Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, published a piece in the New Yorker today explaining why he recently deactivated his Facebook account.Coll calls Facebook “a profit-motivated political and public forum” in which “what speech is permitted or banned is determined largely by Facebook’s terms of service.” Facebook executives write those terms with money in mind, according to Coll, especially now after last week’s IPO.
Facebook’s methods remind him of “the political control strategies of the Chinese Communist Party.”
It seems he would prefer an online forum that is fundamentally democratic. The question for Coll is: what would this fundamentally democratic online forum look like?
Probably a wasteland of lolcats and porn.
That’s what it’s like at 4chan, which is arguably the most autonomous, anonymous space on the Internet.
But even 4chan couldn’t survive without some top-down policing. Founder Chris Poole (aka m00t) rightly got heat after child porn was found streaming through his servers, and he has insisted that moderators immediately remove child porn when they see it.
Admittedly, Facebook has compromised users’ privacy in several instances, by sending their data to marketers without their consent. That’s disconcerting.
But Facebook is getting better at privacy.
Included in Timeline is the Activity Log, which only you can see. It’s a list of everything you’ve done on Facebook since you created your account. You can hide or delete whatever you don’t like. It has also simplified their Privacy Settings page to give users more control.
Facebook’s terms of service aren’t abusive. Coll points out that the terms resemble the 10 Commandments with their “You will not…” format. Which is true. But what do they Command? Here’s one: “You will not engage in unlawful multi-level marketing, such as a pyramid scheme, on Facebook.”
These reasonable proscriptions are fine as long as Facebook a) publishes them in clear language, and b) does not suppress criticism of Facebook on Facebook. Coll says he was surprised to find the terms of service to be written so clearly. And Facebook does not ban criticism of Facebook. Successful examples of user protests (e.g., privacy issues and the recent Salmun Rushdie incident) are innumerable.
Coll worries about Zuckerberg’s control of the company, which shareholders can’t challenge. But Zuckerberg wanted to keep control not to hog profits, but to fight the profit motive. He’s the reason Facebook took so long to go public.
As he said before he rang the NASDAQ bell, “Our mission isn’t to be a public company. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”
I guess you could doubt Zuckerberg’s disdain for money. Wall Street doesn’t!
Coll notes that by the end of the summer, Facebook may have one billion users, and this reveals the central fallacy of the piece. Coll has a story when he leaves Facebook only because Facebook is doing the best job setting the terms of a public space. If they were as authoritarian as Coll suggests, Facebook wouldn’t enjoy so many users. Some other network would have won out.
Competition for users may be the best, if not the only, guarantor of democratic control over social networks. Although he does it for the wrong reasons, Coll’s departure from Facebook proves this principle.