Facebook is nothing special. Its features are not revolutionary or technologically groundbreaking. It wasn’t the first social networking or online profile website. In fact, there are very few unique elements to Facebook that you cannot find elsewhere on the internet.
However, Facebook is not only the most popular website on the planet, its millions of users willingly dispense their most personal information. We upload photos of our children, talk about our vacations and likes and dislikes, and share our marital status, gender, hometown, religious views and birth date. We identify our family members and point out our friends. We publish our exact location live via our smartphones’ GPS. Some of us would probably enter our social security and bank account numbers if there was a box for it on the Edit My Profile screen.
People are trusting by nature, and we expect others to treat us like we would treat them. We trust Facebook to keep our information private, sharing it only as we would like. We forget the company is a for-profit corporation. The heads at Facebook may be the nicest people in the world, but they still have to explain themselves to the investors that forked over the megamillions needed to fund such an ambitious project. Those investors want one thing: a high rate of return on their money.
Cost of Goods and Services
How much do you think you pay for your Facebook account? Here’s a hint: it ain’t free. Facebook earns revenue in two ways: they sell advertising and they sell information. You are funding their massive consumer information and behavior database with your own personal information. You are paying whether you realize it or not.
The Country of You
It is not Facebook’s fault if you do not understand the monetary exchange rate of your personal information. Think of yourself as an independent country, and your personal information as a currency, with each specific item a denomination. Facebook works in US Dollars, so you need to determine how many USD each item of personal information is worth, so you can exchange your currency for goods and services. Your hometown may be worth $1, your list of friends worth $10, and your birth date $50. Every time Facebook sells that piece of information to someone else, you count that toward your subscription cost.
Here is a breakdown of how much I think I pay for my Facebook subscription. It’s up to me, as King of the Country of Eddie, to determine how much I believe each denomination is worth. Your country’s exchange rate will vary, based on what information you hold dear.
|Country of Eddie Denomination||Equivalent in US Dollars|
|List of Friends||$40|
|The name of a family member||$100|
|Photo of my child||$500|
|The fact I play Farmville *||$1,000|
If Facebook shares my hometown one time, I have paid $1 for my subscription. If they share all of my information one time, I have paid $2,046. If they share it 500 times, I have paid $1,023,000.
Since $1M is a lot for me to pay for my Facebook subscription, I have determined I am overpaying. I can do one of three things: continuing to pay too much, stop using the service altogether, or reduce the amount of Country of Eddie money I am spending. I vote for the third option.
I can reduce how much I pay for my Facebook subscription by reducing the amount of information I provide via all those text boxes on the Edit My Profile screen, and how much I allow them to share with others.
By simply using Facebook, you have agreed to allow them to use some of your personal information without any further consent or control. For example, they know when you perform actions, such as “liking” a post, creating a photo album, or sharing a video. They log these actions, and can distribute the information however they want. Think of their use of this personal information as overhead, from an accounting perspective. In order to use their site, you will be spending some very small denominations from the Country of You.
Balancing Facebook’s Budget
You can control how Facebook spends most of your currency. You must be diligent and provide the oversight yourself by managing your Privacy Settings. If you specifically tell Facebook they cannot sell some bit of personal information, they are legally required to keep it private.
They do get sneaky, so you have to watch them like a hawk. It seems that every Facebook update includes a new privacy setting defaulted to Allow. Then, they hide a simple setting into three or four confusing paragraphs. I literally had to read their most recent privacy option (“Using Facebook to personalize your experience on the web”) three times to understand whether I should check or uncheck the little box.
They do this on purpose. They overload you with information because they know you don’t have the time or patience to read the whole thing. If they really cared about your privacy, they would have a setting on the website that said “Only share my information with Friends” which would apply to everything you do on the website. LinkedIn.com does a much better job of clearly outlining your privacy options, and sets a good example Facebook should follow. Check it out on the LinkedIn Edit My Profile page (you must login to see it).
Here is a screenshot of a single privacy setting on Facebook (click it to enlarge). Is this confusing to you? Leave a comment and tell me your thoughts.
You should spend some time learning how to customize your Facebook privacy settings. Time is money, and I think this is money well spent.
Oversharing is Overspending
When you share your information publicly, you are allowing Facebook to spend your currency at their whim. If you don’t need to share some bit of information, then mark it as private via the Privacy Settings, or better yet, don’t even enter that data into the website. Resist the urge to fill in all the blanks.
Facebook Owns Your Data (Until You Delete It)
“For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.”
The only way to truly protect your data is to delete it, although that may be a bit extreme for us Facebook junkies.
Don’t Hate Facebook
I didn’t write this post to scare you away from Facebook. It has revolutionized the web and made the world much smaller. Never before has it been easier to stay in touch with friends and family. The commenting system is unparalleled, and is the pinnacle of how social networking should work. I use Facebook regularly (friend me at facebook.com/eddie.krebs) and thoroughly enjoy the experience.
I simply want you to understand the value of your personal data. If you want to share your information to extend your personal brand, Facebook is just about the best way to do it. In this case, your personal information is something you WANT to share and that’s great. Just don’t overshare.
Remember, Facebook isn’t the only one with this business model. It is a prevalent model for free sites, and social networking sites in particular, since they store so much more personal information. Take control over how they spend your currency! No one else is going to protect your investment in you.
If you have a few minutes, I wholeheartedly recommend you read the content on these web pages.
- Facebook Privacy: A Bewildering Tangle of Options
(New York Times)
- How Facebook Sells Your Information, and Gets Away With It
(Finance Tech News)
- Privacy and the Internet: Traveling in Cyberspace Safely
(Privacy Rights Clearinghouse)