Oversharing and paranoia

Oversharing is an inherent part of social media. Just ask anyone who’s made the mistake of clicking a Socialcam link on Facebook.

But oversharing takes different forms, and the most potentially dangerous type is one many people don’t even realize exists: the copious logging of your online activities by the social networking sites you’re logged into. Thanks to their “deep integration” with other websites, you may be “sharing” your browsing habits with Facebook, Twitter and Google even when you’re not on their sites.

Have you ever been on a site and noticed a little corner of the site looks like it’s been invaded by Facebook? That sickly blue, the font, the little profile pictures of your friends who’ve liked or commented on the page you’re currently viewing?

How did that get there? It’s because the site is integrating with Facebook, and through the magic of cookies, Facebook’s servers can tell that it’s you looking at the page and deliver content customized to your profile. Maybe you like that, but I find it a little creepy. Twitter and Google do it too, even if it’s not as obvious.

Google may be the most insidious, with so many of its tools now consolidated under a single login. If you use Gmail, and you keep your account logged in, every Google search you do is logged. Ostensibly this is to help deliver “personalized” results. More crassly, it is used to put “targeted” ads in front of your eyeballs. But that data is being collected, and regardless of what Google says their privacy policy is now, the data is there, and could stay there for a long time. Someday Google might change their policies or sell that data or the government might subpoena it or just come in and take it.

What’s worse, Google Analytics is everywhere. Heck, even paranoid old me uses it. Google says Analytics isn’t tied in with your Google account, and maybe it’s not… yet. But why assume it will always be that way?

Fortunately, there’s something very simple you can do to combat all of this data collection. It’s the online equivalent of a tinfoil hat, except it actually works. Log out. And just to be safe, clear your cookies.

I’m trying something out right now that takes all of this even a step further. It all hinges on the fact that in all three of these cases — Facebook, Twitter and Gmail — the web interface is probably the least usable, least satisfying way to experience these services. I’ve never really been a user of Gmail’s web interface; I’ve always preferred using the Mac’s built in Mail application. But now I’m also strictly using the Twitter app on my Mac. (I already use Tweetbot on my iPhone.) And I have made the decision not to use Facebook on my computer at all. I already hated the Facebook web experience anyway, so why bother with it? Now I am only going to check it using the Facebook iPhone app.

Why I’ve (mostly) stopped using Facebook

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, but I made a pair of them this year. And now that we’re almost two weeks into the new year, it seems like a good time to investigate whether I’ve been able to keep up with them.

My first resolution was a healthier lifestyle. Nothing drastic, and nothing too rigid. It’s a few simple rules:

1. No alcohol more than once a week. That glass of beer or wine… or two… at dinner adds a lot of calories.

2. No second helpings. It doesn’t take long for your appetite to adjust to match the amount of food you’re shoving down your gullet. Eat less, consistently, and pretty soon you’ll want less.

3. Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. I’ve typically done OK with vegetables, but rarely touched fruit. Clementines are my new best friend.

4. Get at least some exercise. Who needs workout equipment when you’ve got a flight of stairs in your house?

And most importantly:

5. Don’t stress it too much. One day of breaking the rules doesn’t mean you’re off the diet.

So far, the first resolution is going along… pretty well. Mainly because of #5.

As for the second resolution… it was “No more Facebook.”

A few years ago, the need for such a resolution would have seemed absurd to me: I was incredibly disdainful of Facebook (and social networking in general) for ages. It wasn’t until I sort of (yeah, sort of) needed a Facebook account, for work-related research purposes in early 2008, that I got into it, and I was quickly hooked. Checking Facebook on my iPhone in every spare moment. Carrying on a third-person monologue in my head as I constantly anticipated my next Facebook post. It was kind of ridiculous. (Yeah, kind of.)

But this was another fairly easy resolution for me, and not just because of #5 (although it’s there). I had already begun to sour on Facebook in the final months of 2009, getting to the point where most of my posts on Facebook were only arriving there second-hand, via automatic cross-posting from Twitter (my new, slightly healthier, if only because it has less empty calories, social networking metaphorical junk food of choice) or from my blogs (via NetworkedBlogs).

So what was it that soured me on Facebook, that once indispensable hub of my ersatz social life? It was a variety of factors; factors which I have in my head named in honor of the Facebook friends in whom they’ve most strongly manifested for me (though whose names I will conceal here, since NetworkedBlogs is going to post a link to this blog entry on Facebook on my behalf). It was also the growing privacy and security concerns surrounding the fact that though many Americans fear the specter of an implausible — nay, impossible, owing to a lack of both funding and competence — Big Brother in our government, we’re only too willing to share every minute detail of our personal lives with the very real and technologically marvelous Big Brother of private enterprise.

