facilitate the exchange of information at the speed of light.

As much as I am captivated by those revolutionary technological developments, I am just as enamored with the little things that have emerged as well: video chat, smart phone Scrabble, and of course, social media. As a tool for creating ways to bring remote people closer together, the Internet is unmatched, and Facebook certainly contributes to that effect.

So how has Facebook been so successful and why do I want to quit? A gross oversimplification of Facebook’s corporate strategy probably looks something like this:

1. Cultivate the free exchange of information between users who are already connected to one another and between users who are not connected;

2. through said exchange, generate new connections and strengthen existing ones, thereby increasing the relevance of and the reliance upon Facebook;

3. market Facebook’s user base to third parties; and

4. profit!

Nothing about that plan sounds inherently inappropriate, but if you look more closely at how Facebook achieves each of those prongs, you might feel some apprehension.  It is almost certainly no mistake that a user’s default Facebook account settings encourage the free dissemination of information — Facebook’s privacy settings are geared that way and those settings encourage users to disseminate information and connect with one another.  Moreover, the user account settings that control the amount of information that appears in one’s Facebook feed tend to be set to “show me everything,” but are more difficult to adjust to “I don’t want to see anything except relevant posts by people known to me.”

Such dissemination of content achieves prong #2 of my overly-simplified version of Facebook’s corporate strategy: it encourages users to discover and create new connections with one another and the more users do so, the more likely they are to use Facebook.  Correspondingly, Facebook becomes more integrated into our culture.  If you have a Facebook account and you have ever thought about abandoning it for any number of reasons (data privacy, time consumption, messages from acquaintances you’d much sooner forget, etc.), but you chose not to, why did you make that decision?  Chances are you kept your account active at least in part because of your close connections — that subset of people among your Facebook “friends” with whom you do not want to stop exchanging content.  Otherwise stated: peer pressure.

Zuckerberg et al recognize that peer pressure is a powerful tool and the more peers you have within a network (whether real or virtual), the less likely you are to leave that network.  One of the simplest ways to generate more peers among users is to disseminate  content, and Facebook’s settings are almost certainly designed to discourage you from streamlining your news feed to limit the content that you view.

I like to view posts written by my friends, but I have little desire to see my friends’ comments upon content posted by others.  For example, I’m happy to read a post by a friend in my feed that says “we closed on our new house today,” but I don’t want to see that same friend’s comments regarding a photo of a third party’s new dog.  However, by default, as soon as my friend makes a comment about a photo of someone’s dog, the photo becomes part of my feed.  Am I able to set my Facebook settings so that I see only posts, but not “likes” and “comments” generated by a particular friend on Facebook? Yes. Am I able to do this for all of my 239 friends simultaneously?  No.  Facebook requires me to adjust that setting for each friend individually, which is entirely too time-consuming.  Alternately, I can retroactively classify every one of those friends as “close friends,” or something other than “close friends,” and then choose what degree of content I  will be fed from each group.  This approach is not only time-consuming, it is also uncertain, as it isn’t clear what content I will actually receive from my “close friends” and what I will receive from those who are not “close.”

This approach is good for Facebook, because users will often simply choose (by not choosing) the default, which leads to a predictably broader dissemination of information.  Other users like me will search in vain for a shortcut to filter content and eventually throw their hands up in surrender (or write a blog post to rant about their frustration) and simply deal with the extraneous content.

But when does the determined push for the free flow of information transition from being simply over-inclusive to genuinely inappropriate? Facebook can always tweak the amount of content that users view: I suspect that no small amount of research has been performed by Zuckerberg’s team to determine the right balance between content that increases connectivity while minimizing extraneous information that overburdens users.  But what about the nature of content?

The latter hit home for me recently when a photo posted by a friend of a friend appeared in my Facebook news feed.  Although I am not “friends” with the poster, the photo appeared in my feed because my friend commented on it.  Only one degree of separation set me apart from the poster of the photo, which seems a small divide.  However, the photo in this case was a very personal one: a teenage boy lay in a hospital bed, connected to an intracranial pressure monitor, and apparently in a coma.  The image was followed by a multitude of very personal comments written by the young man’s family, expressing concern at the likelihood of the teenager’s survival.  I read through several of the comments before realizing that I don’t know the family or the young man in the photo, and I felt immediately intrusive, having inadvertently invaded the privacy of someone with respect to something incredibly personal.

Yes, it is reasonable to argue that the family member who posted the photo should have been more attentive to the manner in which that incredibly sensitive image was shared.  It is even reasonable to suggest that anything shared on the Internet with a limited group has the potential to be distributed to others (intentionally or unintentionally), as the Internet is an extraordinarily efficient vehicle.  However, many users don’t understand Facebook’s somewhat convoluted privacy settings, and as such, content often appears that was never intended for public consumption.  Further, Facebook engenders a sense of security through its design and promotion of its privacy settings.  What is most troublesome to me, however, is the fact that users (like me) who would prevent such content from appearing in their news feeds will find the task cumbersome.

Facebook wants content to be as free as possible, but I think that it can be done better.  Over-inclusion may ultimately be the downfall of Facebook’s platform, as users are exposed to content that eventually leads them to pause and consider more carefully what they are sharing and with whom.  At some point, user discomfort with the nature of Facebook’s model may gain momentum sufficient to overcome peer pressure and that may result in a happy evolution for social media, which is always at risk for being replaced by something better.

In the meantime, I will continue to protest weakly that I want to quit the Facebook.

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