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Facebook, Anonymity, and Commenting

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

I was thinking about writing on Charlie Sheen’s disastrous fall today, sort of trying to look at it from the PR (and just the “common sense”) angle, but frankly, he’s a tired topic already. (There is far too much “#winning” on Twitter for me to handle at the moment.)

There was also a better topic, one that hit a nerve with me: this editorial from Engadget on anonymity and using Facebook to manage a comment system, ostensibly to get rid of trolls and spammers.

For me, it struck a nerve because I’ve been watching over the past couple of years as everything seems to be assimilated into the ZuckerBorg collective. No longer does someone say “send me an email” or “I’ll text you,” it’s more along the lines of “I’ll send you a Facebook message” or “Here’s the invite to the party.” And that worries me, that one service is beginning to monopolize the very basic act of communication. No company should be in that position, especially with the kind of person Zuckerburg is.

We already know that Zuckerburg has–or at least, at one point in time, had–a serious disdain for his users. We know he prefers to dictate policies on high, telling his customers what they want, rather than actually doing market research and finding out what they truly do want. We know that his company isn’t really concerned about privacy, something that should be at the forefront of everyone (or at least, I would assume everyone’s) mind. Is this really a person/company we want having a monopoly on our interactions?

While it’s true that not everybody is on Facebook–including, thank golly Miss Molly, my own parents–there sure are a lot of people. Facebook has a sort of built in momentum, an inertia that nothing else can stop at the moment.

Help Us Obi-Wan Diaspora*! You're our only hope!

That inertia is backed up by Facebook’s aggressive campaign to take over media sharing and now, as Endgadget here notes, commenting systems. (Not that that’s new, really; I think it’s been around for at least a year. But who’s counting? Oh wait, Mashable, I forgot.) You can’t escape the Zucktopus even if you tried. Even I’m forced to put a “Sign In With Facebook” button here for people to use (although I also offer Twitter, and I think OpenID is working, though if it isn’t, feel free to chuck a wrench at my noggin.)

The trend really worries me. I don’t like monopolies. I like users having choice, having maximum flexibility (one reason why I like Google Buzz over Twitter, though I guess its time to say “nuts to that idea”), and ultimately having the freedom to do what they want without having to jump over hurdles to do so. And if blogs start using Facebook alone for their commenting system–as TechCrunch in this article have done–that’s going to be the exact opposite of that.

I can already see the first problem that will arise from this: young homosexual and bisexual teenagers who haven’t yet come out of the closet will want to talk about their experiences on a blog, yet if they have to comment via Facebook, it will be pretty quick to force them out of the closet when they are not yet ready. Of course, a blog could choose to not use Facebook to run its comments, but as more and more turn to Facebook, that could put pressure on other outlets to do the same. And we wouldn’t want that.

I myself have several different social media outlets, and I want that. I don’t like commenting with my Facebook profile all the time, because I view Facebook as my private profile, where I can rant and say stupid things without much thought. Twitter is more public, I have a Buzz that I don’t think anybody follows, I have a Livejournal (also locked, mostly) and of course I also have this WordPress blog.

The good news is that other companies are not following Zuckerburg’s policy of trying to put everyone into one “identity” and restrict consumer choice. For example–also from Engadget–Motorola is upgrading customers’ new XOOM tablets to 4G, even if they’ve rooted it. How awesome is that? You can buy the product, with its manufacturer imposed restrictions, and cope with them; or, you can root it, unlock all its features, and do whatever, and they’ll still upgrade it (although its not a perfect situation.)

The concern over trolls is also misplaced. Really, who focuses that much on trolls? As one commentator pointed out:

I enjoyed reading your piece here. And as I got to the end I realized the solution. Don’t delete anything. Seriously. Why delete “You’re paid by Apple” posts? Let others decide whether or not they want to see those posts by allowing them to Ignore those posters, a feature prevalent in many forum sites.

Remember, there is Freedom of Speech still, even the crappy stuff. Let the reader do the filtering.

Where is that, I wonder, that concept that the reader should be an active one, and filter out such nonsense? Why must everything be given over to some authority from on high to make these decisions, to take care of someone? Why can’t people just deal with it themselves? Those are deep questions that go far beyond this one issue, but they are questions we really need to consider in the 21st century.

I expect that some libertarians will jump in and say that, as long as the government stays out of the market and allows new competitors to enter and actually, well, compete, there will be no problem: people will get fed up and leave the service for something else. And I agree, completely. I’m not arguing that the government should forcibly break up Facebook. But I am worried about creating a leviathan in the online identity business. People should be able to own their identity, not Facebook, period.

Perhaps my fears overblown. Perhaps by 2016 Facebook will be a thing of the past. Maybe. I certainly hope so. But for now, can we not let that Zucktopus expand any farther? Can we please let people choose their own identities on the internet and have some independence? Please?