There are lots of problematic things about the way Facebook is run, and many more serious than the one I’m going to complain about. For instance, Facebook is apparently letting your applications track your browser activity even after you sign off the site. It is being sued for essentially wiretapping its customers in this way.
But while I’m of course dismayed and incensed by that story, the thing I’m complaining about today is more of an annoyance that comes out of bad internet manners. Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues have set things up so that anyone on Facebook can create a “group,” and can sign you up to the group without asking your permission. You then get the discussions at the group by email, and if you want to opt out, you have to go to the group page and ask to be removed or adjust the settings so that you don’t get email from it.
This is horrible
It should never be the case that any company on the internet with groups should allow someone to be signed up all unawares. The default should always be that you actively join, not that you have to resign after being shanghaied in. Mr. Zuckerberg assures us that only friends can add us to a group, but if you have thousands of friends then that is not actually a relevant point. He also justifies the practice by pointing out that you can also be tagged in a photo against your will (I object to that, too, especially if the photo generates dozens of email messages).
This new feature could even be used against you to ruin your reputation. Let us say someone starts a racist Facebook group. And they sign you up for it. Your enemies could say, “Tim once belonged to ‘So-and-so Race is Pond Scum” on Facebook, a clear sign of bigotry.”
Here is a Facebook page protesting this new practice of Mr. Zuckerberg’s. It only has about 1500 ‘likes.’ Please, friends, let us increase that number substantially. Let us send a message to Facebook that this practice is completely unacceptable.
You could ask me why I even maintain a Facebook page. Well, you can no longer be in the blogging/ journalism/ public intellectual realm without it. Though the company does keep switching things around to make it less useful for those purposes. Most recently, they’ve set things up so that users have to “subscribe” so as reliably to see posts in their feed. So if you are a Facebook friend of mine and you signed up so that you would automatically see the blog postings, you have to go back now and “subscribe” to me all over again. The one good thing is that you can subscribe to Informed Comment posts without necessarily befriending me, if what you mainly want is to get the postings. Apparently this feature is designed to compete with Twitter. (My IC Twitter account is here, and has been much less trouble for me than has Facebook. People can also subscribe to IC by email.)
Actually I have four Facebook pages, because the service limits you to only 5000 friends. This number is more than enough for most people, but for those of us using it for bigger purposes it is tiny. This is the Facebook page of mine that currently has room for new friends. The first one filled up at 5000, the limit. But occasionally it falls to 4,999 and someone applies to it. But then it goes back up to 5000 and the software won’t let me add anyone. I don’t have a good quick way to tell the couple hundred applicants that it is full except writing them individually.
I made a fan page for Informed Comment, and it has about 4000 members. There is a question of how reliably the fans see the IC blog postings in their feed now. They probably have to subscribe again to it, too.
Facebook has been useful to me and I don’t mean only to slam it. It lets you keep up with people in a way that was impossible in the old days, and I’ve recovered friends from it. It has also sometimes helped a blog post of mine go viral. Though there is a real question as to how often people actually click to go to the article at my blog website, having seen it in the feed.
I made a little Facebook page for people I actually see in the flesh frequently, including family and friends. Again, there is no way to warn IC fans off it, so it gets applicants for whom it is not intended. Why not set the software up so that it is more user friendly? We’re not all Harvard undergraduates anymore.
More importantly, why not stop using this service to spy on us, and why not avoid violations of netiquette by making sure we’re asked about and assent to joining something, not just allowing us to be shanghaied?