Facebook Fears, Way Back in 2010

Facebook today is a way of life for many. It’s app is practically a default on most new smartphones, and checking the site is considered by many to be similar to checking your voicemail, your e-mail, and even your real mail; a daily ritual. It’s where we hear news both public and personal, from new babies to riots on the other side of the world.

It’s important to question and examine the site, since it factors so heavily in our lives. It is especially telling to look back at journalism and how it reacted to the site only four years ago. Canadian Business Magazine ran an article in July of 2010, called Why We’ll Never Escape Facebook, by James Cowan. The cover text reads, Facebook: why it could be the biggest business ever. Looking back at their predictions and warnings, some of them could come from today, and some are practically quaint.


To start off, the story talks about the increased daily use of the site, up to 14 minutes a day on average. This almost seems charming and healthy in comparison to our (Zinc-tank’s) own recent research. Fifty-six percent of users spend more than 45 minutes a day.

It continues by talking about privacy concerns and Facebook’s treatment of it’s user base; this could have been written this year. That said, the size of Facebook means that no matter what it does, it has privacy concerns, the same way the banks have money concerns; they’re holding on to it for everyone else.

It also points out the Facebook strategy of asking forgiveness rather than permission. Specifically, changing the privacy policies regarding what is shared or stored about a user, or changing the layout of the site, without prior notification to those users. Although this still happens, and it has created a general lack of trust from that user base, the company is arguably getting better at it. Often they will begin to promote a change for weeks before it happens, and give tours of the new settings and layout before they are permanently implemented. These developments, though, are clearly based on lessons learned from years of privacy failures.

Another point of the article is a Facebook feature called external personalization. This is what allows you to ‘like’ or ‘share’ something on a non-Facebook website. They have built API’s to allow these external sites to plug into them. The article focuses on data collection, which is immense; this allows Facebook to greater profile their user demographics as they travel the web. It also becomes a single-sign-on feature for logging on to various websites, an element that the article doesn’t really dig into.

Allowing the user to ‘log in via Facebook’ gives Facebook a powerful ubiquity. The more companies that allow this log-in channel, and the more users that link all of their logins through Facebook, means that the user has more obstacles to leaving the site and going elsewhere. It’s a further step in making Facebook completely ubiquitous.

(To stress the point of ubiquity: the complaints of the user base on various company policies adopt language around fairness and justice; Facebook has become something that many of it’s users equate with a public utility.)

The article closes by talking about how Facebook manages all of our personal data. It makes the point that the ‘data is difficult to dislodge.’ This one is no longer true. There is an option on the ‘Settings’ page to begin downloading your data. It provides extra security steps before providing that data, which shows a level of respect for that data. It would be easy to say that this feature, like their recent public relations policies, are recent developments born out of past failures, but either way, the user does have the ability to take their friend lists and photos from the site. This seems to be a minimum service requirement for the social media age: Google has this, as does Twitter.

(What comes in the download package is only that content which you specifically own. It might be striking to find out just how small that package is, and how much of what you do and say on the site is not considered ‘yours’.)

This five-year-old article feels as though it could be written today, though it’s points might seem more obvious now than they did then. That said, some of the strongest concerns, around privacy notifications and user data, have been addressed. This might show that this article and others, raising similar concerns, contributed to the overall improvements. This gives hope to the critical process! So give our page a like, OK? 😉


Disclosure: This post was co-written with Jason Mehmel. Ideas contained were discussed collaboratively; and Brian F. Singh had the final review/edit.

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