This interview may be fake (and, then again, maybe not), but the programmatic surveillance it describes is real. I know, because in my line of work, I not only pay attention to the man behind the curtain, I am him. And unlike the Wizard of Oz, who’s all smoke and mirrors, these web applications really do work. The databases really are there. And the engineers really can peek inside them. (Even if they can’t actually read your one-way encrypted password, they don’t really need to. They can see the Matrix. And now I’m taking the movie metaphors a bridge too far. See?)

So then, we’re back to the real reason I decided to (mostly) stop using Facebook. Those friends, and the ways that my online interactions with them soured my experience of Facebook and, in a way, my life.

Cognitive dissonance

We all have our political views. Some of us hold to them more dearly than others. Some of us make our lives about our politics more than others. But in general, when we deal with each other face-to-face, we smooth over them. We focus on the things we have in common, the things that bring us together. If those things do not include our politics (and, in meatspace, they most often do not), then we check them at the door. But by the time Facebook came along, many of us were already used to a new social world online: a distilled, supersaturated, echo chamber of a world, where we only expose ourselves to the things we are most interested in, only interact with those who share our interests, and do it all under a cloak of anonymity that allows us to brazenly parade the crackpot ideas we wisely keep to ourselves in our “real-life” interactions. So what happens when we bring our “offline” friends into this online realm? It’s not pretty.

I found myself engaging in frustrating arguments over all manner of political, economic and philosophical topics with people I had never (or rarely) had cause to discuss them with before. And I realized why. It’s easy for someone to counter my revulsion over this experience with claims that I need to be open to differing opinions and all of that. Sure. I recognize that not everyone agrees with me. I know those opinions exist. But I don’t enjoy debating all of them ad nauseum like I’m in a freshman seminar course. And I don’t need to start thinking as negatively of my friends as I do of Glenn Beck. But since I still can’t let this kind of thing go without trying to get in the last word, I just want to leave this topic with a great (if not so inclusively worded) quote from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own fact.”

Three’s Company

I watched a lot of Three’s Company as a kid. Given the level of sexual innuendo in the show, perhaps a lot more than I should have been allowed to. But I turned out relatively OK. More than the lewd themes, however, the one thing that has stuck with me most about that show is how just about everything that goes wrong in life can be attributed to a lack of communication. Facebook is all about communication. And yet, there are so many ways in which it can fail us. Put aside any legitimate technical glitches like server outages. Facebook is programmed to filter out certain communications. There’s just so much information (if it can honestly be called that) people are dumping into Facebook’s databases every second of the day, and that could be shown on so many other people’s news feeds, that the site has to have a threshold for messages to hide, whether we as the users set it or the site’s programmers impose it arbitrarily. Bottom line: just because it’s there doesn’t mean you’re going to see it.

Plus, even though Facebook does show you when your friends are online at the same time as you are, it doesn’t tell you anything else about their viewing history on the site. To do so would be an unforgivable breach of the illusion of privacy all of Facebook’s users operate under. But the downside is that if you sent a friend a message and they never responded, you have no way of knowing if they read the message or not, or if they’ve even logged into Facebook since you sent it. And, depending on the situation and the nature of your message, this can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Listen, Larry. Just because you see Jack out on a date with a pair of twins by himself, doesn’t mean he didn’t stop by the Regal Beagle looking for you to join in on the fun. You just happened to be helping Mr. Roper fix the leaky faucet in Janet and Chrissy’s bathroom in a way that sounded like something completely different to Mrs. Roper when she came upstairs unexpectedly and heard the two of you behind that closed door.*

Where was I going with this?

Ceci n’est pas un ami

What is a friend? Everyone in our social networks on Facebook is a “friend,” but that’s an empty term. I have 137 “friends” in my Facebook network, which is apparently just below the median of approximately 150 that was much discussed in the blogoverse over the summer. It still sounds like a hell of a lot of friends to me! I never knew I was such a social butterfly.

As I suspect is the case with most average Facebook users (let’s exclude Roger Federer for the moment), they’re a mix of old friends from high school and college; former coworkers from the various jobs I’ve had since then; and current “offline” friends, neighbors and relatives — this last group being the only ones I really still interact with in my real life.

