net.wars: Control freaks
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 February 2009
It seems like every year or two some currently populat company revises its Terms of Service in some stupid way that gets all its users mad and then either 1) backs down or 2) watches a stampede for the exits. This year it's Facebook.
In announcing the reversal, founder Mark Zuckerberg writes that given its 175 million users, if Facebook were a country it would be the sixth most populous country in the world, and called the TOS a "governing document".
While those numbers must sound nice on the business plan – wow! Facebook has more people than Pakistan! – in reality Facebook doesn't have 175 million users in the sense that Pakistan has 172 million inhabitants. I'm sure that Facebook, like every other Internet site or service, has a large percentage of accounts that are opened, used once or twice, and left for dead. Countries must plan governance and health care for all their residents; no one's a lapsed user of the country they live in.
Actually, the really interesting thing about 175 million people: that's how many live outside the countries they were born in. Facebook more closely matches the 3 percent of the world's population who are migrants.
It is nice that Zuckerberg is now trying to think of the TOS as collaborative, but the other significant difference is of course that Facebook is owned by a private company that is straining to find a business model before it stops being flavor of the month. (Which, given Twitter's explosive growth, could be any time now.) The Bill of Rights in progress has some good points (that sound very like the WELL's "You own your own words", written back in the 1980s.
The WELL has stuck to its guns for 25 years, and any user can delete ("scribble") any posting at any time, but the WELL has something Facebook doesn't: subscription income. Until we know what Facebook's business model is – until *Facebook* knows what Facebook's business model is – it's impossible to put much faith in the durability of any TOS the company creates.
At the Guardian, Charles Arthur argues that Facebook should just offer a loyalty card because no one reads the fine print on those. That's social media for you: grocery shopping isn't designed for sharing information. Facebook and other Net companies get in this kind of trouble is because they *are* social media, and it only takes a few obsessives to spread the word. If you do read the fine print of TOSs on other sites, you'll be even more suspicious.
But it isn't safe to assume – as many people seem to have – that Facebook is just making a land grab. Its missing-or-unknown business model is what makes us so suspicious. But the problem he's grappling with is a real one: when someone wants to delete their account and leave a social network, where is the boundary of their online self?
The WELL's history, however, does suggest that the issues Zuckerberg raises are real.
The WELL's interface always allowed hosts and users to scribble postings; the function, according to Howard Rheingold in The Virtual Community and in my own experience was and is very rarely used. But scribble only deletes one posting at a time. In 1990, a departing staffer wrote and deployed a mass scribble tool to seek out and destroy every posting he had ever made. Some weeks later, more famously, a long-time, prolific WELL user named Blair Newman, turned it loose on his own work and then, shortly afterwards, committed suicide.
Any suicide leaves a hole in the lives of the people he knows, but on the WELL the holes are literal. A scribbled posting doesn't just disappear. Instead, the shell of the posting remains, with the message "
Also, after a message is scribbled even long-dead topics pop up when you read a conference, so a mass scribble hits you in the face repeatedly. It doesn't happen often; the last I remember was about 10 years ago, when a newly appointed CEO of a public company decided to ensure that no trace remained of anything inappropriate he might ever have posted.
Of course, scribbling your own message doesn't edit other people's. While direct quoting is not common on the WELL – after all, the original posting is (usually) still right there, unlike email or Usenet – people refer to and comment on each other's postings all the time. So what's left is a weird echo, as if all copies of the Bible suddenly winked out of existence leaving only the concordances behind.
It is this problem that Zuckerberg is finding difficult. The broad outline so far posted seems right: you can delete the material you've posted, but messages you've sent to others remain in their inboxes. There are still details: what about comments you post to others' status updates or on their Walls? What about tags identifying you that other people have put in their photographs?
Of course, Zuckerberg's real problem is getting people to want to stay. Companies like to achieve this by locking them in, but ironically, just like in real life, reassuring people that they can leave is the better way.
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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).