Facebook: It's not Me. It's You.

Aaron Poffenberger

Yesterday I tweeted that I had deleted my Facebook account during the wee hours of the morning. 140 characters aren't enough space to really explain why. Some might have thought that was in response to recent changes Facebook announced. It is in part but it's not a simple complaint about privacy. It's the reality behind what Facebook is and why they make so many changes to policy that led me to close my account.

Privacy is the issue that drives a lot of complaints about Facebook but most Facebook users seem to be forgetting one very important detail about Facebook: it's free to them. There's no charge to create or maintain an account on Facebook. This should be the big clue that 1) we're not Facebook's customers, and 2) Facebook pays the bills by charging their customer for access to the real products. What are Facebook's products? Why the users, of course — the users and information about them. We are the products. And like commercial television the real customers are advertisers and anyone else looking for rich, detailed information about us. I knew that a free service would come with some quid pro quo. I expected banner ads and the odd partner email. What I didn't sign up for was all the time it would take.

When I joined Facebook it was mostly about finding friends and receiving event notifications. Reviewing friend requests and event notifications took a bit of time but was mostly manageable. Then came the other notifications: mafia this, gardening that, Joe-recommends the other. Now it's inline notifications on 3rd-party sites about what my friends find interesting.

Sure, I could and did opt out of many of the notifications and features. The problem is I found myself spending more time managing my Facebook account than using it. But why?

The reality I wrote about earlier is that Facebook isn't really free. We do pay for Facebook. We pay with the most valuable commodity most of us have: our time. Facebook is a massively parallel data-collection system whose function is to document human relationships and activity with 100-million data-entry clerks. It's true we pay for television with our time (and cable subscribers with their cash). But it's mostly a passive time expenditure. With Facebook it's active. Very active. From the first moment of account creation every Facebook user is engaged in a process of data entry: name, date of birth, likes, schooling, friends, pithy comments, clicking interesting links. Data, data, data and all of it entered by the users. In other words, in addition to being the product we're also the producers. A user who opts out is effectively an idle producer, a free rider. One way to get more value out of them is to get them "working" again by adding new products and services to entice them to enter more data. Another is to get more value out of the data you already have, hence the reason they keep fiddling with data preferences.

The description above sounds rather sinister. It isn't meant that way. It's the reality of any business that provides free service. Someone pays or the business goes bankrupt. Facebook have built a repository for collecting detailed information about people and their interactions that other companies will pay to access. They also happen to have built into the system the means to push the data collection closer to the holders of the information. The user trades information for games, online community, friendship and whatever else Facebook provide and then provides the labor to enter the information. Brilliant!

My complaint, then, wasn't with what Facebook were doing but what I was getting out of the relationship. In exchange for a glorified address book, calendar and forum I was spending a lot of time inputting data that I then had to go prevent being used to annoy me by adjusting my account preferences.

I don't have any hard feelings against Facebook for wanting to earn a return on the investment in people and infrastructure they've put in place. In the end, the real issue is time and value. I've reviewed the costs and benefits and determined Facebook's not worth my time.