It’s been great catching up with old high school friends via Facebook. I suspect that Facebook has singlehandedly redefined the purpose of (or perhaps obviated entirely) that venerable institution: the class reunion. We’ll see when I have my 20th in a couple years. It’s clear though that right now I have ready access to the minutiae of the daily lives of lots of people I haven’t seen regularly since the era when Milli Vanilli was still considered a legitimate musical act. They’re people with whom, when we first reunited at the beginning of this decade after ten years apart, I had already completely lost touch. But now, thanks to Facebook, I feel like I have the keys to all of their diaries in my desk drawer.

Most of them are people I still like well enough, and of whom I have fond (if faded) memories from the “glory days” (not that they ever really were). But if I’m honest about it, I really don’t have much in common with any of them anymore (not that I ever really did), and there’s pretty much no way we’d even know each other today, much less be friends, if we didn’t share the common bond of having grown up in the ’80s in a small town on a dirty river that smelled like pork byproducts.

And yet, there are some among them with whom I do share a lot of common interests, and with whom I still could be good friends today. We even live in the same city. Come to think of it, we’ve even run into each other on the street in recent years, and have talked about “getting together sometime soon.” We have ready access to each other on a daily basis via Facebook, and yet, “sometime soon” never arrives.

There’s a saying (at least I think it’s a saying, which is to say I recently heard someone say it) that you never really explore your own city until you have out-of-town visitors. And I’m not entirely sure how that relates to the question of why I don’t get together with my former (and potentially future) very good friends with whom I share common interests, and who happen to live in the same city as I do, and with whom I can easily communicate on a daily basis via Facebook. But I think it’s probably a lot like that saying about getting to know your city. When something is always there, you don’t bother to take advantage of it because, well, it’s always there. Facebook makes it too easy to reconnect with old friends, at least in a superficial way. And that superficial way is almost more harmful than having no contact, because it makes it way too easy to settle for what it is, instead of investing the small amount of additional effort required to make a deeper connection.

So, after all of that, am I really off Facebook?

I’ve given plenty of good (if “good” is measured by verbosity) reasons why I’ve intended to quit Facebook as one of this year’s resolutions, but have I lived up to it?

The short answer, coming from someone not known for short answers (hence this long build-up): sort of. I have taken several concrete steps to significantly reduce my involvement with Facebook. I changed my notification preferences — I had previously set Facebook to never notify me by email about anything, since I was always checking the site anyway — so that if something really important does come my way, I can find out about it without constantly wading through Farmville updates** and alerts about which of my friends are now friends with other people I will never know. I never post status updates directly to Facebook, leaving it to Twitter (with which I also have an ambivalent relationship) and NetworkedBlogs to do my dirty work, although I do occasionally follow up on comments on my posts. Once every couple of days I’ll quickly scan the live feed to see if anyone’s saying or doing anything I’m genuinely interested in, but I limit it to a minute or two. And on special occasions (like when I took my dad to our first ever Vikings game on January 3), I’ll post photos to my profile. But that’s it, and it’s more than enough.

Is my life better with less Facebook in it? Unequivocally, yes. I do feel slightly less connected with my widely dispersed “network” of social acquaintances, but I also have a much more realistic view of how disconnected we really were anyway, despite the fact that I knew what they were eating for lunch.

Final thought

Knowing that this blog entry is going to appear in my Facebook feed, I feel the situation can best be described in the words of Sideshow Bob: “By the way, I am aware of the irony of appearing on television in order to decry it. So don’t bother pointing that out.”

* OK, I don’t think this scenario ever actually happened on Three’s Company. And yet, in a way, didn’t it happen on every single episode?

** Yes, I know you can hide that crap, and I always do with such a vengeance that at one point I almost considered unhiding all of them just so I could have the pleasure of hiding them all again.

Facebook and Twitter: bane of the blogger

Fail.I’ve been writing this blog for about seven years now. My engagement with it has gone through its ups and downs; there were periods in 2004 and 2005 where I’d go for a month or more without posting. But over the last three years or so I kept up a pretty reliable stream of posts, until some point early this year when I started using Facebook and Twitter a lot. (I won’t bother linking to them — if you can’t figure out how to find them, you’re probably better off anyway.)

Some people are fairly careless about how they use their blogs (if they have them), Facebook, Twitter, etc. Every online presence is a virtual confessional, therapist’s couch, and personal reality show, all in one. It’s all out there, never mind the aftermath.

