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Michael Gracie

Facebook’s problem is dissociative identity disorder (UPDATED)

A few days ago, the Consumerist kicked up quite a stir when it uncovered how a relatively small tweak to Facebook’s terms of service essentially negated any rights users might have had to permanently remove their content from the social site. Soon after, the apologists and site management attempted to discredit and/or ‘explain away’ the situation, notwithstanding the fact that Facebook ostensibly ambushed its users. The key issue is whether Facebook should have access to your data after you delete your account, and the given explanation for why they need it is so all the messages, notes, tags (and poop) flying around the site aren’t dislocated by one person deciding to remove theirs. It’s a “two-message system,” says CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and there’s nothing you can do about it (including quit).

I’ve heard more than a few people cry bloody murder when ‘colorful’ pictures of themselves showed up on Facebook, kindly tagged to them by their friends. They applied for a job, and their prospective employer now knows they enjoy a little weed, or a little too much drink – they are passed over before anything can get scrubbed. In addition, I’ve absorbed first-person accounts of folks fighting with the same friends to delete mentions of their childrens’ names and photos, citing the fact they themselves don’t mention that particular subject matter on their own Facebook pages. Incredulity reins supreme, and real-world friendships are weakened as a result. And this is supposed to be fun?

Still, some folks opine that the best way to protect your identity on social networks is to sign up for them – a completely ludicrous proposition. All creating a legitimate account is going to do is provide a clearly defined target for the above described hassles. The only real benefit of such action is it protects your real world friends from getting scammed by the fake you, of which there may be a few lurking around already looking for a helping hand. Personally, I love my friends and family, and thankfully they take responsibility for their own actions so I don’t have to.

As for the idea that your privacy has already been deemed null and void at the hands of the internet, I say bunk. Consider this – you share personal information all over the web. That information lies on many disparate sites, mixed together with other information from many other users. Even Google can’t sort through and precisely collate that data with you – that’s why they’re trying Friend Connect. Someone looking carefully and specifically for you might be able to correlate this information, but it’s a time consuming task (and not necessarily free either). Conversely, if you share all that data on a single site, anyone looking for trouble can easily find you – even Facebook admits they’ve spent a lot of time and effort refining their own search algorithms to make it so.

In a perfect world, everyone would understand exactly how to tweak their Facebook privacy settings for optimum safety. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect world – if we did users might have thought about reading the terms of service before they socked themselves into this mess. And let’s face it – it sounds like work. We’ll ignore the fact that people are actually trusting a service whose genesis was possible theft. Gloss over attempts to infringe on user privacy – in particular the failed Beacon, with its omniscience regarding your everyday purchases. Disregard that it takes days to permanently delete an account. Users signed up in droves anyway.

Coming on the heels of the announcement that Facebook plans to make money by selling user data, I’m wholly unsurprised by this move. Bailing users breaking all those links (and the associative information they convey) would be like breaking the bank.

Now you’re supposed to just trust them?

Good luck with that.

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The joke starts off “To delete your Facebook account…”

This morning’s MySpace note reminded me that I had some housekeeping to do. One of the duties was to delete a few social networking accounts – I don’t use them and likely never will, preferring the dynamics of voice intonation and facial expressions over web pages. This task, however, proved more complicated than I thought.

I’ll toss out a caveat – MySpace was a cakewalk. I logged in, and clicked on account settings. The “delete” link was easy to find, and I clicked it. The page asked me in no uncertain terms whether I wanted to do this. I pushed the equivalent of the yes button. Thirty seconds later I received an email with another link to complete cancellation. I click that, push one button, and it’s done (or at least promised within 48 hours). Seconds later I notice that the MySpace messaging account I had input into Adium (but never actually used) had gone offline. I was now pretty certain my account had been taken care of.

On to Facebook…I am now reminded why I avoid signing up for too many services on the web – some are simply run by jackasses.

First and foremost, trying to find a link to delete your account within Facebook is kind of like trying to find a prostitute inside the Vatican City – you’ve heard rumors it’s possible, but nobody is pointing the way. I wound up having to run a Google search to acquire this:

http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=delete_account

So I click said link, and wind up at a page that tells me I need to log in. I enter my log-in information, but instead of getting redirected to the page I previously requested – you know, in the same sort of manner virtually every other web service on planet Earth operates when you click on a link that requires prior login – I wind up at a generic contact page. Furthermore, the “Issues” drop down list of the form now staring me down doesn’t even contain a selection for “delete account.”

I have to say I’d actually thought of writing a desktop script to repeatedly request account deletion, but soon realized someone else had probably tried that. How do I know? Well after finally reaching the proper page and requesting account deletion, I was met with this message:

Thanks, your inquiry has been forwarded to the Facebook Team.

At that point I realized I was running late. So I walked the dog around a few blocks – when I returned, this was sitting in my inbox:

Hi,

The Facebook Team has received your inquiry. We should get back to you soon. In the meantime, we encourage you to review our Privacy and Security Help page (http://www.facebook.com/help.php?page=433). There, you’ll find answers to many common questions.

Thanks for contacting Facebook,

The Facebook Team

It didn’t take a deep investigation to realize this was an auto-generated message. In addition, the return address had been purposefully obfuscated to either prevent a reply or keep damn good track of who did reply:

privacy+nl8qtsg@facebook.com

I then run through the same process roughly ten times – hitting the delete account page and proceeding – hoping the “Facebook Team” truly gets the message. Then I run out for breakfast. When I returned, there were no new delete account messages waiting for me – someone has obviously tried the delete-account-many-times approach, and Facebook has taken appropriate measures. Several hours later my account was still active.

Conclusions:

1) Facebook goes to great length to prevent you from finding a way to delete your account. Links are extremely non-obvious, and the site purposefully tries to circumvent your reaching the page. You are forced to find a link to delete from outside the site, and make sure your are logged in BEFORE you can properly access said link.

2) Facebook communication makes them sound apprehensive about deleting your information. They may claim that this is for your own protection, but I consider the sequence and tone more that of one that wants to carefully review your information first, just in case there is something of value to them within.

Keep in mind – you don’t have this problem elsewhere. I’ve been plenty of places where going through the delete account process gives you fair warning, just before your account disappears. I’ve got MySpace on the tip of my tongue…cripes, even Google lets you delete accounts and the result is instantaneous. Finding yourself in the position of having to wait for some “team” to “get back to you soon” is more than mere bullshit.

You know what they say…if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

Then don’t forget your waterfowl stamp.
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