I started using FourSquare recently – I’m now the Mayor of San Pablo Park, and I check in there everyday. My wife and I just moved to a new neighborhood, and it’s strangely fun to log our daily walks. It’s also been neat to run into other FourSquare users, after recognizing pictures of their dogs.
After using FourSquare for a couple weeks, I was poking around their website, and I decided to connect with all of my various social utilities and import my contacts. I did them all – GMail, Twitter, and of course Facebook. Of all the services, I felt betrayed only by Facebook – that was the only one that took the excuse of me inviting my contacts to also sign me up for Wall Posts. I will almost never connect with a Facebook app for this reason – nearly all app makers will ask you for a slew of permissions, among them making public posts on your behalf.
So after the first wall post I nipped it in the bud, using the convenient way Facebook provides to remove the permission, available from the Wall Post itself. I think the Facebook employees would tell you that the system is working, and they would point out how easy it was for me to get what I wanted in the end. Each application explicitly asks you to post stuff, and you have to explicitly say yes. And then it’s easy to fix things on the back end.
I would argue that both this system and the attitude that fosters it are broken. In almost all cases, I simply say no, and decline to trade my privacy for the small bit of utility of an app. But is everyone like me? How many of these users facing these coercive choices are unable to understand the devil’s bargain they are making? How many are drunk, sad, or lonely? Heck, how many of these people are even old enough to be entering into binding agreements like this? Children who connect with their FourSquare friends on Facebook, and then end up posting automatically to their walls are being exploited in the same way as child actors – the only difference is that child actors are protected by contracts and labor law, and they get paid.
In the end, the Facebook API is a system of coercion. It preys on our weakness for being social, for being cool, and being part of the group. It preys on laziness. And it preys on our children. It’s not exactly a gun to the head, but then again the system isn’t trying to coerce you into handing over the money in the safe, so they don’t really need a gun. This light, social coercion is enough.
Facebook holds up the straw man of simplicity of UI. They claim that the interface makes it easy for you to share and control that sharing, but the simple truth is the interface makes it simple for programmers to coerce you into doing what they want.
The main problem is that applications use the carrot of things like “connect with your friends” to get you to also allow them to post on your wall. This simply should not be allowed – if FourSquare wants to connect me with my Facebook friends, they should not be allowed to ask for other permissions, most importantly they should not be allowed to ask for the Posting Publicly Permission. I can hardly blame FourSquare for this – they basically need to do it to keep up with other apps, but I can blame Facebook for making the rules of the game. This all starts higher up, in the form of a thought in Mark Zuckerberg’s head, that privacy is dead. But it does not manifest until it becomes this API.
The solution is apparent – the API should let you ask for just one permission at a time, for the thing that your app wants to do. At the very least, it should not allow developers to use the ultimate social tool – the contacts import – to erode your privacy. Until this changes, Facebook will never be a trustworthy system, and user ire will build and foment. The end result is unclear, but I think Facebook underestimates the growing tide, and there will be some consequences in the form of lawsuits, regulation, or platform change.
UI simplicity is a straw man – Facebook simply knows that favoring viral spamminess and coercion is a sure way to grow the network, and they will continue to develop the platform that way and hide behind a veil of good intentions and engineering issues. Until there is a change of heart at the highest level, or until people and our governments take action, Facebook’s attitude will continue to define social on the web.