Sharing securely, yet openly.
We can all develop a strong voice safely, while letting our deeper intentions by served by the world.
There is no guaranteed privacy on the internet. Anything can be hacked, tracked, or leaked. Governments enforce laws, financial systems need some level of tracking/protection. So, say only things for which you wouldn’t mind taking credit. Most of us like a society where people can participate freely in grey or black markets, without fear of punishment or embarrassment, so we support systems that provide anonymity, such as bitcoin. Some people want to enforce moral codes and norms, and in some places like China, Iran or Indiana, they may even be majorities, and technological libertarians would just like those people boxed in their own areas, setting rules only there, which don’t affect the greater freedoms. Perhaps we’d even like to help those captured populations be free. But how?
Everyone would like confidentiality around messaging. As long as this doesn’t destroy safety. Different societies will weigh this differently. If we had expectations of extended life, we’d further value safety. Facebook extends this voice beyond a person’s own captive audience, of people who’ve specifically agreed to listen at a specific time.
Zuckerberg strongly wants Facebook to give voice to everyone who doesn’t have it, and says voice comes in shades of grey. When google backs out of China, it loses all influence; but when Facebook tries to play by government rules in Turkey and Iran, it can potentially help open those societies. We wish everyone lived in a country where open speech was safe, and over time by strengthening voice, we can hope societies move to openness over the long arc of time. Certainly when Facebook provides affordable data services and free voice and text, it shrinks distance between peoples, and prevents entrenched monopolists from abusing choke points on communications infrastructure.
Open source software directly empowers engineers, to provide tools for ever more empowered populations. Firechat improves messaging security and reliability over wireless mesh networking standards promoted by Apple and public standards bodies. Linux, Apache and PHP (supported by IBM, Sun and others) berthing Facebook and Google, which in turn broadly support the next class of (more and less) open services on Android, Parse, and the Open Compute Project. The direction is irreversible — more power and voice, more broadly spread to more people.
Why why does the open source loving Facebook create a highly controlled and closed walled garden for its own content? If Twitter can release its tweet firehose, and spawn derivative services, why doesn’t Facebook open its public content? Is this so that only Facebook has access to the Likes and Posts on which it targets Ads? So as to decrease competition on its ability to target personalized ads? Or even to block anyone from creating a better search engine or news feed on top of this content, and protect their own captive engaged audience? AOL certainly did this to the detriment of the early internet, so Facebook must be evil also?
Occam’s razor prefers the simplest explanations, and Facebook’s behavior is fully vindicated by one simple promise Facebook has always made to its community: you forever control completely who can see your content. If I post a message with allowed visibility of only a few specific people, only they will ever know the message existed. More importantly, if later I change my mind, I can change the audience, and old audience can no longer see this content. I can permanently hide or restrict any content that I’ve put onto Facebook, or even completely delete it, which makes it safe for me to share. Try that anywhere else on the internet.
Certainly the old audience could have copied the content, or someone looking over their shoulder could have taken a photo of their screen, and anyone who has ever seen it could email it to a friend, or post it to the open internet. If your audience doesn’t respect your privacy, you lose your privacy. This is no different from someone recording a phone conversation, or broadcasting a private text or email message.
Facebook sharing is a message without a specific audience, and Facebook’s major added value is finding the audience for you, which cares most about your message. If this is a status update to your friends, Facebook shows it to the interested, closer friends. If this is a topical group or Page post, Facebook picks fans or group members most like to enjoy the post. And crucially, if this is a commercial message, Facebook similarly find people who will benefit from the message, and not ignore it or be annoyed by it. This is a hugely difficult technical challenge, and giving stronger voice to more and more people on exacerbates the noise. When everyone is talking, it is a minor miracle that Facebook can (over time, increasingly honestly) let you hear what is most valuable for you.
[You can distrust them, and say that Facebook will just show you what entertains you, or makes them the most money, or protects the governments or rich people that sustain them, but then you are just saying Facebook does this job poorly and should be replaced, and not that the role of the company is wrong. Any web service that loses trust, will be replaced.]