I’ve tried to be a bit more careful and organized in my approach to things: I’ll get fairly personal in my blog, but it’s mainly about my geeky interests in technology and music, where personal information (other than my tastes, such as my inexplicable fixation on ’70s progressive rock) is irrelevant. And there are lines I won’t cross.

Facebook is the more personal, friend-oriented venue for me: I assume that what I am writing there is only going to be seen by people I know; people I can reasonably trust and expect to care at some small level about personal details that are irrelevant in the context of a blog. But there are still lines I won’t cross, because it’s hard to keep track of 130+ “friends” and it’s even harder to keep track of Facebook’s nebulous, ever-changing privacy policy.

Twitter is a strange one: many people use it in many different ways. I’ve taken the approach of some blogger/Twitter quasi-celebrities (John “Daring Fireball” Gruber, Merlin “43 Folders” Mann, Andy “Waxy” Baio, Adam “Lonely Sandwich” Lisagor, Jason “Kottke” Kottke) I seek to emulate (though admittedly it’s weird when you get to an age where those you seek to emulate are your peers — or are even younger than you are): Twitter as “microblog.” If you have a clever, “blog-worthy” idea, but you don’t have time to write a blog entry, or it’s pithy enough that you think you can squeeze into 140 characters, Twitter is the perfect venue. It’s a natural complement to Facebook, in some ways: the personal stuff goes to Facebook, the public stuff goes to Twitter.

The problem is, both Facebook and Twitter encourage ill-conceived, dashed-off, incomplete thoughts. Why bother taking the time to contemplate an idea, explore all facets, carefully compose your thoughts, and perfectly craft a 500-word essay no one but yourself (and probably not even you) will ever read?

Well… what are you leaving behind? What is the legacy of your online endeavors?

Instead of a body of intelligent writing that may someday lead to something more useful, or at the very worst, will be something I can point at with a modicum of pride and say, “I did that!” all you’re left with is an unnavigable, treacherous sea of mental jetsam, and the vague sense that, at best, you’ve wasted your time and, at worst, you’ve left the back door wide open for future identity theft, libel suits, employment rejections, or something else that is presently inconceivable but will soon ruin your life because someone figured out a new way to exploit all of the unflattering information you revealed in drunken Facebook postings in 2007.

Wait, was Facebook even around in 2007? The online world is moving so fast, it’s hard to remember days before Facebook and Twitter. You know, the days when, if I wanted some online adulation, I had to take the time to compose my thoughts and write a blog entry (or, at least, write a blog entry, and maybe compose some thoughts along the way), instead of just idly loading Facebook on my iPhone while lazing on the couch and announcing to the world (or at least my so-called “friends”): “OMG! Did U C that stoopid reality show? Those morons on there are total morons… 4 realz!!!1one!”

Maybe it’s time to get less social with my networking, and get back to the one true, perfect venue for narcissistic online exhibitionism: the blog.

Or, as Lewis Black so eloquently put it…


For your reference:

John Gruber: blogTwitter
Merlin Mann: blogTwitter
Andy Baio: blogTwitter
Adam Lisagor: blogTwitter
Jason Kottke: blogTwitter


And finally, to be fair, it’s not entirely Facebook and Twitter that have led to my unfortunate neglect of this blog. Over the past six months I’ve also started two other blogs that have demanded most of my blogging energies: Hall of Prog and 52 Coffees.

Solution for the iPhone Facebook problem

FacebookFacebook on the iPhone is a profoundly dissatisfying experience. The Facebook iPhone app is no good (at least it’s free), the iPhone-optimized Facebook website (http://iphone.facebook.com) is no good, and using the regular Facebook site on the iPhone is not exactly optimal either. Come to think of it, the regular site has its problems even when you’re viewing it on a computer.

But I’ve found a solution. There is, of course, one more way to access Facebook: the “standard” mobile version that gets served up to the mobile browsers in more feeble cellphones than the iPhone. Turns out you can access the mobile site from an iPhone, and it offers a lot of features that the iPhone-optimized site lacks. I suspect Facebook has abandoned further development on the iPhone-optimized site given that they’re also developing a full-fledged iPhone app, but since the app sucks, it’s a lose-lose situation for iPhone users.

As I said, you can access the regular mobile version from your iPhone, but if you just go to its main URL — http://m.facebook.com — from an iPhone, it automatically redirects you to http://iphone.facebook.com. So you have to trick it, which isn’t hard. Here’s the magic URL you’ll want to bookmark in Mobile Safari (and maybe on your computer as well):

Enjoy.