Media theorist, activist, and author Douglas Rushkoff usually makes headlines for imploring Congress to make digital coding a part of public education, or discussing his new book about the intersection between technology and culture. This time, however, he’s making news for something seemingly less complex: leaving Facebook.
It might seem like a small feat for you or me, but for a bestselling author—whose work has hinged on navigating the complexities of cyberculture and the digital age for almost two decades—it has caused a few heads to turn.
So why has he decided to leave those who have “liked” and “shared” his updates—to, as coined by Forbes writer Anthony Wing Kosner, “unbundle” from Facebook? Because his involvement with the site is “simply too inconsistent” with the values he has long advocated in his work. “I have always argued for engaging with technology as conscious human beings and dispensing with technologies that take that agency away,” said Rushkoff in an essay published in late February on CNN.com, where he is a regular columnist and media commentator. “Facebook is just such a technology.”
As Rushkoff and Kosner have pointed out, Facebook’s use of personal information has steadily increased and become more complicated, and its user agreement and privacy settings are in constant flux. You may have read about Facebook’s newest feature, Graph Search, which has caused quite a backlash among tech-savvy bloggers and privacy advocates. However, there is another controversial feature on Facebook called “related posts,” which has somehow existed under the radar until only recently. This feature allows advertisers to use you as a sponsor for their product—regardless of whether or not you’ve “liked” it (or even if you’ve ever heard of it)—simply because you “liked” something that was related to it.
Web developer Craig Condon found this out, as Kosner reported, when he “liked” the irreverent news organization Vice Magazine and, shortly after, an unrelated pornographic video was recommended to his own mother under the headline “Craig Condon likes Vice.” He documents how this works, and how this happens without user knowledge, in a short demonstration using a fake Facebook account to provide examples.
Rushkoff is not alone. A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, found that 61 percent of current Facebook users admitted that they had voluntarily taken breaks from the site, for as many as several weeks at a time, although far fewer (20%) had left entirely. Although most took breaks or left because they thought Facebook was a waste of time or their friends weren’t interesting enough to warrant the time, 4% noted privacy and security concerns. And maybe in a hint that Facebook frenzy is waning, only a relative handful (12%) said the site’s significance increased for them in the past year.
And for those who are on the fence, the latest bit of news on Facebook’s paid promotions “service” might nudge them off. Writing in the New York Times, Nick Bilton recently discovered that Facebook was promoting the links to his column that he paid Facebook to promote using the company’s sponsored advertising tool but suppressed the ones he did not pay for. As he writes:
“This may be great news for advertisers, but I felt slightly duped. I’ve stayed on Facebook after its repeated privacy violations partly because I foolishly believed there was some sort of democratic approach to sharing freely with others. The company persuaded us to share under that premise and is now turning it inside out by requiring us to pay for people to see what we post.”
As the methods of Facebook’s advertising and its privacy policies become less transparent and user-friendly, it causes us to ask: how can we teach youth to understand this concept and become more cognizant digital citizens
“Ask kids what Facebook is for, and they'll tell you it's there to help them make friends,” said Rushkoff in an article for Edutopia. “Of course, anyone who has poked a bit deeper or thought a bit longer about it understands that people programming Facebook aren't sitting around wondering how to foster more enduring relationships for little Johnny, Janey and their friends, but rather how to monetize their social graphs—the trail of data the site is busy accumulating about Johnny and Janey every second of the day and night.”
As Rushkoff put it, “kids aren’t Facebook customers; they’re the product.” The real customers, he said, are the advertisers and market researchers who are, in short, paying for users’ attention and data.
Rushkoff says that one of the ways to get youth to recognize their relationship to digital advertising—and, ideally, learn how not to be the “product”—is to familiarize them with the digital environment where all this is taking place and to teach them how to code, so they can develop and change these environments themselves. “As I see it,” he said, “code literacy is a requirement for participation in a digital world.”
Additionally, educators play an important role when it comes to instilling best practices for the digital world. They can teach students about how “liking” something enables them to act as a virtual billboard for advertisers who care little or not at all about users’ best interests.
To help parents, educators, and mentors guide youth through the tricky layers of Facebook account privacy settings, The New York Times has provided a pro-privacy toolkit designed to navigate users back to controlling their own content, as well as those who see it. The kit also contains frequently asked questions and answers, with step-by-step instructions to evade the unfortunate pitfalls caused by market research.
Rushkoff titled this phenomenon “digiphrenia” and recognized that deleting his Facebook account was the only cure for such a diagnosis. “I have always appreciated that agreeing to become publicly linked to me and my work online involves trust. It is a trust I value, but—as it is dependent on the good graces of Facebook,” Rushkoff said, “it is a trust I can live up to only by unfriending this particularly anti-social social network.” Maybe he has the right idea after all.