In open capitalist economies, all businesses need customers, and often small businesses have the most trouble finding the people interested in their unique niche, especially if they are artisans or special service providers who are good at what they do, and not necessarily good at modern branding or marketing. Every diverse and interesting world we could visualize, must include vibrant small enterprises.
Most of us hate billboards and over commercialization, such as branding on treasured cultural or public goods (public transit, art and museums, or even sports team uniforms). We had it because it debases the culture we value, and because it is broadcast to everyone, obnoxiously. I’d rather allow ONLY targeted advertising in our public and media spaces, just as we now have public laws and social norms against spam in email and unsolicited phone calls or texts.
Moreover, we all anticipate a future where our clearly stated intentions bring custom and personalized solutions and service to us. To the extent our intentions are clear and inflexible, we can script the solution. For example, we can broadcast we want the cheapest vacation to Kauai, and priceline and various budget vendors can bid for your business, and anyone can aggregate the outcomes for your purchasing action. This slants commerce to competing on price (since that is the main objective metric of service) rather than all of the qualitative aspects of services which make them special. We really just want a fantastic vacation.
So I argue it is better for people to start with flexible intentions, which allow for positive surprises, and more diverse ways in which these intentions can be fulfilled. Frankly, these are our more honest intentions anyway! We often don’t honestly know what we want, even as we are listing to the many options which could be presented to us! Steve Jobs at Apple famously offered products that customers couldn’t have imagined wanting, producing unexpected delight. When we walk into a farmers market, or a bazaar while on vacation, we specifically want things we can’t name before we are introduced to them. Finally, daily routine makes us settle for what we know, puts us in ruts of comfort that large corporations exploit, when they provide us only the known items over and over. When we drink a Coke or choose McDonalds, we are actually saying “please, just nothing worse”, that we don’t want to risk the unknown. We don’t even remember to seek out delightful experiences, and we get a commercial space that extinguishes them — without us realizing we are all asking only for a boring corporate homogenized marketplace. I want these deeper, subtle intentions to be heard.
So, then we do agree that targeted, personalized advertising is more relevant and enjoyable than old school advertising, right? And we agree that commercial marketplaces are better when buyers start with flexible intentions leaving space for delight and surprise, right? So, then, what is the best way for society to enable such personalized advertising against flexible intentions?
First, consumers who want a service should have their privacy protected from vendors until they decide to buy. Only information necessary to the customization of a deal for the good of the buyer should be shared, until the buyer trusts the seller enough to decided to introduce themselves.
Second, consumers who transact with a service should be able to safely ensure a refund, and no additional hassles or retaliation from the vendor, if they didn’t like the service.
Third, enough information must be available about the various vendors so that the customer is able to make a wise choice.
Fourth, the vendors must be protected from wasting their money on unproductive customers or prospects.
This fast and incomplete list is enough for me to claim that the open internet is not the right place for these transactions, at least not at this time. Wouldn’t you agree? If not, please comment why not!
Facebook’s programmatic ad marketplace is in fact non-personal — it carefully strips all personally identifiable information, and any information sharing between people and advertisers or apps requires explicit and clear consent of the user. This is actually good for privacy, and vastly superior to cookie based, or even worse device based, tracking.
Is Uber making riders safe? Is bitcoin making savings or purchases safe? Or are they just free-riding a profit by externalizing subtle costs onto society? Cities pay for the safety net of the driver “contractors”, or society (ideally) protects for the stability and fairness of the monetary system. Facebook simply gives voice to everyone, and aims to maximize the utility for everyone in listening to each other.
I certainly hope that the ability to do this expands far beyond the ability of any one company. And probably many of the nascent attempts to create open identity services and more private and safe messaging services and marketplaces are serving society well by leading the charge. As many of us in society work to give a voice to the voiceless, and help everyone be respectfully heard, let’s appreciate Facebook as a big advocate and technical leader on that shared mission.