Zero to 1984 in just six years

There’s a passage in George Orwell’s 1949 classic Nineteen Eighty-Four which reads:

Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

If you haven’t read the novel (and if you haven’t, you really should), these slogans are designed with a double meaning, with one meaning being something the citizens of Oceania could rally behind (fight a war for the promise of peace, being free isn’t really all that great and fascism is the way to go, and stay in line and do as you’re told and you’ll be good, respectively) and the other being something the Party, the all-powerful fascist government believes and practices (keep your nation at war and you’ll have domestic peace, give people the illusion of freedom and they’ll be your slaves, and keep people thinking they’re strong enough to remain ignorant, respectively).

You might wonder where I’m going with this, given that the image above this text is the Facebook logo. I was thinking about a way to address the latest Facebook controversy. Originally seeding from changes announced at Facebook’s F8, the controversy being that some of Facebook’s new features make it easier than ever to get your information everywhere on the web. This topic’s been covered by just about everyone else, it seems, including Mark Cuban. It’s even brought my colleague and company’s CTO out of blogosphere hiding.

Not wanting to steal anyone’s thunder, I thought long and hard (I originally wrote the joke but opted not to; if someone makes the joke in the comments I won’t hold it against them) about how to address a new angle of this controversy. Something reminded me of Nineteen Eighty-Four, my favorite novel, and I was reminded of those slogans. Now, it pains me to say that I didn’t remember all three off the top of my head (note to self: drop everything, reread Nineteen Eighty-Four this weekend), and interestingly, the one I didn’t remember was the one that was the most interesting to me: FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

In the book, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY assumes that if someone believes they’re free in their current environment, they will do your bidding because there’s no reason for them to leave. Let’s look at Facebook by comparison: here’s a site that gives you your friends, your entertainment, your ability to communicate. A lot of times it seems like literally everyone is on Facebook: events are planned, photos are shared, conversations are conversed. If you’re on the outside of Facebook looking in (an experience I had from the fall of 2007 until the summer of 2008) it’s a struggle to coordinate with everyone else who isn’t on Facebook. Therefore, being on Facebook is the freedom to communicate and share with your friends.

But it comes at a price. When you sign up for Facebook, you agree to their terms of service and privacy policy, which state, more or less, that anything you post on Facebook becomes property of Facebook. In other words, your freedom isn’t really freedom; it’s slavery. Your freedom on Facebook is completely reliant on Facebook’s infrastructure and their desire to get you to stay on Facebook. That is, if Mark Zuckerberg got up tomorrow and said, “hey, you know what, I’m tired of Facebook, I’m shutting it down” tomorrow, you’d be out of luck. If he got up tomorrow and said, “MR. GORBACHEV, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL…of privacy” and made everything public, you’d be out of luck, unless you opted to remove your account.

Like the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Facebook knows the power of a large group believing that they’re free, and that’s why they give you those granular privacy controls, all that help configuring them, and even the little previews that show you how everyone else sees your information. They know that the illusion of control is often powerful enough, if not more powerful, than control itself. (That’s not to say Facebook’s privacy controls don’t normally work; they do. Otherwise, the illusion of control would be over as soon as you hit the “Preview my profile as…” button.) And lastly, and most importantly, they know the strategic, monetary and intrinsic value of having all that information about you, your friends, and everyone else.

So when Facebook announced these new “Instant Personalization” features at F8, they may not have known that the backlash would be this severe. But they not only knew the value of getting a bunch of money from Microsoft, Yelp and Pandora; they knew how much those companies valued your information so they could engage you more effectively, and they knew that these sites would be gathering still more information. It’s not in Facebook’s best interest to guard your information zealously; rather, the best thing they should do is guard it enough so that you don’t know it’s being traded.

What does all that mean? It means that by signing up for a Facebook account, you are at their mercy for if and when they decide to alter their strategy. If that’s the sort of thing that bothers you immediately, delete your account permanently. However, if you trust Facebook even a smidgen that they’re not gearing up for a war with Eastasia, trust that while your information isn’t exactly static, thus far Facebook isn’t selling your e-mail address and phone number to spammers.

But as Jim said, the most surefire way to ensure something doesn’t end up on Facebook or with an affiliate is: never post it in the first place. Always always always think before you post, and if you choose to post controversial profanity-laden rants, risque pictures of the party last night, or complaints about your boss, consider putting them on a medium you control. (And no, that medium isn’t Twitter.)