Have Privacy Controls Turned De-friending into an Antiquated and Pointless Hobby?

Posted: May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

When this blog got off the ground almost a year and a half ago, I set out to de-friend 500 people. In the time since the blog fizzled, I’ve come to realize that de-friending might no longer be necessary at all when you think about it in practical terms.

I guess privacy controls were in place when I started this narcissistic endeavor, but it seems like they must have been harder to access or just not very popular. A lot of people were writing about how facebook had become too much of a behemoth in their lives and how they were cutting friends or scaling back on their stalking in an attempt to limit the all-encompassing influence that was the book. Sixteen months later and it seems that a lot of these fears have been skillfully addressed by facebook itself. And yet we might not even be conscious of this. 

My biggest frustration with facebook back then was that, as much as I realized its benefits from a utilitarian standpoint, I couldn’t stand all its excess/clutter. In simple terms, the issue broke down to this: I might have wanted to peruse a long lost female classmate’s scantily clad photos for a few moments every other month, but I did not want to deal with incessant updates about said woman’s wedding planning or hear about what mediocre meal she was cooking on a given evening. I guess the privacy controls existed, but they seemed much less accessible and even if they were more accessible than I realized, they seemed to be underutilized at best.

In time, though, limiting the access of others became ubiquitous.

In what seemed like one fell swoop, people were shutting down access to their photos, walls, and status updates. Which, of course, raised a critical question: what the hell was the point in being on facebook at all? And I’m not just talking about the people who began to selectively limit the access of particular individuals. I’m talking about the people who began to limit the access of ALL of their friends. I mean, I get why you might not want your high school chemistry teacher to see that time you were 19 and tagged while rolling a blunt at Bonnaroo, but to so indiscriminately block the entirety of your virtual community from seeing anything other than a profile pic of your family on its annual ski trip and a work e-mail address seemed a disingenuous way of reducing your digital footprint. Like, if you’re gonna bounce from the book, bounce from the book, but spare us the bullshit. If I want to see that your still an accountant in Detroit, I can stalk the shit out of you on linkedin. That’s why that shit was invented.

It quickly became apparent that limiting everything to everyone was tantamount to a newfound form of virtual free riding. Because, as I said, if you really wanted off of the book, you could just get off the book. These free riders, though, still wanted to scope photos from generic hotty’s Nantucket vacation album. They just wanted to do it with the safety of not having the girls from the album realize that their virtual stalker was now engaged, 30 pounds heavier than when they were casual friends in college, and hadn’t been tagged in nine months, since their life had become way less cool. 

My theory is that Facebook figured this out and realized that to fix this problem, they actually had to make their privacy controls easier and more intuitive. Now, on the face of things, this approach would appear counterintuitive. Why would facebook make it easier for people not to see as much information on facebook? Wouldn’t that be diametrically opposed to the very purpose of the site in the first place? The short and long answer in my opinion is no. Ya see, by making it easier to limit people’s access, he forced people to be more thoughtful about who, when and why they limit access. Whereas at the beginning of the privacy control era all the rage was on a sort of all or nothing approach, now people can be far more discriminating and nuanced in their use of these restrictive settings. And this, in turn, leads to less blanket uses of the privacy settings.

Perhaps even more significantly in terms of this blog’s content, I theorize that it also led to markedly fewer outright de-friendings. 

See Zuck has gotten this whole game down to such a science now that the very concept of de-friending or of limiting the number of friends you have to begin with (ie, not accepting one’s request) serves absolutely no practical function. Because of the skillful introduction of subtle and highly specific privacy settings, Facebook has basically unilaterally bludgeoned the need for people to even  ponder whether or not to confirm a friend request. They’ve appeased the special snowflake sensibilities of their core users. Now, when presented with a friend request from that socially inept kid you haven’t spoken with since sixth grade, you don’t have to feel bad about not wanting to accept. Instead, you can just accept, strategically limit their access (maybe you throw them a bone by letting them see like one album so they don’t think you’re giving them the blanket limited profile access and instead are deluded into believing your profile is like that for everyone), check the button that ensures you never see their status updates and BOOM, you’re off the hook. If that 25 year old grows up to become a hedge fund manager, you’re still friends with them on facebook and maybe you hit them up for a donation to your non-profit. If you’d have de-friended them, the admittedly unlikely benefits which might now accrue wouldn’t have existed. 

While Wall Street is focused on facebook for financially speculative purposes, I believe that Facebook is about to enter an era of a different sort of speculation. Increasingly, people are starting to wonder just how much their particular access to other people’s profiles is actually limited. Because, let me be candid: more and more I find myself being strategic as shit with how I limit access.

Like, I was living with this dude for a bit who I didn’t really like. We got in an argument. I subsequently limited him from seeing anything more than a profile picture and maybe my e-mail address (which he had anyway). Done, right? Wrong. I then had to do the same with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s friend who often came over to the apartment. I didn’t want him thinking I was going after him specifically. So if he said to his GF “Hey babe. Did the writer of 500FF block your access too?” she’d say “Yes” then turn to her pal and say “Hey friend, did he block your access too?” Once the friend said yes, they’d all just assume that I limited the access of all of my facebook friends, that it wasn’t specific to them in particular and the speculation wouldn’t go past that point. None of them think I’m an asshole, but all of them would have if I’d limited the access of only one of them. Shit is just that machiavelian right now in ZuckerWorld.

I truly believe that we’re entering a speculation era of facebook where everyone’s going to be wondering whether they were the only one of their friends to be stringently limited by a mutual friend or whether the same controls were applied across the board. Zuck’s gonna have to figure this out or his stock price could take a nosedive faster than I can de-friend another 100 people (because God knows that’s going to take fucking forever).

Anyway, we’re at a point now where there’s really only one reason left to de-friend someone: the negative connotation associated with having too many facebook friends. Since I’ve clearly shown how one can skillfully accept all friendships without the burdens previously associated with that acceptance, there’s really only one reason why you wouldn’t accept a friend request and that’s the negative perception that exists toward someone who has too many facebook friends. And really, that’s what’s driving this revival of the blog. At this point, I can prevent people from showing up on my newsfeed and I can prevent them from seeing anything that would potentially incriminate me. Hence, the only reason I don’t want to have 1250+ friends is because people who have that many friends are perceived as hugely lame, insecure, self-obsessed, and delusional (all traits that partially describe me, by the way). In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if Zuck added an element to his privacy controls which allowed people to prevent others from seeing how many friends they have. Come to think of it, I actually think Twitter has sometimes struggled to attract casual users because on twitter, you achieve online alpha dog status when you acquire thousands of followers; on facebook, increasingly, you’re cool if you have fewer followers.

Anyway, I cut like six more people, but I’ll write about that later. I only cut them because I don’t want to have too many friends on facebook. 

Hopefully those six will follow me on twitter.

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